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Cicero to Sunak: What lessons can we learn from the ancient economists?

Economics is no normal science. Many even postulate that there is no way to even prove any economic theory at all and instead the entire field is based on convincing your fellow economists that simply you’re right and they’re wrong, without any ascertainable proof - something that seems to have slipped its way into political discourse in recent times, but I digress. However, what the development of this ever-changing field of research, hypothesis and application has told us, is that in order to survive the times, we must also change with them. From Aristotle to Adam Smith, economists have shaped the way the world works and how key policy has been implemented, but looking back, what lessons can we take from even Ancient eras to help us in the tumultuous times we’re currently facing?


Oikonomia appears on paper as a word that looks like someone’s finger was stuck on the vowel keys of the keyboard, however it is one of the most valuable principles of Ancient Greek economic thought. In actuality it can be traced to resemble the Greek words for “household management” and that is exactly how Aristotle described how the economy should function – as if it were a household. Much like his predecessor Plato, Aristotle believed that economic activity should be used to satisfy the needs of the members of the household – and in further application, the general public. Beyond ensuring the wellbeing of all the household’s members, the use and creation of money and wealth ultimately had no purpose for Aristotle, other than a distraction and a road to greed.


Another Ancient Greek philosopher by the name of Cicero had a similar train of thought. He believed that a rich person was someone who was happy with whatever level of wealth they had and a poor person is one that can let money lead them towards evil. Furthermore, one of the resounding policies behind much of the Ancient Greek economic thought was that competition in performance was meaningful economic practice, however trying to prevent competition by manipulating the playing field was self-destructive to the economy.


Bearing all this in mind, how can we interpret the works of these Ancient Greek philosophers, after all Cicero, the latest of our examples, lived up until 43BC? Let’s analyse, through the eyes of Aristotle, the UK (the household). As it stands the United Kingdom is having one of the almightiest family spats that it has ever seen. Left, right and centre key services and sectors across the economy are striking out of what they believe is necessity to establish fairer pay and working conditions. They feel they have been deprived of these by the Conservative government during what Leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, has called “13 years of failure” since David Cameron was elected in 2010. Aristotle might think that the UK government has neglected its main purpose – to ensure the safety of its household members. Instead, Aristotle might see the disparity between the rail union members campaigning for fair pay and the hundreds of millions of pounds worth of profits being divided between rail network executives as something that must be changed or at least something that could have been avoided.


What would Cicero make of this? How many of us right now are rich in our situation? Is the irony lost to say that some energy companies may be poor because of their desire for profits whilst the majority of the country seriously struggle with the cost-of-living crisis? One of the most profound ideas put forward by Cicero was this proposal: “Merchants from Alexandria arrive in Rhodes with a ship full of wheat - there’s starvation in Rhodes - they know that more ships are coming, should they reveal this information?” What are the options here? Well, as a merchant you could tell the people suffering and starving that there are even more ships on the way to feed them, thus at the same time incidentally driving down the price of the wheat that you are trying to sell. Or, you could keep it a secret that more ships are on the way, therefore maximising your profit and squeezing the desperately hungry and vulnerable out of their last pennies to your own benefit.


Now let me propose something different: the UK government come back to the public with no pay settlements or resolutions to any disputes taking place at the moment - the UK population is suffering in the midst of a deep crisis – they know there are resolutions out there, should they reveal this information? What are the options? They could reveal that they are open to resolving the disputes in a healthy manner that would alleviate the financial and mental burden for the suffering people and at the same time drive down the divisive Thatcherite stance that Sunak appears to be trying to take against the unions. Or, they could not reveal any plans of negotiation, try to maintain the façade of power, keep the ongoing disputes and squeeze the life out of the British population. All I want to know is, what would Cicero think of this?

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