Academic journal article American Economist

Political Economy, Politics and Religion: Intertwined and Indissoluble Passions

Academic journal article American Economist

Political Economy, Politics and Religion: Intertwined and Indissoluble Passions

Article excerpt


When I returned to Cambridge at the end of August 1997 after two terms of leave in my native Australia, I was delighted to find waiting for me, a letter from Professor Szenberg asking me to contribute to his ongoing series on the life philosophies of economists. In recent years I have written a number of essays which circle around this theme. His request gave me the opportunity to bring the various strands together and, hopefully, into focus.


Let me begin at the beginning. I was born in Melbourne, Australia on 27 June 1931 at the height of the Great Depression, the younger of twin sons of Marjorie and Kenneth Harcourt. According to family lore, I was not expected. The doctor had packed his bag after delivering my brother, John, in the double bed of the home in which John still lives, when the midwife alerted the doctor to my presence, a presence he initially was reluctant to accept. Following a breach birth I spent my first minutes with no clothes on, until my grandmother was contacted to bring some spares. This experience may have something to do with my hedonism in later life.

Both my parents were Jewish. At the time when we were born, they were agnostic and assimilationist in religion, right-wing in politics, especially my mother. Both were born in Australia. My father's father(1) probably came from Transylvania (then Romania, now Hungary); his mother came from Poland. My mother's father came from Germany; her mother's parents were English Jews in origin, who had already been in Australia for a generation. They were rather posh and I often say that my mother married my father as she was going down in the world and he was coming up - his parents were itinerant shopkeepers in New South Wales. My father was brought up as an orthodox Jew but what he came to see as the hypocrisy of religious people of all faiths led him to an agnostic position by his twenties. When I was born he was a leather merchant, working with my maternal grandfather. His mother was dead and he was estranged from his father who previously had left his mother and their four children. My mother had little if any religious sense. She viewed religious affiliations as tags to signal where people stood in the pecking order of society - Melbourne in those days was stuffy, snobby and sectarian. She entered us as Church of England (C of E) at our primary and secondary schools. Being C of E was then regarded as highly respectable, even upper class, certainly much above Methodism, probably on a par with Presbyterianism. This ranking system must have stayed with us. I subsequently became a Methodist, my brother, a Presbyterian (after I had paved the way, as it were) and, in the last years of her life, my mother also became a Presbyterian. My father resolutely remained an agnostic to the end of his life.

As I said, Melbourne was a sectarian place. The principal fights were between the Roman Catholics, many of whom were of Irish origin, on the one hand, and all manner of Anglicans and Protestants, on the other. Nevertheless, these warring groups cheerfully formed a united front when ganging up on the Jews - thoughtless, British-style, anti-Semitism was very much alive and well when I was young. Indeed, as a child I heard much of it in my own home. I shall never forget the trauma that engulfed me when as a four or five year old - I may even have been younger - I repeated some anti-Semitic sentiments I had heard at home, expecting approval but instead being told sternly by my father that I was a Jew myself. This was a fundamental landmark in my psychological and philosophical development. From then on I was conscious of being an outsider, a feeling which was confirmed during my boyhood by several episodes which were traceable, directly or indirectly, to the prevailing anti-Semitic attitudes (I described some of these in Harcourt (1960)).

At our primary school our Jewishness was the basis for much of the (verbal) bullying and ostracism we received. …

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