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Danger: theologians in commonsense territory

09 November 2012

Questions of morality and religion should not be driven out of economics: they make sense there, argues Peter Selby

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 evidence properly.

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 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 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 ones.

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 Institute.

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