What our wealth demands of us

02 November 2006

PROSPERITY is a fairly new feature of life in this country, after a period of relative economic suffering, and the Churches have not yet looked it straight in the eye. But experts from all the Churches in the British Isles have recently been studying prosperity and poverty, the global economy, and the environmental crisis, and have now produced a report. It is the first such comprehensive study by a team of this kind. The aim has been to stimulate debate during and after the coming election campaign.

The Prosperity with a Purpose group also tried to stand back from day-to-day policy, and to look more broadly at the ethics of modern affluence. It has found that today’s Britain is characterised by affluence, and, because the majority is prosperous, this can prevent our society from dealing with the poverty that still exists.

A dynamic and competitive market is important, says the group; but this is not, as one newspaper has reported it, a matter of the Churches’ bowing down to Mammon, as I shall explain. I was involved in the administration of the project, whose report Prosperity with a Purpose: Christians and the ethics of affluence, written by Clifford Longley, was launched in the House of Lords on Monday. I helped to write the companion volume of essays, Prosperity with a Purpose: Exploring the ethics of affluence.

A camel, which has just passed through the eye of a needle, appears on the cover of both books. The camel carries a load of expensive bling — and it’s religious bling: gold candlestick, crosier, chalice, and so on. It is, Jesus said, easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven. But he added: “With God, all things are possible.”

That is the issue. If the world is rich, can it still be godly? Many Christians would immediately say, “Absolutely not.” Greedy entrepreneurs pictured as the Four Horsemen of the Unfettered Market can come to mind, galloping across the globe and wreaking havoc. But this is a clue to where Christian thought has failed us, because business is not greedy, vain and ambitious: people are. Money-making is just one area in which people display their appetites.

Competition restrains; and it is our contention that an unfettered market suppresses competition rather than encourages it. This is the opposite of what one might instinctively expect. To make their fortunes, and to be of benefit to the society around them, market players need to be backed between the shafts of competition. That bondage helps to make the market virtuous. Like others, entrepreneurs act morally when encouraged to do so in the right framework. This also makes the market effective: new players multiply, creating work, goods and services. A key feature of competition is that it brings innovation into the marketplace. A modern commercial society needs to be told: “Thou shalt compete.”

If you think you are hearing echoes of Adam Smith, you do: this is his basic idea. But Smith had no illusions about business. His neighbours were not struggling Birmingham manufacturers, but the ruthless barons of the Glasgow tobacco cartels. He knew what he was talking about when he remarked that, even when businessmen are having fun, “the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.”

We value the market, too, but we recognise that business is much more powerful than it was in Smith’s day. It is a formidable challenge to make the world’s most powerful people do what they most hate: compete. The report Prosperity with a Purpose condemns managers at the top of large corporations who use their power to feather their nests. We are in favour of the market, and hard on business. That, again, is a counter-intuitive notion for many Christians, who imagine that capitalists love the market. But if it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t work. This Government, likes to be business-friendly. In fact, it should be market-friendly.

We applaud the Government’s commitment to the creation of work, for no welfare provision can compensate for unemployment. But we want to see an emphasis on more creative work. The 1997 ecumenical report Unemployment and the Future of Work also made this one of its central recommendations.

THE MARKET cannot satisfy every human need. A successful economy can devote more than 40 per cent of its wealth to public purposes: provision for labour protection, healthcare, education, and pensions is the welcome outcome of a wealthy society. These gifts that we make to one another contribute to genuine prosperity.

But this can go wrong, as has happened largely in continental Europe. Public expenditure there has been wound up to unaffordable levels, and cannot easily be wound down. In Britain, by contrast, the quality of public services has lagged behind. Only now, with hefty increases in tax-and-spend, is this country beginning to match its neighbours.
There is, as we recognise, a complex balancing act here, between the demand for adequate services, and the danger that over-taxation can undermine the process that gives people their jobs and pensions.

The report comments briefly on the kinds of policy changes required to improve quality of life, and the essays spell these out in detail. The choices are hard, and the penalty for error is very great. Too many people in work are still poor. Too many poor people pay tax. Too many pensioners are poor. But increasing the pension across the board needlessly benefits millions of affluent pensioners. Most importantly, the report recommends that a permanent agency should review minimum-income standards: a kind of institutionalised “bias to the poor”.

On the global economy, we share the vision of the Make Poverty History campaign that the world is now so wealthy that it is possible, in principle, to end world poverty. Those who resist that vision are the descendants of the Glasgow tobacco barons: that combination of rich governments and big business which excludes the poor from the benefits of global trade. But we strike one different note. Poor countries, we suggest, can enjoy their share of world prosperity only if they develop the local commercial systems that lead to success in the global marketplace.

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THE CAPACITY for expanding human wealth, and thereby the possibility of greater well-being, is limited chiefly by the pressure that all this puts on the environment. It is clear what has happened since China got rich. What happens when Africa does?

As Paul Bodenham argued in the Church Times (Comment, 11 February), humanity needs to change its behaviour, and there’s little sign that that will happen. The General Synod’s penetrating debate earlier this month on the environment (Synod, 25 February) showed how much is still to be done.

The Churches continue to do their main thing unchanged: to heat up big, empty buildings and drive to them in big, empty cars. The Churches’ consumer choices may be more dignified than others’, but their environmental impact is not much different. In the ecological context, we are the unfettered Four Horsemen.

The Kyoto agreement offers the hope that the market can be drastically reordered to generate only a fraction of present greenhouse gases. Our old friend, innovation in the marketplace, could then save the day, as businesses bring new eco-friendly products to the market.

There was another sign of hope at the Assembly of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland last week, when Jeremy Leggett demonstrated how his company was selling products that could help save the planet. Without credible global environmental policies, prosperity is meaningless.

Burgeoning wealth means an immeasurably greater range of choices. The invitation to serious moral choice is the main theme of the project. People can choose to use their wealth to enrich their enjoyment of one another and of the world, or they can use it, as many currently do, in a hedonism that degrades humanity and the natural order.

This project has said new things, but it stands in, and seeks to continue, a long tradition including notable Anglicans — from William Temple to Ronald Preston, and, at the present time, John Atherton, Andrew Britton, and Peter Sedgwick. It draws together Anglican, Roman Catholic and Free Church resources in a new way. It focuses on a demanding set of questions, and insists that we need to be realistic about the world, its appetites, and its interests.

Prosperity with a Purpose calls on us to help reshape the ways that we live together, and to be clear about the purposeful choices that modern prosperity requires of us. www.ctbi.org.uk

Prosperity with a Purpose: Christians and the ethics of affluence (CTBI, £3.99); Prosperity with a Purpose: Exploring the ethics of affluence (CTBI, £11.99).

John Kennedy is a Methodist minister, and co-ordinating secretary for social responsibility at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

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