IT IS just 75 years since William Temple realigned Christian social thought with his book Christianity and Social Order (Features, 24 October 2014).
In his famous opening to Chapter 4, Temple, who was then the Archbishop of York, and would shortly be nominated to Canterbury, advocated a crucial division of labour: just as the Church “may remind the engineer that it is his obligation to build a really safe bridge” but not specify a particular design, so “the Church may tell the politician what ends the social order should promote; but it must leave to the politician the devising of the precise means to those ends.”
We think that this famous division of labour is untenable: means and ends are inextricably linked. Economists are not engineers to whom the Church must defer; and Churches that want to shape the social order have to engage with the messy details of economic life.
The most important reason for this is that, in economic life, the “engineers” — the professional economists and policymakers — are not impartial servants of society. Their language frames the way in which economic issues are presented, and it “engineers” particular outcomes. That language pictures a single economy conjured out of conventional economic indicators. “Success” is gauged by measures of economic progress such as gross domestic product (GDP). The result is an economy of exclusion: expanding this officially measured economy goes along with the enrichment of a minority, and the growth of job insecurity and poverty.
BUT there are parts of the economy which rarely attract the attention of policy-makers — who are in thrall to official measures of GDP, and to policy fixes such as investment in next-generation high-tech industries. Yet in reality it is the mundane, unglamorous economy that lies at the foundations of civilised life, and safeguards those values at the heart of the Christian social message, the fulfilment of human need and dignity.
This is the Foundational Economy. It lies, in part, literally at the foundations of everyday life: in the network of pipes and cables which connects households to goods and services, such as sanitation and electricity, that are fundamental to a dignified existence. The economist Robert Gordon has charted how the historical rise of “networked households” transformed the quality of everyday life.
Beyond the physical foundational economy lies another providential domain. This is what we conventionally call the welfare state. In the traditions of Christian economy, its services are delivered universally, and without charge, to educate the young, to cure the sick, and to care for the vulnerable.
Finally, there is a third domain that rarely attracts attention: the mundane. Here lie goods and services that we all have to buy occasionally for a civilised life: we need to have our hair cut; we need to buy — at least once or twice in a lifetime — a sofa to sit on; and, at the end of it all, it is essential to human dignity that we have a decent funeral.
At the University of Manchester, we have been documenting this Foundational Economy, and can offer three conclusions.
First, it is far more important to economic progress than the high-tech projects and large-scale manufacturing that obsess policy-makers.
Here is an example: in Wales, the fate of the Port Talbot steelworks has been central to debate about economic policy (News, 23 December 2016); yet there are almost as many people employed in making sofas in Wales as work in steel in Port Talbot. When was the last time that you heard a politician run on the slogan “Protect the Welsh sofa industry”?
That illustrates only a more general point: large-scale job creation depends on employment in foundational sectors, not in the high-tech sectors beloved of policy makers.
The latter sectors account for less than five per cent of total employment in the UK (and only four per cent across the whole European Union.) By contrast, more than 60 per cent of employment in the UK is in the three domains of the Foundational Economy.
This is the world of nursing, teaching, care-home work, plumbing, potato-picking: the unconsidered world that provides the foundations for human dignity, and the world wherein lies the best hope for the creation, on a large scale, of decent jobs providing essential and useful goods and services.
But our second conclusion is that this hope is being wrecked. The physical foundations of civic life — the cable, water, and energy networks created over a century — have been dismantled by a generation of privatisation. Welfare services, such as health and adult care, are being outsourced and subjected to business models that demand double-digit returns on investment.
OUR third conclusion, however, is more hopeful. That wrecking process can be politically reversed, and the reversal can start by recognising the connection between the Foundational Economy and the fulfilment of human need and human dignity.
In the civic sphere, the Foundational Economy is the expression of our common citizenship; in the Christian sphere, it can offer a vision of common Christian entitlement.
But, if it is to do so, Christians have to abandon Temple’s deference to the economist as engineer. This is not a huge step for Christian denominations. On the ground, churches are actively filling the gaps left by a shrinking welfare state, in everything from foodbanks to speaking for the dispossessed. Practically, they have abandoned Temple’s deference, and have become social engineers.
But they need more help from official church hierarchies — and that speaks for all Christian denominations, not just the Church of England. Professional economics, and economic policy-making, should not be viewed as an esoteric science, like analytical chemistry. It is an activity where moral choices are central. And who better to intervene in those moral choices than Christian denominations and their leaders?
Dr Michael Moran is Professor of Government, and Karel Williams is Professor of Political Economy, at the Alliance Business School, in the University of Manchester.