Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Never Mind the Election, a Just Economy Starts With You

23 Feb 2015

From the Archbishops down, it seems as though everyone is channelling William Temple these days. And why not? It is a strong brand association for a Church ramping up its political engagement, because Temple is famous for having actually driven genuine societal change. So I welcome the recent speech by Archbishop Justin in which he sets out his blueprint for a good economy, built on the four pillars of creativity, gratuity, solidarity and subsidiarity. Subsidiarity (through the Big Society), and solidarity (through the nurture of a community of communities), also feature prominently in the House of Bishop’s excellent pre-election Pastoral Letter.

In the Archbishop’s speech, he begins by explaining that, ‘creativity is a basic human function, and a good economy is one that enables creativity to happen’. Next, he argues that ‘gratuity’ is about an economy that includes a spirit of generosity. It does not seek the maximisation of return, or that every transaction is carried out on a basis of exchange and equivalence. Instead, it recognises that there will be winners and losers, requiring a mix of philanthropy and restraint in profit-making for the good of the whole. Third, solidarity is about, ‘reimaging our economic landscape so that no one is left out or left behind’. Finally, subsidiarity is about asking the question: ‘who is best placed to deliver this?’

In the run-up to the election, Justin Welby is not the only one calling for deep structural change in the way we run our economy. Will Hutton’s latest book, How Good We Could Be offers another blueprint, which focuses on a new Companies Act and revived Trade Unions, in order to embed a genuine stakeholder capitalism and to protect the workforce from any downsides.

Now, I am a huge fan of William Temple. But I am also a fan of his mother, who being an Archbishop’s wife herself, was no slouch. Apparently once, when her son was being particularly bumptious, she said, ‘You may know more than I do, but I know better than you do.’ So, channelling Mrs Temple, might I suggest that neither Welby nor Hutton – nor the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter – go quite far enough?

Like many readers, I have been worrying about the economy for quite some time. First of all, I thought that developments in corporate social responsibility and corporate ethics might do the trick. But over the years these failed to deliver the kind of change I thought was needed. So I decided to spend some time excavating the foundations of modern capitalism, to see if I could identify where things first started to go wrong. Accompanied by my trusty theology degree, I was particularly interested in seeing whether I could prove Einstein wrong in his view that you can’t find solutions from within the paradigm that created the problem in the first place.

What I uncovered was a set of rules well past their sell-by date. I’ve identified seven of these ‘toxic assumptions’, which are now slowly poisoning the system as a whole: assumptions about competition, the ‘invisible hand’, utility, agency theory, pricing, shareholder value, and limited liability. As an example, I am extremely hot on what Welby might see as a creativity/ gratuity/ solidarity/ subsidiarity nexus, in my trashing of the widespread assumption of an ‘Invisible Hand’, as the governing explanation of why everything in the market is destined to come good. Adam Smith coined his famous phrase in an early essay on the history of Astronomy, when he talked about the ‘invisible hand of Jupiter’ in a discussion about the use of God or Gods to explain irregular events in nature. He says that these types of explanation are sociologically important because they ‘soothe the imagination’ when people are perplexed by the mysterious. He then recycles the term to explain the magic of the market in both Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations.

For Christians, this may be a comfortable formulation, because it reserves fate to God. But modern states are not using the term theologically (probably neither was the rather agnostic Smith). Instead, ‘Invisible Hand’ rhetoric is used by the grown-ups to send us all back off to bed. Maybe one day I will be a grown-up, but I don’t have time to wait for them to fix this at the rate they’re going. Markets are just exchanges for messages about supply and demand. So if you have the most muscle, the market morphs to meet your needs. Which is why we have a market where inequality is spiralling out of control. And to use Welby’s formulation, as a matter of solidarity – and justice – we need to be creative about using our own privileged market position to right some serious global wrongs. In our own community of communities, subsidiarity is all about stepping up, not just waiting for government solutions, and gratuity is about us being prepared for this activity sometimes to feel fruitless or expensive.

For instance, do you shop cheaply or ethically? Fairtrade is a brilliant example of a Temple-style church-led game-changer. Famously started in the UK in the 1970s by students from Durham, by 1998, the fair trade market in the UK was worth around £17 million annually. Now – largely due to sustained support from the churches – it is worth over £1 billion a year. Did you know that a third of the bananas we buy are now Fairtrade, which means that in the UK we eat 3,000 Fairtrade bananas every minute? Creativity – this is a new market. Gratuity – we overpay to provide the Fairtrade premium. Solidarity – buying Fairtrade helps providers in the developing world to get a toe-hold in the market. Subsidiarity – we vote with our cash for a fairer economy every time we shop for groceries.

So let’s embrace Welby’s principles for a good economy, and let’s do everything that Hutton suggests too. And that Pastoral Letter is well worth reading in its entirety. But instead of awaiting the results of the election, or expecting permission, let’s also get busy. You could make a small start by imagining that your bank statements are St Peter’s new appraisal form. What more could you get on there to demonstrate that you are building a just economy for all?

Eve Poole is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

Eve book ‘Capitalism’s Toxic Assumptions’ is published by Bloomsbury on 26 March. Hear Eve talking about the theology behind the book here.


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