Archbishop sets out fresh agenda for economic justice

By staff writers
March 9, 2009

In a wide-ranging lecture at the Welsh Centre for International Affairs in Cardiff, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has argued that a change of heart as well as structural reform is needed to address the global economic crisis.

Addressing the question of ‘Ethics, Economics and Global Justice’, Dr Williams outlined five principles for adjusting the credit-crunched system, based on practices of mutuality, realism and trust, and three grounds for religiously re-conceiving human possibilities.

“Perhaps the very heart of the current challenge is the invitation to discover a little more deeply what is involved in human freedom – not the illusory freedom of some fantasy of control,” declared the archbishop.

“Trustworthiness, realism (humility) and the clear sense that we must resist polices or practices which accept the welfare of some at the expense of others – there is a back-of-an-envelope idea of where we might start in pressing for a global economic order that has some claim to be just,” he commented.

The spiritual head of the Church of England and of the 77 million worldwide Anglican Communion used his lecture to explore the embeddedness of economic activity in human relations, with their interdependence on each other and the earth. This was something we wee in danger of forgetting, he suggested.

“Although people have spoken of greed as the source of our current problems, I suspect that it goes deeper. It is a little too easy to blame the present situation on an accumulation of individual greed, exemplified by bankers or brokers, and to lose sight of the fact that governments committed to deregulation and to the encouragement of speculation and high personal borrowing were elected repeatedly in Britain and the United States for a crucial couple of decades. Add to that the fact that warnings were not lacking of some of the risks of poor (or no) regulation, and we are left with the question of what it was that skewed the judgement of a whole society as well as of financial professionals,” said Dr Williams.

Turning to ethics, he commented: “Our ethical seriousness is tested by how we behave towards those whose goodwill or influence is of no ‘use’ to us. Hence the frequently repeated claim that the moral depth of a society can be assessed by how it treats its children – or, one might add, its disabled, its elderly or its terminally ill. Ethical behaviour is behaviour that respects what is at risk in the life of another and works on behalf of the other’s need.”

The archbishop observed that: “the modern market state… that promises maximised choice and minimal risk, is in serious danger of encouraging people to forget two fundamentals of economic reality – scarcity as an inexorable truth about a materially limited world, and concrete productivity and added value as the condition for increasing purchasing power or liberty, and thus sustaining any kind of market.”

“We have woken up belatedly to the results of behaving as though scarcity could be indefinitely deferred: the ecological crisis makes this painfully clear. We have woken up less rapidly and definitively to the effects of displacing labour costs to undeveloped economies,” he explained.

“The short-term benefits to local employment in these settings and in lower prices elsewhere cannot offset longer-term issues about security of employment (jobs will move when labour is cheaper in other places) and thus also the problematic social changes brought by large-scale movement towards new employment patterns that have no long-term guarantees. One effect of this pattern is the creation not of a new consumer class but of a new group of urban paupers in unstable developing economies – a phenomenon visible in some East Asian contexts.”

Overall the lecture questioned many of the shibboleths of neo-liberal market economics, while seeking reparative measures adapted to both current constraints and forthcoming choices.

Dr Williams may have offered some comfort for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, currently involved in discussions with President Obama and other G20 leaders, by appearing to endorse his warnings about economic protectionism.

He declared: “Morally, protectionism implicitly accepts that wealth maintained at the cost of the neighbour’s disadvantage or worse is a tolerable situation – which is a denial of the belief that what is good for humanity is ultimately coherent or convergent. ... Practically, protectionism is another instance of short-term vision, securing prosperity here by making prosperity impossible somewhere else.”

The archbishop stressed that “any morally and practically credible policy should be looking to guarantee that future generations do not inherit liabilities that will cripple the provision of basic social care, for example.”

His recipe for making economic choices in a future threatened by massive disruption, global inequality and ecological threat had five main features:

“First, we need to move away from a model of economics which simply assumes that it is essentially about the mechanics of generating money, and try to restore an acknowledgement of the role of trust as something which needs time to develop; and so also to move away from an idea of wealth or profit which imagines that they can be achieved without risk, and to return to the primitive capitalist idea… of risk-sharing as an essential element in the equitable securing of wealth for all.

“Second, as many writers, from Partha Dasgupta to Jonathon Porritt, have argued, environmental cost has to be factored into economic calculations as a genuine cost in opportunity, resource and durability – and thus a cost in terms of doing justice to future generations. There needs to be a robust rebuttal of any idea that environmental concerns are somehow a side issue or even a luxury in a time of economic pressure; the questions are inseparably connected.

“Third, we need to think harder about the role – actual and potential – of democratically accountable governments in the monitoring and regulation of currency exchange and capital flow. This could involve some international conventions about wages and working conditions, and co-operation between states to try and prevent the indefinite growth of what we might call – on the analogy of tax havens – cheap labour havens. Likewise it might mean considering the kind of capital controls that prevent a situation where it is advantageous to allow indefinitely large sums of capital out of a country.

“Fourth, the existing international instruments – the IMF and World Bank, the WTO and the G8 and G20 countries – need to be reconceived as both monitors of the global flow of capital and agencies to stimulate local enterprise and provide some safety nets as long as the global playing field is so far from being level. They need to provide some protective sanctions for the disadvantaged – not aimed at undermining market mechanisms but at letting them work as they should, working to allow countries to trade their way out of destitution.

Fifth, necessary short-term policies to kick-start an economy in crisis – such as we have seen in the UK in recent months – should be balanced by long-term consideration of the levels of material and service production that will provide an anchor of stability against the possible storms of speculative financial practice. This is not simply about ‘baling out’ firms under pressure but about a comprehensive look at national economies with a view to understanding what sort of production levels would act as ballast in times of crisis, and investing accordingly.”

Dr Williams also sought to spell out the contribution that a religious, and specifically Christian, vision could make to the task of re-imagining and re-shaping economic activity. This had three elements, he suggested:

“ Our faith depends on the action of a God who is to be trusted; God keeps promises. There could hardly be a more central theme in Jewish and Christian Scripture, and the notion is present in slightly different form in Islam as well. Thus, to live in proper harmony with God, human beings need to be promise-keepers in all areas of their lives, not least in financial dealings.

“T]he perspective of faith understands human beings as part of creation – not wholly in control, though gifted with capacities that allow real and significant powers over the environment, bound to material identity and unable to escape material need. Living in faith is living in awareness of this created and limited identity without resentment or fantasy.

“Living as part of creation brings with it a sense of the common destiny and common predicament of humanity. But more specifically, the Scriptural understanding of our calling, especially as set out in the letters of St Paul, sees the ideal human community as one in which the welfare and giftedness of each and the welfare of all are inseparable. What is good in God’s eyes for human beings not something that is altered by differences in culture or income; we can’t say that what is unwelcome or evil for us is tolerable for others.”

Dr Williams concluded by warning: “Patience, trust and the acceptance of a world of real limitation are all hard work; yet the only liberation that is truly worth while is the liberation to be where we are and who we are as human beings, to be anchored in the reality that is properly ours. Other less serious and less risky enterprises may appear to promise a power that exceeds our limitations – but it is at the expense of truth, and so, ultimately at the expense of human life itself.”

The full lecture can be read here:

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