Why is our economy in trouble?
Could it be that our economy is in trouble because our culture is in trouble? One reason that our culture might be in trouble because it has adopted a dramatically reduced account of the human person. It has adopted this reduced account of the person because it does not care to hear the Christian gospel which tells us that man is made for love and freedom in relationship with God and his fellow human beings. Because it does not care to hear about this love, or this freedom, our culture is no longer confident of the value and significance of human beings. Our economic crisis reflects a crisis of cultural confidence that reflects a crisis of faith. Man is not convinced that he has a future, and this loss of confidence has eroded his long-term perspective and is stalling our economy. Let us take a look at some of the connections between gospel, culture and economy that are at the root of our economic situation.
1. Gospel and man in the image of God
It is the responsibility of Christians to set out the very high view of man represented by the gospel. The Christian faith enables us to say distinct and necessary things about our culture and our political and economic life that are enabled by this high view of man. The gospel tells us that we are made ‘in the image and likeness of God’, and that the God-like characteristic of freedom is a fundamental truth of all human beings. The greatest account of human dignity is found in the bible. As a result of the long relationship of European culture to the Christian faith, elements of this human dignity are reflected in the assumptions of many cultures and global institutions. But this high view of man, to which freedom is essential, has its source in the Christian faith and nowhere else.
Every society is dependent on the practices of self-control, responsibility and self-sacrifice by its people. Any form of discipleship and discipline that forms people for the service of the common good is itself good. Any society benefits from the presence of a community that offers such discipleship. Christians are discipled people. Christians know that they are accountable to God, and this makes them ready to be answerable also to their fellow Christians, and then to their society. Christian discipleship is good for any society because it articulates this high view of the human beings in which we are accountable and responsible to one another.
2. A reduced account of human being
In the last few decades British society has neglected the large and complex concept of the person that is represented by the Christian account of the human being. Our culture has lost sight of the wholeness and integrity of the human person. It regards the person in terms of what they are owed, but not of what they owe, and so in terms of rights rather than of responsibilities. We can no longer see why at any fundamental level we owe anything to anybody. This culture assumes that we are billiard balls that bounce off each other, unaffected by any encounter. It has given up pursuit of the virtues and self-control, given up talking about our obligations, and talked instead about our rights. Previous generations thought about persons in terms of both giving and taking. This generation now thinks only in terms of taking, and it is unable to say who is supposed to give what it is intending to take. But it is not enough simply to be given freedom: we also have to receive it and practise it, for only so will it truly be ours.
3. Reluctance to take on the disciplines by which we can grow
If we want to learn how to grow we undergo a course of formation. We do so for any particular skill that we desire, and we may do so for life generally. We can take on a course of formation in the hope that it will enable us to develop as persons. We can commit ourselves to become a more rounded and mature person. A course of formation can enable us to develop the self-control by which we can exchange immediate desires for longer-term desires, and so learn grow into greater freedom and greater responsibility. If we want to learn, we submit ourselves to the disciplines by which we can do so.
But our culture has given up the expectation that we will want to develop as persons. It assume that persons need no formation. We assume that no one can teach us anything about being human. We no longer admit that freedom or love is not only given but also has to be learned.
When it was in touch with the Christian faith and discipleship, our culture and moral system was understood as a form of education by which we could, if we wished, grow as persons. Now we now are left uncomprehendingly holding only the fragments of a moral system and culture. With our much diminished account of the person we do not know why or how we may grow, as persons. With this much diminished account, all public debate is solely in terms of the will and desires of the individual and that individual’s power to gain what he desires. We have found it convenient to regard the market and state as mechanisms that supplies satisfaction of our desires, and does so without input from us and without any suggestion that we learn how to control our desires for ourselves. It suits us to believe that we do not have to grow as individual persons, and thus do not have to undergo any form of nurture and discipline, for we believe, growing is not something individuals need to do. The growth of individual persons has been replaced by the growth of the economy. The economy must grow, so that we do not have to. Here Christians have to respond that the economy can only grow when we ourselves grow, and we may grow as we receive the disciplines that derive ultimately from the grace of God.
4. Flight from responsibility and self-government
In the much-reduced contemporary definition, a person is understood in terms of the will of the individual. We do not expect that the individual will attempt to control his or her will by the aid of their reason and memory. We have ceased to be self-controlled self-governed persons.
Freedom and responsibility are onerous. We have all been giving away our own powers. By not exercising our own self-control, we have been giving away the means of self-control by which we can be public persons and citizens. We have allowed the market to push into the private sphere of family and household, abandoned the vocation of ‘citizen’ and in its place adopted the lesser status of ‘consumer’.
Since we do not consider ourselves to be self-subsistent persons who exercise self-control, we do not bear our own individual losses. We demand that others compensate us for our failure to make provision for ourselves. We ask the government to bail us out, and so we have got into the habit of making unrestrained demands on government. As a result we have asked government to compensate for the powers that we ourselves have refused to exercise. Government compensates for our own loss of self-government and replaces that self-government. As a result the state has grown beyond its mandate, while we have given up the freedom and responsibility that are essential to our own dignity. Here Christians may respond that self-control enables us to grow into the freedom intended for us, and we may decide not to call on the state to underwrite all our public relationships.
5. The Christian as self-giver
In the large Christian account of the person, a person is free to give him- or herself away, irrevocably, to one other person in that public covenant that we know as marriage. A man and woman give themselves to one another, finally. They do so once, and they sustain that gift of themselves to one another, day after day, for life. Their freedom to do this is crucial to their dignity, and it is the basis of all the other covenants of which any society consists. The man and woman who sustain such a covenant together also provide the best foundation on which to bring up the children who may arrive as the result of their union. There is a relationship between marriage and public confidence and morale and the readiness of a society bear children, and to bring them up, protecting them from the pressures of market and state, so that they are motivated to bear their own children.
A society has to honour marriages because they are the means by which children arrive, and brought up to maturity and so are the means by which society itself is reproduced. Any society does not give that honour, that refuses to concede that there is difference between a marriage and any form of liaison does not give men and women the motivation to dedicate themselves to the children. Where there is no public acknowledge of child-bears, the practice of child-bearing dwindles and that society is in trouble. So from the concept of self-giving, and public affirmation of the chief covenant which safeguards self-giving, we have arrived at the issue demography. An economy grows when a population grows. No one has ever experienced a healthy economy in a declining population.
6. We have not allowed the private household to do enough
Decades of legislation has taken away the public character of marriage, and turned marriage into the expression of the private sentiments of two individuals, without public consequence. We have allowed the market to push into the private sphere of family and household, and provide services for us so that we do not have to perform them for one another.
We have given up the self-restraint that makes it possible for us to make provision for the future, and so to act on behalf of future generations. We draw the future forward by spending what we have not yet earned. We are cashing up and paying ourselves now the capital which our children will have to earn. We are not passing on to our children the ideas of national and cross-generational solidarity which would motivate them to create this capital. We have become prejudiced against labour, and have given up the industry and agriculture which preserves the skills and virtues which motivate and sustain the rest of the (service) economy. We seem unable to curb our consumption of natural resources.
7. De-motivation and demography
We have de-motivated people with the result that they are deterred from marriage and child-bearing. We are experiencing a decline in fertility. The British birth rate (1.7) is below replacement level (2.1). Our falling population is disguised, temporarily, by longer life-spans. We are compensating for this drop in population by immigration, particularly from those societies which, with more traditional concept of family, are prepared to bear children, but are we confident enough to pass on to those children the virtues by which this culture will survive?
8. We have asked the economy to do too much
The economy is in trouble because we have asked the market to do too much. We expect too many of our inter-personal relationship to take the form of economic relationships. We want our inter-personal encounters to receive explicit, immediate recognition and reward, and so be monetised transactions.
The market expands because we individually succumb to the temptation to demand payment in this explicit monetised form, and others demand the same of us. We grant one another no credit and are not content to receive those less explicit forms that we know as ‘honour’. As we insist on exercising an excessive proportion of our relationships through the idiom of money, we enforce this monetised economy on one another. Other than the Church, the Christian economy of self-giving and self-government opened to us through baptism in Christ, there is no community strong enough to resist the expansion of the single monetised economy. The best favour that Christians can do the economy, is therefore to think and act as Christians, setting out the form of generous and discipled life given to us by the grace of God.
9. Expansive state
The state attempts to compensate for the failure of marriage and break-up of the family. It has attempted to turn our personal emotional burdens into public financial and fiscal burdens. The huge fiscal consequence of this agenda de-motivates the economy as a whole. A welfare system that attempts to replace marriage will bankrupt the state, so that it will no longer be there for those who do need it.
The state has grown beyond its mandate. It has become too large and unable to acknowledge its own proper limits. It has become ideological and directs its effort to eliminating the cultural traditions by which we acknowledge any countervailing power to the state. The unlimited state and market are the result of our reluctance to govern ourselves, and our readiness to give away our own integrity. We have allowed government to compensate for our individual loss of self-government. The state is becoming a self-perpetuating entity that proposes to replace the public contribution of self-subsistent persons.
The government has become ideological and consequently become expansive. An increasing proportion of the national product is spent on its equality agenda, by which the state wants to abolish all natural and given distinctions, particularly of sex. It is waging an undeclared campaign against human biology, against our cultural gender distinctions and on the covenant of marriage and child-bearing that are built upon them. The equality of persons achieved through the equalisation of classes of persons is a secular redemption, a kingdom of God established by the legislation, by which we bring our redemption under our own control.
At the same time, the state directs its effort (which is to say, our effort) to making sex a more dominant feature of our identity. Its spending is orientated to making us more sexualised. Our children are encouraged to see potential partners solely in terms of sexual attractiveness, and seek their own self-fulfilment through a process that involves passing in and out of sexual relationships as that attraction comes and goes. They are taught that one life-long love relationship is not to be preferred to a series of short-term relationships. The assumption is that the individual person experiences love as a series of episodes, and the only constant presence that gives unity to their lives is that of the state.
9. Healthy culture and free speech
The health of an economy depends on the confidence of a society, which in turn depends on a healthy culture. Its culture is that society’s means of encouraging the growth of individual persons. When a society is healthy and confident there is robust public debate, which involves the public expression of disagreement. Healthy public debates refer to the reasons that previous generations have given for their various ways of life, and which now make up the resources of our tradition. The society which shows a general ignorance, or antipathy to, or revulsion from that tradition, is not confident about itself. Lack of confidence in the resources of our culture result in the separation of economy from culture, with the result that we tell one another that ‘It’s the economy, Stupid’, by which we reduce all public debate to the government’s duty to raise our standard of living. Christians may respond by saying that our traditions enable us to live well, offer alternative accounts of flourishing, and become confident enough to serve and bring up another generation without constant recourse to market or state.
We have to ask our media to encourage public speech by promoting the debates in which cultures can be examined and compared for their contribution to the common good. We must ask our media public discussion of the contribution of the cultures of our various immigrant populations, so we ask whether any of these threaten others. By adopting a self-censorship that avoids ‘offence’ (in widening but never explicit definition), we are failing to give public examination to different ways of life, abandoning the forms of discipleship which form us as persons and citizens, and losing our tradition of public speech. Free speech is threatened only if Christians stop speaking freely, regardless of the consequences. It is lost only if Christians are faithless and afraid.
10. Cradle to grave
Over the last few generations the state has expanded to take on more of what were previously our own responsibilities. By doing so it has relieved us of the need to pray to God. We do not pray because we know that the state has already made provision for our every need. It knows what we want and the means of their satisfaction even before we do. Since the state is obliged by its own legislation to give us what we need, we never have any reason to be thankful.
Market and state attempt to preserves us from issues of life and death. They hide from us the prospect of our death. When our welfare state pours its resources into keeping us alive in our last years and in particular our last weeks, it is because we have licensed it to distract us from the essential business at hand, and which only we can conduct, which is to make our peace with the world before we leave it. The welfare state has reduced death from a public event, the moment in which the individual is able to speak honestly to those he is about to leave, to an event determined by the functions of a body, an event that would be entirely private apart from decisions about drugs and the sudden intervention of surgical and resuscitation teams. These last years and weeks are for the purpose of asking forgiveness from our family and neighbours. We may forgive them and receive forgiveness from them. By showing them how to die, showing them how to live. We can pray for more life, of course, if we have a firm idea of what to do with it; we may ask to live on because have to nurse someone else, children or any member of the family who is disabled, or so that we can hand the care of our dependents on to someone who is ready for that responsibility.
The flight from life means that there is no public recognition of the public and long-term effect of every death. There is no acknowledgement that abortion shatters not one, but several, lives because it destroys the confidence to sustain relationships. A proportion of the population is carrying a secret self-hate. This casts a pall over our society as a whole and makes it more difficult for everyone to aspire for relationships that last and which produce children who will be confident to bring up children in their turn.
11. The Church and contemporary idols
Does change seem relentless and inevitable? Does the rate of change seem to be increasing? Does it then seem that Christians, opposing change, are fruitlessly opposing the future and want to ‘go back’ to the past? But the relentless pace of change is precisely the claim of modernity. Modernity is a flight from the past and in a panic about of future. Christians have to say that all this change is illusory, that some practices, such as marriage and child-bearing, are fundamental and the and the virtues that support those practices are therefore fundamental too. The society that does not cultivate those practices and virtues will not continue. The ‘modern’ crisis is not a crisis for the Church, but a crisis of modernity and a crisis for modernity. If ‘modern’ people give up on these practices, they will have no children and their society will vanish in a couple of generations. Modernity is a form of hysteria and unreason; it is an absence of the patience and forbearance that enables anticipation and joy. It is all a disbelief in the future, that is disbelief that we have any future that we will succeed and continue or that the human race is worth continuing. It is a loss of history and identity that results in a foreshortening of horizon and loss of confidence and stability.
Christians may serve their society best by putting a little distance between themselves and the market, and between themselves and the state. They have to act as a countervailing power, and show the world that it is possible to resist, to defer and wait. Christian say that the market is good, and that its good functioning depends on the active participation of many independent agents. A market is ‘free’ to the extent that these agents make good judgments, on the basis of good knowledge, about the goods and services on offer. A good market clears; there is transparency; it is not captured by sectional interests. Christians say that the market has a vital role in valuing the products of human work. But they also insist that the market cannot provide for us those things which we should provide for ourselves within our own households, and that it cannot substitute for our own judgment. The market that attempts to treat us solely as individuals, rather than as covenanted members of household and society (as married couples, and as parents and children) may be destructive of social capital.
In the same way, Christians suggest that the state is constituted by the sum of the public service of citizens. Christians insist that there are limits to what the state can do for us, and what it can demand of us. When the state steps beyond the mandate, spelled out by our national political tradition, it is no longer good. Such a state must be opposed, and Christians must point to the judgment of God that is the backstop which preserves the distinction between state and society, and so preserves the freedom of the individual person.
The state has no mandate to push its way into the formation of our families, our culture and our imaginative life. It is not mandated to take our decisions away from us, so that we are never obliged to take our own decisions about which cultural, or charitable initiatives to support. The state may not tell us that we may only serve if we consent never to give our (Christian) reasons for our (Christian) public and charitable service. Everyone is free to ask Christians to keep their views to themselves. But they are not right to direct the resources of the state to enforce silence on them. The state may not silence the Church: the harder it tries the more it hastens its own fall. Our refusal to take up everything that the state offers is some small but necessary sign that Christians can give that the state is limited, and that we all come under the judgment of God when it ceases to respect those limits.
The faith and discipleship of Christians impacts on the society in which Christians are present. A society cannot do without such a discipleship. Christian discipleship creates a community of persons who are self-governed, and whose generosity extends into forms of public service and public speech. The prior loyalty of Christians to the God of the gospel, which means that their loyalty to society and state are subsequent, makes them better citizens than those who know only loyalty to themselves or to the state. As a result of its discipleship, the Christian community has a sense of purpose, hope and confidence that spreads to the surrounding community and makes for a more confident public square and free society. The presence of Christians in a society is good for all that society’s non-Christians. The reluctance of any society to hear from its Christians betrays only a deep unhappiness that Christians must name as such.
12. In view of these crises, how shall we pray?
We may start by giving thanks to God. Christians give thanks for the long faithfulness of God to this nation and so for many generations of Christian witnesses who have formed the culture of this society. We must name these witnesses and teach their stories. We may give thanks for their suffering, and give thanks that we may continue this witness and that we may be asked to do so in the same costly way. We may share their experience of conflict and persecution, and give thanks for it.
Then we may ask, and beg, the Lord God not to abandon us. We remind God of his faithfulness. We ask him to cut out from us all sin and rebellion, and to identify those ways in which we are blocking the gospel and preventing our society from glimpsing his glory and turning to him. We repent, at length and in public, with a renewed litany. We offer to bear the cost of this witness, and so to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of his witness and the future of this nation that depends on it. We pray for the nation, saying in our prayers what the nation cannot say for itself, but relies on us to say for it. In the ‘person’ of the nation we confess our sins, name the powers that we have surrendered ourselves to and we repent and beg God’s forgiveness.
We may discover that the Lord may take us through these various crises in order to rescue us from the results of our long risk-aversion. We may discover reasons to welcome these crises, and we must pray that we turn out to be faithful and worthy of the trust given to us. We pray for grace to sustain marriages, bring up children and build a common national life. We may pray for a long-term trans-generational perspective, so that we can see that this generation of the Church may lay down its present comfort and security in order that new generations of Christians may be born to the Church, and the witness of God to this nation continue. We must pray that the Church does not become divided as it discovers how to be faithful in its witness. We encourage every Christian to explain how we should all learn the whole discipleship that will preserve the holiness and unity of Christian witness.
If there is large-scale stagnation, unemployment, inflation or even sovereign default it will be painful, and our political leaders and policy-makers may not have the moral resources to lead. But this crisis may bring down the edifice of the unrestrained, expansionist state that has turned us into idle people and a sclerotic society. It may be the prompting we need to serve one another directly again, and without immediate concern for reward. The coming crisis may bring the cultural and political correction that we need and so bring about the renewal of this culture and nation.
But again we must ask, why have we adopted a reduced account of the human person? Why have we suffered this loss of cultural confidence, and consequent demographic and economic changes? The only ‘answer’ that can be given is that we have sinned. There is never any reason, any good reason, for sin. Sin is the unaccountable. We can only say that our culture has suffered a decline because it has not been renewed by Christians. Christians have not encouraged emphatically enough, and have not spoken clearly or warned strongly enough. Christians have failed to set out the wonder of the dignity of man. We have lowered our voices, and with the urgency that it requires, they are guilty. We Christians must repent. But we can repent. We can confess our sin, which involves setting out some of these theological and cultural phenomena, and we can do so with gladness, in confidence that the Lord God hears us and will release us.
We are not offering policies; we are offering questions. We invite world to judge itself, as we Christians judge ourselves as God has gracefully commanded. The best thing we can do for our culture and economy is to be Christian. Then our culture may recover the large concept of person as self-restrained, self-giving and self-sacrificing, initiator and citizen. It may be stirred to re-build a culture of love and self-respect. But whether it does or not, Christians must simply remain faithful. We will use our lives to prepare our children to grieve and pray and remember us and to look forward to the redemption of the world.