Well, after a rather sluggish start, the other Sola Panellists seem to have gotten on board the credit crunch boat (and, in fact, Lionel stole the content of one of my intended posts—grrrrr!) So I am not sure how much further to push this topic. However, given that it was my idea in the first place, and that Peter is up to #4 while I am only up to #3, I am going to continue with my present set of ramblings about a Christian response to the credit crunch.
Today I want to pick up on the whole ‘theology’ of the ‘free market’ economy. (Yes, I know that, strictly speaking, I should refer to it as a ‘philosophy’ or just possibly as an ‘ideology’ but it seems to me to that it is ultimately a theology. To quote Brian Rosner in Beyond Greed,
[T]he economy is mysterious, unknowable and intransigent. It has both great power and, despite the best managerial efforts of its associated clergy, great danger. It is an inexhaustible well of good(s) and is credited with prolonging life, giving health and enriching our lives. Money, in which we put our faith, and advertising, which we adore, are among its rituals. The economy also has its sacred symbols, which evoke undying loyalty, including company logos, product names and credit cards.
In other words, the economy is treated to all intents an purposes as if it is God in our modern world.)
What I really want to know is why we all seem to expect such great things from the economy. In fact, why is it that we all turn our brains off when it comes to thinking about the things that are at the heart of every day life? Unless I am much mistaken (and I know that, as with all things, the high priests of the economy are the only ones who truly understand its intricacies), the central theological premise of the free market is something like this: as long as everyone acts selfishly, the ‘invisible hand’ (to borrow Adam Smith’s famous phrase) will ensure that everyone is better off.
What exactly is the ‘invisible hand’? Again, at the risk of great over-simplification, it is the principle that everyone competing against each other will provide what is good for all. For example, the person selling wants the highest possible price, while the people buying wants the lowest possible price. The seller can ask a ridiculous price and never make a sale (which would be against his or her own interests), and therefore sets a price that is as high as is reasonable, given the market for the product. Apparently if all six billion of us act selfishly, it will ensure that the right price is set for everything, and we will all be happy!
Let me illustrate it in a slightly different way. Smith argued that when you go to get bread from the local baker, you don’t appeal to him to make bread out of his natural benevolence, but instead you appeal to his self-interest. If he makes more bread and sells it, life will be better for him. Smith argued (although he actually saw some of the limitations) that when people act out of self-interest, it tends to promote the community interest as well.
So why, I ask you, do we expect a system built on selfishness to result in good for all? It seems that a few moments’ thought should warn us against expecting ‘God-like’ benevolence from the economy. It may well be that a free market is (somewhat like democracy) the worst system, except for all the rest. But it remains only and ever that—a flawed system initiated by selfish human beings that will never solve the world’s problems. However, as I have been suggesting all along, maybe, for a while at least, people will stop and acknowledge the inability of the economy to deliver what people really need. And maybe, just maybe, it gives Christians the opportunity to point out that sin really is sin. We are so angry at all the ‘fat cats’ that got us into this mess, but incredibly reticent about admitting that we have all been willing players in the market. It suited everyone that I know to be a part of a system that was causing their superannuation to skyrocket. We were all part of the greed that fuelled the failure we are experiencing.
Similarly, we are all angry at the way those who brought this upon us are trying to weasel out of the implications. We want justice. We want them to stand up and say, “We were wrong and we deserve to be punished”. Perhaps there is an opportunity here for us to say that the gospel creates a different world view—a world view which allows you to say, “I did the wrong thing”. In a world driven by image and by the sense that my self-worth is based upon my performance, people naturally look for a scapegoat. But the gospel offers a different way forward: it says that because of the grace and forgiveness of God, I can afford to stop papering over the cracks. I can acknowledge that I am flawed. I can humbly accept that I am someone who sins, and I am freed to speak publicly about being someone who does wrong. I can actually apologize and ask for forgiveness. How refreshing would it be to hear a CEO of one of the failed Wall Street merchant banks come and out publicly acknowledge their greed, ask for people’s forgiveness, and express a willingness to take responsibility!
But, of course, there lies the double-edged sword. We can only ask of others what we are willing to do ourselves. Are we willing to admit that our greed is a part of the problem too? Maybe now is the time for Christians to be leading the way by expressing our own sorrow at our greed. As we do, we will challenge people to think about what is right and wrong in an absolute sense, rather than a ‘right-for-me’ and ‘right-for-you’ sense. For just a moment in history, it may be obvious to our relativist society that there is truth, and that justice needs to be done. So let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will work in our world so that people will come to the point of accepting that we are sinful. And let’s tell anyone who is willing to listen that we believe in a God who knows what we are like and forgives anyway.