Human Well-Being and Economic Decision-Making

by Dr Rowan Williams

Posted: 16 Jun 2010

Human Well-Being and Economic Decision-Making
Archbishop Williams' Keynote Address from the TUC Economics Conference.
Congress House, London:
Monday 16 November 2009.

'Economy' is simply the Greek word for 'housekeeping'. Remembering this is a useful way of getting things in proportion, so that we don't lose sight of the fact that economics is primarily about the decisions we make so as to create a habitat that we can actually live in. We are still haunted by the dogma that the economic world, 'economic realities', economic motivations and so on belong in a completely different frame of reference from the sort of human decisions we usually make and from considerations of how we build a place to live. And to speak about building a place to live, a habitat, reminds us too that we look for an environment that is stable, 'sustainable' in the popular jargon, a home that we can reasonably expect will be an asset for the next generation.

Economics understood in abstraction from all this is not just an academic error: it actually dismantles the walls of the home. Appealing to the market as an independent authority, unconnected with human decisions about 'housekeeping', has meant in many contexts over the last few decades a ruinous legacy for heavily indebted countries, large-scale and costly social disruption even in developed economies; and, most recently, the extraordinary phenomena of a financial trading world in which the marketing of toxic debt became the driver of money-making - until the bluffs were all called at the same time.

If we are not to be caught indefinitely in a trap we have designed for ourselves, we have to ask what an economy would look like if it were genuinely focused on making and sustaining a home - a social environment that offered security for citizens, including those who could not contribute in obvious ways to productive and profit-making business, an environment in which we felt free to forego the tempting fantasies of unlimited growth in exchange for the knowledge that we could hand on to our children and grandchildren a world, a social and material nexus of relations that would go on nourishing proper three-dimensional human beings - people whose family bonds, imaginative lives and capacity for mutual understanding and sympathy were regarded as every bit as important as their material prosperity.

Practically speaking, this means that both at the individual and the national level we have to question what we mean by 'growth'. The ability to produce more and more consumer goods (not to mention financial products) is in itself an entirely mechanical measure of wealth. It sets up the vicious cycle in which it is necessary all the time to create new demand for goods and thus new demands on a limited material environment for energy sources and raw materials. By the hectic inflation of demand it creates personal anxiety and rivalry. By systematically depleting the resources of the planet, it systematically destroys the basis for long-term well-being. In a nutshell, it is investing in the wrong things.

'In reality', writes Kenny Tang, a leading Asian expert in sustainable development, 'there are only two sources of wealth in the world today: the wealth that flows from our use of the Earth's resources and ecosystems, all powered by incoming solar radiation (our natural capital); and the wealth that flows from the use of our hands, brains and spirits (our human capital)' (CRISISnomics, Credit and Climate, p.114). It is a sharp reminder that exactly the same threat lies ahead in both the ecological context and the human - the exhaustion of resources, the depletion of natural capital and the shrinking of human capital by the abuse of brain and spirit that results from social fragmentation and from personal stress and lostness in inhuman patterns of working.

To quote another very recent discussion, Tim Jackson, writing in the Sustainable Development Commission's excellent report, Prosperity Without Growth, underlines the need for what he calls a new 'ecology' of investment, in which the criterion of short-term returns is not seen as the sole deciding factor and we learn how to invest in infrastructure and public goods and new low-carbon technologies. 'This will mean', he writes (p.142), 'revisiting the concepts of profitability and productivity and putting them to better service in pursuit of long-term social goals'. Along with this - a point flagged both by Jackson and by Zac Goldsmith in yet another provocative new essay, The Constant Economy: How to Create a Stable Society - we have to ask about 'green taxes' (including 'green' tax breaks) that will check environmental irresponsibility and build up resources to address the ecological crises that menace us. The Contraction and Convergence proposals are among the best-known and most structurally simple of these, and it would be a major step to hear some endorsement of them from a body such as this. It is of course connected with other proposals about currency exchange taxation - the 'Tobin tax' idea: the point is that we should be thinking about taxation neither as an unreasonable burden on enterprise nor as a simple mechanism of redistribution but as a potentially sophisticated tool for long-term 'economy' - housekeeping. Taxation builds a habitat - already, quite properly, through state welfare provision, but potentially in other less familiar ways.

Goldsmith observes that 'the overwhelming bias in the current tax system is for indiscriminate economic growth, with among other things vast tax breaks on fossil fuels'; and, challenging the objection that tax ought not to be an instrument of change, he insists that taxation is never neutral (pp.29-30). Bias is always there, and so we need to decide where we want the bias to be. Whether we are thinking about investment or taxation, the important thing is to keep the focus on our ability to decide: the worst thing that can happen is that we give way to a fatalistic assumption that our choices don't matter. One of the paradoxes in the whole situation (and I'll touch on this again later) is that our current economic ethos both tells us that the resources for material growth are infinite -and thus that we shouldn't bother too much about the limits of living on a small planet - and at the same time paralyses us when it comes to thinking about actions that might cross the boundaries of what looks possible. It both pretends that we have unlimited possibilities and discourages us from discovering real potential for change.

But this is where things get a little more complex and interesting. To decide what sort of change we want, we need a vigorous sense of what a human life well-lived looks like. We need to be able to say what kind of human beings we hope to be ourselves and to encourage our children to be. A few minutes ago, I jumped the gun a bit by slipping in a definition of 'three-dimensional' humanity that centred on family and imagination and mutual sympathy. Let me go back to this for a moment and spell out what I had in mind and also where these assumptions come from.

Human beings all begin their lives in a state of dependence. They need to learn how to speak, how to trust, how to negotiate a world that isn't always friendly. They need an environment in which the background is secure enough for them to take the necessary risks of learning - where they know that there are some relationships that don't depend on getting things right, but are just unconditional. The human family as a personal not just a biological unit is the indispensable foundation for all this. And a culture, especially a working culture, that consistently undermines the family is going to be one that leaves everyone more vulnerable and thus more fearful and defensive - potentially violent in some circumstances, or turning the violence inwards in depression in other circumstances. In the last couple of years alone, research has proliferated on the long-term damage done by the absence of emotional security in early childhood and the need for a child's personal growth to be anchored in the presence of stable adult relationships. The Children's Society Good Childhood document laid all this out with some force back in February and there is more material being published this autumn in the same area. An atmosphere of anxious and driven adult lives, a casual attitude to adult relationships, and the ways in which some employers continue to reward family-hostile patterns of working will all continue to create more confused, emotionally vulnerable or deprived young people. If we're looking for new criteria for economic decisions, we might start here and ask about the impact of any such decision on family life and the welfare of the young.

I also mentioned people's imaginative lives. We are not only dependent creatures, we are also beings who take in more than we can easily process from the world around; we know more than we realise, and that helps us to become self-questioning persons, who are always aware that things could be different. We learn this as children through fantasy and play, we keep it alive as adults through all sorts of 'unproductive' activity, from sport to poetry to cookery or dancing or mathematical physics. It is the extra things that make us human; simply meeting what we think are our material needs, making a living, is not uniquely human, just a more complicated version of ants in the anthill. One of the greatest legacies of the British labour movement has been a real commitment to this - to the enlarging of minds and feelings (anyone who's been able to see that wonderful play, The Pitmen Painters, will know what I mean). So the question is how far economic decisions help or hinder a world in which that space for thinking things might be different is kept open.

And this is actually very closely connected with my third item, understanding and sympathy for others. If you live in a world where everything encourages you to struggle for your own individual interest and success, you are being encouraged to ignore the reality of other points of view - ultimately, to ignore the cost or the pain of others. The result may be a world where people are very articulate about their own feelings and pretty illiterate about how they impact on or appear to others - a world of which 'reality television' gives us some alarming glimpses. An economic climate based on nothing but calculations of self-interest, sometimes fed by an amazingly distorted version of Darwinism, doesn't build a habitat for human beings; at best it builds a sort of fortified boxroom for paranoiacs (with full electronic services, of course). What is rather encouraging is how few people, faced with this, seem actually to want a society composed of people like this. And, despite the alarms occasionally sounded about younger people's fanatical networking through electronic media, my sense is that this often goes in practice with a genuine desire for friendship and isn't in competition with face-to-face contact. We have, to some extent anyway, looked into the abyss where individualism is concerned and we know that it won't do. This is a moment when every possible agency in civil society needs to reinforce its commitment to a world where thoughtful empathy is a normal aspect of the mature man or woman. And of course without that, there will be no imaginative life, no thinking what might be different.

Now I don't imagine that what I've sketched out will sound very controversial to this audience; but I do want to underline the fact that it needs defending - and that this is a good and receptive time to defend it. I said that I'd also reflect for a moment on where such a vision came from, because I think that we need to go beyond just taking it for granted and believing that everyone agrees with it and understands what it involves. For myself, the roots are - you won't be surprised to hear - deep in religious vision and commitment; and whether or not you share that, it is important to grasp something of what that commitment has contributed to what we take for granted.

From this point of view, the importance of the family isn't a sentimental idealising of domestic life or a myth about patriarchy; it is about understanding that you grow in emotional intelligence and maturity because of the presence of a reality that is unconditionally faithful or dependable. in religious terms the unconditionality of family love is a faint mirror of the unconditional commitment of God to be there for us. Similarly, the importance of imaginative life is not a vague belief that we should all have our creative side encouraged but comes out of the notion that the world we live in is rooted in an infinite life, whose dimensions we shall never get hold of - so that all the reality we encounter is more than it seems. As for the essential character of human mutuality, this connects for me specifically with the Christian belief that we are all dependent on one another's gifts, to the extent that if someone else is damaged or frustrated, offended or oppressed, everyone suffers, everyone's humanity is diminished.

I'm not suggesting that without Christian doctrine you can't have the sort of commitments I've described as essential for a three-dimensional humanity; that is obviously not true, if you simply look around you. My point is that, now more than ever, we need to be able in the political and economic context to spell out with a fair degree of clarity what our commitments are, what kind of human character we want to see. Politics left to managers and economics left to brokers add up to a recipe for social and environmental chaos. We are all a bit shy, understandably so, of making too much of moral commitment in public discourse; we are wary of high-sounding hypocrisy and conscious of the unavoidable plurality of convictions that will exist in a modern society. Yet the truth is that the economic and social order isn't a self-contained affair, separate from actual human decisions about what is good and desirable. Certain kinds of political and economic decisions have the effect of threatening the possibilities for full humanity in the sense in which I've sketched it. To resist, we need vision; and whether we are individually religious or not, we need all the resources available for strengthening and deepening that vision. Which is why the visible presence of religious people of diverse faiths in the arena of public debate is not a menacing move towards religious tyranny, the imposition of belief systems on an unwilling public, but the opening up of that arena to the best possible range of perspectives to help us push back against barbarism, injustice and the erosion of the human spirit.

Earlier I mentioned the work of Kenny Tang. At the end of his wide-ranging recent book (pp.137-60), he sketches four scenarios for the second half of the twenty first century, varying from a 'golden age' picture in which economic stability offers a secure background for sustaining the planet's assets, through a model in which good intentions for sustainable and ethical behaviour in respect of the environment are undermined by boom and bust cycles in the economy, a more serious model in which patterns of consumption do not basically change, so that we face 'resource wars' over our finite supplies, and finally a nightmare scenario of a planet that has become a jigsaw of 'protectionist nation-states', where each state both refuses to challenge its aspirations for material growth and helps to inflate commodity prices worldwide by protectionist strategies.

What is most sobering about Tang's fourth model is that so much of it reads like a description of what is already happening in many quarters and what some of the rhetoric of the wealthy world seems to take for granted. And what his analysis points up is a message that can be derived from any of the economic forecasters I have quoted: without a stable economy, the rest is idle dreaming. And a stable economy depends on our willingness to question the imperatives of unchecked growth - which in turn is a moral and cultural matter. The energy for resistance has to come from the sort of stubborn moral and cultural commitment to humane virtue that I have been speaking about.

I realise that the word 'virtue' is hard for many to take seriously. But it's high time we reclaimed it. We have no other way of talking about the solid qualities of human behaviour that make us more than reactive and self-protective - the qualities of courage, intelligent and generous foresight, self-critical awareness and concern for balanced universal welfare which, under other names, have been part of the vocabulary of European ethics for two and half thousand years: fortitude, prudence, temperance and justice. In the Christian world, of course, they have been supplemented by, and grounded in, the virtues of faith, hope and love that, in their full meaning, are bound up with relation to God. But there has always been a recognition that the four pillars of ordinary human virtue were not a matter of special revelation but the raw materials for any kind of co-operative and just society. Without courage and careful good sense, the capacity to put your own desires into perspective and the concern that all should share in what is recognised as good and lifegiving, there is no stable world, no home to live in - no house to keep.

I said earlier that the British labour movement had an honourable record in its commitment to humane values, to humane relationships and intelligence and imagination. It still has today an immense capacity to bring these considerations back into public and political visibility - and the fact that this conference is addressing the question of a 'progressive future' is significant. I would urge you, then, to pick up what is still alive in that legacy, to revive the passion for humane social existence; to reflect on what human character is needed for stability and justice to prevail; and to resist the barbarising and dehumanising of economic life which jeopardises natural and human capital alike. Sermons are meant to have three points: there are mine. Revive, reflect, resist. Your history suggests it can be done; so do it.

© Rowan Williams 2009

About this author

The Mst Revd and Rt Hon Dr Rowan Williams is the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

Rob - Posted: 24 Jun 2010

A wonderful talk and I'm glad to see it on here.

Terence Stone - Posted: 27 Oct 2011

Dear Reverend Williams,

Briliant rhetoric! I have so appreciated your stand on so many issues of principle. Regretably, your capitulation to the City of London Corporation, I sincerely believe, shames the Church and the legacy of social justice you have been building. From here in Victoria, Canada, I watch and fear violence and bloodshed that might have been prevented by a more judicious course of action. Please know that the planting of provocateurs by the police is standard practice everywhere in the West. Please know that if the Occupy Movement grows into any meaningful threat to the status quo, there will be terrible repercussions for those involved in non-violent direct action. In the outcome the Church will share responsibility. With respect, Terence Stone