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Angela Tilby: Carney asks us to ponder our values

11 December 2020

BBC/Richard Ansett

Mark Carney, who delivered this year’s BBC Reith Lectures

Mark Carney, who delivered this year’s BBC Reith Lectures

I HAVE always admired Mark Carney, the former Governor of the Bank of England. He has little in common with the technocrats who have figured so largely in managing our banks in recent years. His BBC Reith Lectures are showing that he is an economic thinker who is prepared to ask fundamental questions about money, profit, worth, and value.

In his first lecture, he described elegantly what, he believes, has gone wrong with our financial system. First, it has tended to favour a “subjective” view of economic value. This means that value is held to lie in the eye of the consumer rather than in the commodity being valued. This, on its own, might not be a problem, but, when combined with a second assumption, the “orthodoxy” that markets are always right, it inevitably leads to a clash between value and values. It primes us for selfishness, and makes us believe that it is wealth alone that determines status.

But this is a costly mistake. Referring to Adam Smith, he argued that all human institutions, including markets, depend on human interaction. We are constantly giving and receiving feedback from others. We want others to think well of us, and this encourages us to behave in ways that will command respect. To pretend that markets stand outside these human forms of exchange and possess some kind of automatic infallibility is to ignore this. To fulfil their proper function, markets need trust, integrity, and fairness. Hence the importance of a proper debate about values.

Our current crises, he suggests, offer us an opportunity to rethink. Covid-19 has made us all realise how much we depend on the low-paid. Perhaps it is time to put a higher value on what we value. And human and animal life depends on what happens to our planet. That, too, requires us to re-evaluate our behaviour. Meanwhile, we have also become aware of the satisfaction that comes from unpaid voluntary effort on behalf of others. Paying people to do good takes away the pleasure and fulfilment that many find in such activities.

It occurred to me, as I listened, that the belief in infallible markets designed to fulfil our every whim is close to the worship of idols, false gods, which will consume us if we do not find ways to expose and dethrone them.

It is good to have Dr Carney doing just that — not that the sore spots in Western capitalism haven’t been pointed out before. Church leaders are doing so constantly. Pope Francis has a new book looking beyond the pandemic, Let us Dream (News, 27 November; Comment, 4 December). But Dr Carney, as an economist, banker, and shrewd financial operative, can make the point with greater authority. As a lay Roman Catholic, he is bringing something of the Church’s teaching on solidarity to parts that the others cannot reach.

Read more on Mark Carney’s Reith lectures in our radio column here

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