Bert Kelly, 10 June 1981. Economics Made Easy (Adelaide: Brolga Books, 1982), pp. 191-93.
The Bulletin on May 27th1 wrote than an Association of Modest Members was being formed and that I was to be its patron. The idea is to gather together members and ex-members of Federal and State Parliaments who believe that the market is better than government at arranging commercial affairs.
The reaction of “my family” to this news was interesting. Mavis had her usual knee-jerk reaction that she has if she gets excited; she started to iron my striped trousers! She bought those years ago when she thought I might be made a minister. We now keep them in case I get a state funeral; she thinks they would be much more suitable than pyjamas for such a grand occasion.
Fred didn’t say much except to warn me not to get a swelled head. He has been grimly determined to keep me in my proper place for the last 25 years. Eccles seemed pleased enough though he muttered that we didn’t have time to sit around preening ourselves because the forces of evil were gathering and we had to go forth and smite them hip and high.
You would have at least thought that Eccles would have given me the afternoon off so that I could look back over the last 25 years and see how far we had come since then when there were only one or two of us fighting the good fight. We really were clobbered in those days. Some of the onlookers used to help a little. I remember once when John McEwen was belting me, I received a note from Adam Smith which I suppose was to bring me comfort. It read:
The member of Parliament who supports every proposal for strengthening tariff protection is sure to acquire not only the reputation for understanding trade, but also great popularity and influence with an order of men whose number and wealth render them of great importance. If he opposes them, on the contrary, and still more, if he has authority enough to be able to thwart them, neither the most acknowledged probity, nor the highest rank, nor the greatest public services, can protect him from the most infamous abuse and detraction arising from the insolent outrage of furious and disappointed monopolists.
These fine thoughts didn’t really help much.
But it was Eccles who made my cup of misery run over. He proudly proclaimed that economists were supposed to be unpopular, and to prove it he quoted the great economist, Alfred Marshall.
Students of social science must fear popular approval: evil is with them when all men speak well of them … It is almost impossible for a student to be a true patriot and to have the reputation of being one in his own time.
From then on Mavis regarded Eccles with deep suspicion.
Some comments were more cheering. I remember once when I was poking fun at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (C.E.D.A.) which proudly proclaims its dedication to the cause of free enterprise but whose members seem to be lined up at the tariff trough as often as the others. Having said this I waited for the heavens to fall but instead I received a little card saying, “E’en the ranks of Tuscany could scare forbear a cheer!” Then followed the chap’s signature then, in brackets, “CEDA director”. That really helped.
I admit that it often seemed as if the vested interests who gained from tariff protection would be powerful enough to prevent the voice of economic logic being heard. I know that some of my younger supporters used to become desolated when we got rolled in a tariff battle, but I have always been hopeful about winning the war, remembering the famous words of Lord Keynes:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.
I wonder if that ringing warning has yet reached lobbyists like Mr Aitchison, the spokesman for the clothing and footwear industries, as he, with others of his ilk, beaver away white-anting the resolution of our chicken-hearted politicians. The fight to make the logic and the ideals of ideas supreme over vested interests will not be easy but nothing worthwhile has ever been easy. My mob are increasing in numbers and influence all the time. I am proud to be a patron for such a group and I have splendid visions of me in the van of my troops, splendidly arrayed in freshly ironed striped trousers.
I will try to get them to adopt as their anthem two verses by Arthur Clough:
Say not, the struggle nought availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been, they remain.
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
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