Don’t leave economics to the professionals

by
21 July 2017

To shape the social order, Christians must engage with the means, not just the ends, say Michael Moran and Karel Williams

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.

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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.

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