Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Church of England & The State Should Play To Their Strengths

The Church of England has some confused views about economics. In my mind there are too many church spokespeople calling for us to move away from capitalism and give increased power to the State to intervene and tackle all the so-called injustices that occur in a free market economy. Even if we ignore the fact that for all intents and purposes it's impossible to 'move away from capitalism', the church is still doing itself no favours on this issue.

For several reasons the Church of England would have more social credibility and greater societal relevance if it argued for less State intervention, and departed from its erroneous view that the general mechanism of the free market is lacking in ethics. As I've argued before, the free market is not this illusory moral vacuum devoid of ethicality - its success depends on moral agents being honest, reliable, trustworthy and diligent in their outputs (read this book if you want your doubts quashed).

Try to remember what Christ’s incarnation was like on earth - He vocally opposed the oppressiveness of the theological State and establishment teaching, and He was no friend of the Sanhedrin or the Roman authorities. Whatever the topic - be it religion, economics, politics, or whatever - authoritarian top-down management from the State is not the optimum situation for citizens governed by that State. For the church to obtain more social relevance it should be championing a smaller State not a bigger one. The church is precisely the institution that should be filling in the gaps left by the overarching forces of government and the market. In other words, the places where the State and the market can't reach are the places the church should be most prominent: it already is when it comes to theology and salvation issues - it should be with ethics, charity and social justice too. The church's involvement in food banks and soup kitchens, for example, is exactly the sort of societal influence it should be having, and thankfully is.

The fallacy of enforced generosity
The same can be said of charity - it is the church that always ought to be leading the way here (and again, often is). I remember a couple of years ago hearing David Cameron defending the governmental increase in the foreign aid budget on the basis that 'Britons are generous people'. No, this is wrong. Somebody should give the Prime Minister a dictionary and get him to look up the word 'generous'. He'll see that being generous means giving away something of your own accord. It doesn't mean being forced to give away something over which you have no control. If I draw out my life savings and bail out Harty's Diner then I have been generous (wisely or foolishly) - but I have been generous because I wanted to bail out Harty's Diner. If the government taxes me with the threat of imprisonment and bails out Harty's Diner (wisely or foolishly) on my behalf then I have not been generous, because I had no say in the matter.

Now I'm all for increasing in the foreign aid budget and helping the world's neediest, but David Cameron had his reasoning backwards there. The governmental increase in the foreign aid budget must have been necessary because too many Britons are not that generous of their own volition. Giving to the world's neediest of your own accord is more generous than the government giving to them on your behalf after taxing it from you. If Britons were increasingly generous people it would lessen the need for governmental foreign aid not increase it.

As I argued here, when the church leaders and spokespeople advocate a bigger State and more substantial governmental redistributive policies they go against their own fundamental Christian theology. Further, we should never forget how Christianity is so often worse off once political influences are infused and soaked into its material, and how Jesus’ teaching regarding His Kingdom being 'not of this world' confers onto the message a marked boundary line that is likely to be burred when Christianity and State become excessively commingled.

As usual The Guardian has got the wrong end of the stick about food banks, but alas so has the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, as he asserts that the government should get more involved with them, and that the very fact that people need food banks is a national disgrace. Naturally a lot of people who fancy themselves as leftist revolutionaries have the same idea.

In this blog I explained why a rise in food bank users doesn’t necessarily mean a rise in poverty. Let’s broaden it out a little. Apparently according to The Guardian article 60% of food bank users received only one sanction, which basically means they were one time users, probably due to temporary hardship. From what I can gather from looking into it a bit further, many of these cases are due to missing appointments, penalties for misuse of the system, and various bureaucratic issues that delay benefit payments for a week or so.

But even if we make allowances for these cases, it is true that many people in the UK are suffering genuine economic hardship. And when that happens people are quick to play the blame game, with the first target for opprobrium usually being the government. In my view this is lazy-thinking. Sure, the government makes mistakes, and it has some counterproductive policies, but should anyone really be satisfied with blaming politicians when in doing so it exculpates people from the decisions they make in life? It's not as though the British government is making a total mess of things - the recovery is stronger than it might have been, and healthy compared with the rest of Europe. As well, unemployment has continued to fall, inflation remains low, interest rates are falling, and the pound is fairly strong. And also the government has finally cottoned on to the necessity of a rise in the threshold at which low earners pay income tax.

For many struggling people, the cost of living exceeds their income, but I'm not sure why the government gets the blame for this, as politicians don't control wages in the private sector, nor do they control prices of goods and services (except for this caveat: by often making them artificially high due to subsidies, tariffs and other regulatory measures). We have to face facts, there are a lot of things that go on that are not the fault of the government. People make life choices - some good some bad - and Christianity, if it insists on one thing about our life circumstances, it is that there is a good deal of reaping what one is sowing (Galatians 6:7).

Now the job of the Christian (and, as it happens, the compassionate citizen of any belief too, but particularly the Christian) is to show mindfulness and understanding when we see people in difficulty, even those whose difficulty is largely their own doing. To deny that reaping is causally linked to sowing is to not help anyone.

Myths and generalisations
And one thing is clear on this; blanket generalisations won't add any intellectual gravitas to the discussions. Let me give you an example to show what I mean. The other day in his Guardian column Owen Jones was complaining that wages are too low for people to make ends meet, and that this apparent Dickensian misery that plagues the UK at present is down to low paid workers being treated unfairly. The obvious thing wrong with his claim is the same thing that's usually wrong in his reasoning - he only thinks in hasty generalisations and he fails to ask the right questions about causality. So yes, it's true that a lot of people have a wage that is low enough to make them feel the struggles of daily life, but there are many reasons why people are on low wages, and most of them are not down to government measures.

There is no denying that most people would like more pay for the work they do, but that's not to be confused with the so-called 'injustice' of low pay. There are reasons many people are in low paid work, and it is alarming that these reasons are never mentioned in articles written from the hard left. Let's start with the general pattern; low pay is a price signal that indicates an abundance of agents able to sell their skills or labour at that price; and high pay is a price signal that indicates a scarcity of agents able to sell their skills or labour at that price. To use a particular example, that's why there are more people ready to stack shelves at Sainsbury's than there are people ready to be the Chief Executive. If there is a plethora of people in the lower end market it would suggest that many people are not receiving the training or education needed for the demands of the market.

But moving away from the general onto particulars, there are a multitude of reasons why people start and remain in low paid jobs, other than the fact that they don't have the skill sets to do the higher paid jobs. Many people are in low paid jobs because they want to be. It's easy to imagine why - for many people the trade off between higher paid jobs that entail further training, more responsibility, better people skills, unsociable hours, more pressure, greater risk, and so forth, leaves them favouring the lower paid positions with less responsibility, less pressure and a safer day to day working life. This is a fact I see on a weekly basis in local authority - a promotional position will come up with the majority of employees being uninterested in applying for it. Many are older people in the latter years of their working lives, some are mothers for whom it wouldn't pay to earn more or increase their hours; some simply don't have the ingenuity to try to further themselves; some are intermittent workers; and some are happy having a comfortable 9 to 5 job and focusing more on their extra curricular talents and interests.

We’ve digressed, but it has been to make an important point – that general criticisms are faulty when people don’t get to the finer details of causal links. Just as not everyone on low pay is the victim of injustice, similarly not every incidence of charitable help is due to injustice either. As I said in the blog link above, rather than food banks always being an indication of injustice or increased economic hardship, they most likely are a demonstration of our increased ability to respond to economic hardship with donations of food for those that need it.

Or to put it another way, food banks are a great achievement of the Trussell Trust  - a private Christian charity, because they provide help and retain a social relevance highly consistent with the church’s ethos. As things like the food bank scheme and soup kitchens become better known and grow in efficiency, it's quite understandable that more people will use them. Government involvement in this would be a bad idea - it will come on a wagon train of bureaucracy, as well as increased inefficiency, and it will discourage much of the voluntary beneficence that motivates people’s giving.

The Guardian writers often complain that food price rises are exceeding people's living capacity, but these are just as much due to the aforementioned government subsidies and regulations that stop the market forces that would lower food prices.

One irony about many people's biases (both in the church and outside) is that in wanting to make the world a better place by constraining the free market and tempering corporation power they are pulling their own hand away from the problem they are trying to solve. Basic first year economics informs us that a freer market and fewer regulatory protocols is the best solution to corporate power. So what's usually thought of as "the government isn't doing enough" is, in fact, usually the case of "the government is doing too much". State regulations create artificial barriers to entering the market, which stultifies competition, and artificially drives up prices, giving us a rinse-and-repeat cycle that brings people to need to use food banks.

Just as the church embarrasses itself and tarnishes its reputation when it distorts established science in favour of the delusive and counterfactual claims of young earth creationism, so too it embarrasses itself and tarnishes its reputation when it displays ignorance of basic economic principles and loads up that ignorance to unleash misjudged social commentary. The success of food banks is one of the church's greatest achievements in modern society - it gives exhibition to conscientious, caring individuals who want to do their bit to help struggling people. If this isn't the playing out of the instructions given by the writer of Hebrews to "not neglect to do good and share what we have", I don't know what is. The church should be seizing on the momentum already gathered and using it for even greater good by encouraging more and more people to be kind, caring and conscientious citizens, not furtively attempting to compromise this momentum by transferring the emphasis back on the bureaucratic State.

* Photo courtesy of Euronews