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Limits of the market

17 July 2015

JUDGING the virtue or otherwise of a system is the same as judging an individual. Look at them from different angles, and one comes to different conclusions. Thus Pope Francis views the market as having a tendency to corrupt. Bishop Forster and Lord Donoughue (opposite) see it as benign: it is for this reason that they feel justified in criticising the assumptions behind the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si’ (News, 26 June). The virtue of the market is being tested severely in Greece at present. The Greek Prime Minister is finding it hard to convince his colleagues of what he does not believe himself: that a firesale of state assets is in the best interests of the Greek people.


The divide between those who believe in the market and those who hanker for an alternative — Forster and Donoughue suggest that the Pope is flirting with Communism — is ideological rather than practical. Only a fanatical adherent would argue, against the evidence, for a pure version of either doctrine. There is little to choose between an unregulated market and an unaccountable Communism when it comes to an ability to inflict human misery. Similarly, when it comes to nurturing the common good, for example in the management of essentials such as power or water supply, there is little to choose between state-regulated private ownership and a public ownership answerable to an informed electorate. Both acknowledge that humans are capable of greed and sacrifice. Both require a working framework for wealth-creation and accountable government. The message from the International Monetary Fund on Wednesday was, in essence, that the market cannot save Greece. The country’s creditors, either now or in the near future, will have to write off a large chunk of the money it owes. International commerce aspires to function at this geo-political level, but the Greek crisis has shown its inadequacy. The play is now between European politicians and their electorates.


The point made by Pope Francis, and on the floor of the General Synod on Monday, was that the market is similarly unable to respond to the environmental crisis. The purpose of the market is simple: to protect stock value and deliver profit to shareholders. It has neither the collective conscience nor the will to repair the damage to the planet’s climate. As almost every climate scientist has attested, the market — the unhindered development of material acquisition — has contributed to global warming. The world is in its present state because governments have failed to control the use of fossil fuels and the carbon emissions from manufacturers and, to a lesser extent, individuals. But neither can the planet be saved by sweeping away the market, even were such a thing possible. The Synod agreed on Monday that positive engagement — bringing the virtues of Christianity into shareholder meetings — has at least a chance of making the market work for the common good, but few believe that this is adequate without collective political action of the sort called for by Pope Francis.

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