Austerity – definition and meaning

Austerity is an economic policy that focuses on raising taxes and reducing government spending. We refer to these spending or budget cuts as ‘cutbacks.’ Although the term suggests just reducing spending rather than also raising taxes, in economics, it refers to both.

According to, austerity measures refer to:

“Official actions taken by the government, during a period of adverse economic conditions, to reduce its budget deficit using a combination of spending cuts or tax rises.”

Governments typically adopt cutback measures when there are economic problems, especially when they cannot pay their debts.

The government may, for example, borrow in a foreign currency, which it cannot issue. Additionally, when a government loses the authority to print money, austerity is the only option left.

austerity protest
One hundred thousand people in front of the Greek Parliament are protesting against economic austerity measures.

When this type of situation occurs, banks and investors lose confidence in the governments’ ability to pay back debt. The government or central bank might refuse to refinance existing debts or significantly increase interest rates.

However, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) may act as a lender of last resort. The IMF will only lend if the borrowing government adopts a specific economic policy. The IMF calls this type of policy its austerity conditionalities.

Goals when adopting austerity measures

When the government imposes cutback measures, it has three main goals:

  • First, to avoid the accumulation of deficits that increase total debt.
  • Second, to reduce high inflation.
  • And finally, to limit over-investment and speculative bubbles.

Government cutbacks and tax hikes tend to push up unemployment. Higher unemployment results in increases in spending on unemployment benefits. Furthermore, if fewer people are working the government is collecting less tax.

Put simply; rising unemployment is a problem because it partially offsets the austerity measures.

Balancing stimulus and austerity

It is possible to take steps that ensure future spending will go down. For example, Parliament can pass a bill raising the retirement age. If people start collecting their state pensions later, the government’s pension bill will be cheaper.

The measures to reduce spending further may allow for greater short-term spending to create jobs.

In August 2011, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde wrote:

“For the advanced economies, there is an unmistakable need to restore fiscal sustainability through credible consolidation plans. At the same time, we know that slamming on the brakes too quickly will hurt the recovery and worsen job prospects.”

“So fiscal adjustment must resolve the conundrum of being neither too fast nor too slow. Shaping a Goldilocks fiscal consolidation is all about timing.”

Ms. Lagarde added:

“What is needed is a dual focus on medium-term consolidation and short-term support for growth. That may sound contradictory, but the two are mutually reinforcing. Decisions on future consolidation, tackling the issues that will bring sustained fiscal improvement, create space in the near term for policies that support growth.”


Measures involving cutbacks are controversial. Not only do most members of the general public dislike them, but also many economists.

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) briefing paper – “The IMF and the Third World” – points out several problems with the IMF’s austerity conditionalities.

The paper concludes that these measures are anti-development and self-defeating. Additionally, the paper authors claim that they are especially harmful to the poorest people in the country.

Keynesian school of thought

At the end of the 1930s, after almost ten successive years of austerity measures in response to the Great Depression, a growing number of economists argued against cutbacks. John Maynard Keynes (1983-1946), a British economist, became very famous for his anti-austerity views.

Keynes argued that “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.”

Keynesian economists argue that there should be a deficit during a recession. The deficit helps reduce unemployment, which subsequently boosts GDP growth. GDP stands for gross domestic product.

On 2 June 2014, Jonathan Ostry, deputy director of the IMF research department, warned in the blog IMFDirect against austerity. He wrote that governments which face lower risks of a sovereign debt crisis could be unnecessarily damaging their economies by imposing harsh austerity programs purely to pay back creditors more rapidly.

Video – Mark Blyth on Austerity

Mark Blyth is a political economist and a Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs. In the video below Blythe explains the global trend toward Austerity budgets.