It’s a about building a relational economy, stupid.

In Friday’s Church Times the Bishop of Burnley wrote an interesting and thoughtful reflection on the emerging national mood, arguing that ‘it’s relationships and not the economy,’ that people really value.

I agree with much, perhaps most, of his analysis. Of course relationships matter. Christian anthropology has always stressed that life well lived is, by its very nature, relational. Genesis, our foundational Scripture, makes it clear that people are designed to live together in relationship. It is not good for us to be alone, isolated, disenfranchised (Genesis 2, 18). The poet John Donne famously wrote that “No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.” 

Christians celebrate the importance of relationship through some of our guiding, and relational,  motifs; the concepts of fellowship, communion and, belonging to the body. Desmond Tutu has in recent times brought the African philosophy of Ubuntu – ‘there is no me without you, there is no I without the other,’ to western consciousness. So, Bishop Philip is entirely correct to stress the importance of relationships.

But is he correct to juxtapose the economy and relationships (and to be clear I don’t think he is saying that the economy is unimportant)?

I am less sure, for the simple fact that we all live in an economy and, that we are all economic beings. Economics isn’t just about facts, figures and statistics. It is also about ethics, relationships and, policy. The choices we make about the economy and how it operates are relational and ethical choices. Economics and theology in fact share the same basic agency question: ‘whose interests do I / we serve?’

Before ‘designing’ an economy deeper philosophical and theological questions need to be asked. Adam Smith knew this hence writing both The Wealth of Nations (an oft quoted but rarely read tome)  and, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The notion of a ‘who’ and, service reside at the heart of all economic decision-making. Of course we could answer the who and service questions by affirming that the economy exists primarily  to serve our own self-interest, in the vague hope that if enough people take this view a ‘rising tide will lift all boats,’ and, that the ‘trickle down effect’ will weave its magic. These were Milton Friedman’s arguments. They have been the guiding ‘ethics’ behind post 1980 capitalism.

I think Bishop Philip is arguing Friedman’s economic theory is outdated. He also, correctly, in my view discounts the ‘ethical theory’ (and Friedman was keen to promote his theories in ethical terms) that self-interest, actively pursued,  leads to  communal and relational benefits. The main  problem with excessive self-interest is that it necessarily leads to a hierarchy of interest; my interests will always take precedence over yours. This in turn leads to conflict between the inhabitants of different economic islands.

My interest, self-interest, always leads to regarding others, as well just that, other. Excessive self-interest erodes relationships, it renders impossible the enactment of ubuntu or Martin Buber’s ‘T -thou,’ philosophy. It is also unchristian. Excessive self-interest  stands contrary to Christian notions of justice, solidarity and service. Excessive self-interest diminishes the value of giving. Justice, solidarity, service and, gift are, I believe, ‘theonomic’ motifs.’ Excessive self-interest undermines sustainable economic growth. It is an uncomfortable fact, widely ignored, that economic growth in the period post the Second World War, has been at its greatest in periods of narrower disparity in wages and, higher taxation. Greater equality does not necessarily correlate to economic stagnation. There is no reason to believe, despite the rhetoric of those who passionately (and uncritically?) believe in the economics of self interest, that less disparity dampens the sort of entrepreneurial flair that the majority of people may benefit from. Innovation and risk taking are hard wired into certain people.

Yes, many people are thirsting for deeper relationships. But, many people also believe that the economy remains of primary importance. They feel that, in a word, the way the economy has been deigned and managed is just plain ‘stupid.’ They feel this because they know that self-interest has not proven to be the rising tide that lifts all boats. To pick up once more on John Donne’s metaphor that the economy has produced a series of islands populated by the have’s, the have not’s and, the barely getting along’s. And, they know that the economic system has already put in place hard border controls.

As a society we need to take people’s economic concerns seriously and, we need to do so in the hope that a healthy and equitable economy will also be good for relationships. We need to understand the importance of distributing economic goods to people on the basis of their needs (Acts 2, 45). We need to design an economy that truly looks after the young and the old, ‘the widows and orphans in their distress,’ (James 1, 27). We need to appreciate the importance of giving, and I don’t mean straightforward redistribution of our cast offs, the things we have already categorized as second best or out of date, but the giving to others of those things that we truly value. We need to take into the heart of our economic decision-making Jesus mandate that we should ‘give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back’ (Luke 6, 30) and, we should heed the advice that ‘if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.’ 

Our Scriptures stress the importance of relationships. They also ask us to relegate self-interest to its rightful place. After all why should we, how could we, relate to others when their primary motivation is their own economic self-interest? Justice, fairness, equity and, solidarity cannot exist where self-interest reigns. The economy cannot work for widow and orphan, the impoverished student and the refugee, the economically marginalized and the homeless where self-interest reigns.

For many people it really is about the economy.



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