Archbishop Diarmuid Martin article on the economy

29 Sep 2008

28 September 2008

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin article on the economy

Ethics, the economy and caring; lessons to be learned

The economy has a social function.  Economic growth, no matter how important, is never simply an end in itself.  It should lead to social equity, to an equitable growth of society and to enhancing the people and the human infrastructures which strengthen society. Economic growth always brings with it social responsibility.  Uncontrolled growth has rarely produced sustainability.  

If I were asked for my description of uncontrolled economic growth I would turn to the biblical insight of the Tower of Babel,   The biblical story talks about people who felt that they now had the ability to build a tower which would link heaven and earth.   When people think that they can have uncontrolled growth, very often what happens is what happened at Babel – the tower collapses and the people become divided.

Let me not be drawn into “I told you so,” Far from it. The market is vital, but is the market has an essentially social function. It can only function in an ethical and judicial framework where the vulnerable are protected and the natural arrogance of the powerful is curbed.  We see today how gross and unregulated individual misbehaviour in market activity affects the stability of companies but also of countries and then of the men and women who make up the society in which we live.  Irresponsible traders do not just gamble with the future of a big multinational firm – they eventually affect the lives of people all over the world.

Government and business need to work together. Government and business have the same interest in many ways when one is talking about economic growth.  This means that there can be a legitimate corporate interest in shaping aspects of the politico-economic environment.  But this interest can also easily become damaging if there are insufficient regulatory mechanisms in place.  Unregulated market speculation or unfair interference in competition law damage the economy.  But powerful governments can also fall prey to corruption.   We need both market and government.

We need the market and we need a market which has the freedom to operate as it should.  We also need government.  Smaller government may be more desirable than some of the past experiences of massive and unproductive government interference in society and the market.  But lack of effective government is equally disastrous, just as inefficient government is. Government is essential to guarantee the ethical and juridical framework within which the market can flourish and within which ethical market behaviour will be fostered.  

Some would say – and to a certain extent rightly – that running a good business means ensuring gain for the shareholders, making a profit through providing a quality product or service and of course that this also involves giving employment. The market involves risk, they would say, and no one should complain when the person who takes risk makes a healthy profit.  That has traditionally been the way in which the businessperson looked at good business.   And anyone who challenged that viewpoint would be reminded – also rightly – that putting yourself out of business through increasing your costs helps no one.

On the other hand there are many, myself included, whose conscience is left uneasy by a discomfort about huge profit and would stress that business is embedded in the reality of society and shares some responsibility for society.   In some way, part of that profit should be directed not just to the shareholders but also to wider concerns of the society in which the business is embedded and from which it benefits.  Investment will be attracted to places where a creative and innovative workforce is available.  But can business simply take that for granted and the plea for a form of small government which is then less able to provide on-going investment in the type of education and research which made strong growth possible in the first place?     Everyone must assume responsibility.

We also need law and we need law enforcement and we need that today within an architecture of business which has become international and reaches beyond national boundaries, both as regards its activities and its effects. .  It is interesting to note that organised crime was one of the first groups to recognise the advantages of globalisation. I don’t just mean drug or weapons dealers, but also new forms of irresponsible speculation and dishonest behaviour within the business community.  An ethical framework is not just pretty words on a piece of paper or in a mission statement but is something that must be integral to the way people work and their role in society.  The new globalised nature of the economy requires new structures on an international level to combat irresponsible behaviour.

What can and should a religious leader say in the current situation.  Should he or she just leave it to “the experts” and return to the sacristy?  Can religious values influence economic and social stability?  

The job of the Christian churches is to preach the message of the Gospel. This is a message that is addressed to every individual and that has social implications for the people who follow the message of Jesus Christ.. The basic message of the Christian churches is about the love of God, and there are two characteristics of the love of God that I believe are particularly interesting in the modern world. One is gratuity. God loves people without any conditions. Take the story of the Prodigal Son, who comes back home to find that his father is there waiting for him. The son has his little negotiating speech ready, but he doesn’t have to use it. The son is just welcomed – that is gratuity, going beyond what is expected or necessary.    The other is super-abundance. The love of God surprises you – it is so generous that it turns you head over heels.

These two values stand in opposition to a market-driven consumer society in which everything is precisely measured out.  If the label says 16 oz, you won’t get an ounce more. If we truly lived in an environment like this, where you got only what you paid for and nothing beyond, none of us would be where we are today. The world needs these values that create generosity; that make you care about another person even if that person is weak; that motivate you to make a huge investment in a person.

The market is an extraordinarily effective instrument.  But there are basic human needs which do not belong in the market place, which cannot be bought or sold like commodities.  For those we need something else.  The economy will attain its role if it is complemented by effective government, but also by a society with a heart and with generosity.  This last will be needed more and more in hard times.

This article appeared in the Irish Mail on Sunday newspaper on 28 September 2008