Danger - Theologians at Work

by The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby

Posted: 20 Nov 2012

This article first appeared in the Church Times on the 9th November 2012.

The Economist of 27th October devoted one of its leading articles to the current debate about fiscal austerity versus growth. The heading and opening words tell us little about austerity and growth, and a great deal about some current economic prejudices.

Under the heading A deficit of common sense the paper sums up the article with the assertion, 'The debate about budget cuts has become dangerously theological', and then reveals its true anxiety in the opening sentence, 'Arguments about austerity have taken on an almost religious fervour.' Then comes their example: the Schäuble-Osborne axis professes that 'tough fiscal policy is the cure for excessive debt; and any easing risks betraying a confidence-sapping loss of resolve'. Ranged against them are the (unnamed) 'others' who believe, with equal passion, that 'today's austerity is self-defeating. Trying to cut deficits when economies are weak will lead to stagnation ... and even bigger debt burdens' That kind of debate is the Economist's idea of an over-emotional failure to assess evidence properly.

And that, the Economist thinks is what theology does, pouring petrol on the flames of 'almost religious fervour'. 'It is wrong', the leader continues, 'to caricature austerity as good or bad'; so ascribing a positive or negative moral value to austerity is a 'caricature'. When the TUC marches through London against the cuts it is the protagonist of 'an almost religious fervour'; and the citizens of Athens demonstrate all too clearly what happens when theology literally runs riot. Austerity may be morally neutral; religion can be assumed to be bad.

The remedy proposed for this outbreak of fervour is an increase of 'common sense'. If only everybody would be sensible, they would find in the leading article a balanced, evidence based, morally neutral account of exactly what needs to be done. It will demonstrate that while it is true that austerity hurts growth, it was also unavoidable for those countries that have felt bound to adopt 'fiscal consolidation' because investors would no longer lend them money. Presumably we are to be glad that those who decline to buy Greek debt are not motivated by religious fervour but by common sense.

What the heading of the article manifests is actually a kind of secular economic fervour, the conviction that if only people would be sensible (which seems to mean attending to their wealth) they would not allow moral considerations to distract them from making money or from working out the best way to do that. And what the article then manifests is a revealing belief (one might call it a theological position) that the markets are in fact decisive, and that such a situation is not one about which serious questions - perhaps even theological questions - need to be asked.

What this article reveals is that the arena in which we need to be most prepared to seek out and name rampant secularism is the realm of economics. That is not to say that the sphere of personal morality - where churches are most prone to locate its onrush - is unimportant; it is that the secularism we notice there follows from the conviction that in the economic sphere the only questions are technical - how questions - not moral ones. The reason the only questions are technical ones is that there is no alternative value than getting more and therefore the only proper question is how to do that. Our fundamental, technocratic attitude to money conditions what we then imagine to be the case in all spheres of life.

Let us be very clear: the jubilee rules in Hebrew society, their limitations on what could properly be done to recover a debt, their conviction that the alienation of land from the family that had been allocated it and tilled it, the subsequent conviction of the Church that debt should not have the last word, that lending money at interest was not legitimate - and even when it relaxed that rule it made clear that the relaxation related to commercial debt, not loans in case of need - these and the many other deep seated values that the Abrahamic faiths have proclaimed are fervent, they are religious, they are theological - and they are all those things because they are also deemed to be common sense.

They are also rooted in evidence. Our forbears reckoned to know what it took to flourish because their experience had taught them what it took - experience they ascribed to God, and therefore to the experience that came from the basic structure of how things were arranged. Their economic proposals were to do with what would actually pay, what would enable the community to flourish and be prosperous without damaging the lives of future generations. They were common sense proposals because they were proposals that came from a sense of what was for the common good.

And it is truly an astonishing ignoring of evidence to suggest that after the crisis of 2007/8 and all that has followed it is 'common sense' we should get back, if we can, to the growth that we were borrowing for ourselves, if necessary by a highly selective austerity visited on those who contributed least to the crisis. What happened, and is happening now, is a moral issue, which means it is also an issue of common sense - of what is sensible for our common life. And religious faith is both a fervent and sensible source of the wisdom we need for that.

About this author

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is the former Bishop of Worcester. Following his role as part of the Interim Directing Team from 2012-2014, he continues as an adviser to St Paul's Institute.

Anthony Sperryn - Posted: 26 Nov 2012

We should be grateful for Dr Selby's comments as to the jubilee rules in Hebrew society because they lead to one examining what has gone wrong in the administration of the financial system at the present time.

I believe that we are in an important period of transition. The world is moving from nation states being important in administering financial matters to those matters having to be administered on a global basis.

The matter of the Common Good, as decided by the leaders of the Hebrew people would have applied to themselves, but not, I would suppose, to the many peoples surrounding them. Those peoples would have been of no importance of themselves (this attitude is reflected in the events in Gaza of the last few weeks).

A combination of the Enlightenment, crude interpretation of Adam Smith, the dropping of the prohibition of charging interest on lending and the secularisation of public life has led to every man for himself and reliance on legalistic interpretation of regulation.

The modern growth-and-shareholder-value religion runs on the dogma that markets are supreme and unquestionable and neglects the fact that they are highly manipulable.

What is fascinating about the present time, following the financial crisis starting about 2007 (but brewing up previously), the current Libor-fixing scandal, the bonus culture, the tax haven scandal, now the visible effects of global warming manifested by unprecedented weather conditions, and the rest, is that people are beginning to realise that markets cannot be supreme, that people are actually all in it together and that the survival of all of them requires them all to pull together.

This is extremely difficult when the Russians put polonium in your drink, the Chinese destroy the environment with the emissions from their coal power stations (albeit to supply manufactures "needed" by the West), NHS budget cuts lead to neglect of the elderly.....the list is endless, but the point is clear, that markets are not a perfect mechanism for adjudication between right and wrong.

However, as much as one may deplore the fact, people will fiddle and diddle and grab for themselves. A recent Financial Times article (Ben Levenstein and Robert Talbut: The pernicious influence of US audit rules, 23rd November 2012) shows how just one aspect of regulation can distort behaviour. One is never going to cure unknowing ignorance from legislators - humility is not usually a characteristic of rulers -, but this is an imperfect world and one must try and influence behaviour.

I believe it is the Christian's duty to spread peace and goodwill despite the super-competitive (and single-miinded in its pursuit of wealth) nature of the present financial world. I believe that this duty requires getting involved in he nitty-gritty of financial regulation, to moderate the harshness of outcomes. That is not all. Given inequality of outcomes, the successful, as many of them are, need to be made very conscious of their obligations to society.

As a footnote to the above, I often idealistically think of the words from Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy" used in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony; "Alle Menschen werden Bruder" ("all mankind becomes brothers" - the words apply under the condition that "Joy" prevails).

This is an attitude which precludes the super-competitiveness of modern financial markets but encompasses the Happiness agenda. It is not specifically Christian, but I think it will have to underly any efforts to ensure the survival of more than the remnants of the human race. The big question will be "Does it matter if the weak don't survive?"

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