The Economist devoted one of its leading
articles a couple of weeks ago 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
its article with the assertion: "The debate about budget cuts has
become dangerously theological." It reveals its true anxiety in the
opening sentence: "Arguments about austerity have taken on an
almost religious fervour."
Then comes its 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 it 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." This kind of debate is The
Economist's idea of an over-emotional failure to assess
And this, The Economist thinks, is what
theology does: pours petrol on the flames of "almost religious
fervour". "It is wrong", it 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
proponent 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 Economist a balanced, evidence-based, morally
neutral account of exactly what needs to be done.
It can demonstrate that while it is true that austerity hurts
growth, it is 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 "A deficit of common sense" 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.
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
What this article reveals is that the arena in which we need to
be most prepared to seek out and name rampant secularism is that 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 that we notice there follows
from the conviction that in the economic sphere, the only
questions are technical - how questions - not moral
The reason why the only questions are technical ones is that
there is no alternative value to getting more, and therefore the
only proper question is how to do that. Our fundamental and
technocratic attitude to money conditions what we then imagine to
be the case in all spheres of life.
Let us be 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 had tilled it was unacceptable; 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, religious, and
theological. They are all those things because they are
also deemed to be common sense.
They are also rooted in evidence. Our forebears reckoned that
they knew what it took to flourish, because their experience had
taught them it - experience that 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
commonsense proposals, because they were proposals that came from a
sense of what was for the common good.
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" that 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 that it is also an issue of what is sensible for our
common life. Religious faith is both a fervent and sensible source
of the wisdom that we need for that.
The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester,
and a member of the interim directing team of the St Paul's