A nation is more than an economic alliance, it is more than the sum of the individuals belonging to it, its people share values, assumptions, a history – hopes, and fears. The Market knows nothing of these things, the Market seeks to maximise profit. We were told that the ‘trickle down’ effect would mean that everyone would, in some way, profit from the dominance of the Market; morality – what did that have to do with the Market? It is not, then, surprising that in a society where the Market has been dominant for a couple of generations, we should face a crisis of morality. The crash of 2008 was an example of what happens to a Market where morality is absent. Why should those operating it not seek to maximise profit? Why should they make less money for themselves than they could by not offering mortgages to those who could not afford them? Why should they not invent investment schemes so complex that no one understood them? It was only in the aftermath of the crash that the answer was clear to some, and even then, that reasoning became devalued as a political slogan. The reason was that we were all in it together; except in practice some were more deeply in it than others, and so once the immediate crisis receded, the bankers and others went back to their old ways – unrestrained by any moral code – the Market knows no morality.
Yet the very word ‘credit’ shows us the moral origins of the Market. The word comes from the Latin ‘credo’ – I believe. Free-Market capitalism was based on a substructure of Christian morality – the idea that ‘my word is my bond’. The whole idea of a paper-money system is based on the notion that some bank somewhere will redeem that piece of of paper for goods to its value. Over the centuries the Judaeo-Christian understanding of human dignity, the rule of law, social justice, rights to the ownership of private property, the importance of the family and care for the disadvantaged have shaped our society. As that glue ceases to hold things together, we are testing, to destruction, perhaps, the idea that it is possible to have a society based on no values other than those of the Market – the the results are not reassuring.
We see the same phenomenon elsewhere in our society. Marriage? Once thought of as, if not sacramental, then as a sacred contract, one in which two adults came together in sickness and in health, to pool their talents and to link their fates, and to bring up a family. Unchained from the moral element, we now witness a society in which it becomes a temporary convenience, an excuse for a display of ostentatious wealth (even if it has to be borrowed), and if it ‘goes wrong’ it is all right, the State will pick up the bill for the children – and for any results in terms of what a broken home can do to a child. What matters is me, my personal happiness, my choices; here too, the Market rules.
In the pursuit of profit, business ‘outsources’ – that is it moves its operations to places where wages are lower, so profits can be higher. But what happens to the communities where those jobs used to be? The Market does not care. But Governments ought to. They ought for moral reasons, and they ought for utilitarian reasons. Fewer jobs mean lower tax revenues, higher welfare bills, lower living standards, and political discontent. It is not accidental that many of the communities which voted ‘leave’ in the referendum were those with high levels of unemployment, high welfare bills and low wages; it is hard to feel enthusiastic about a system which not only leaves you at the bottom of the heap, but which seems not to much care about it. But there is, and was, more to it than economics, and to see the referendum result as simply the vote of the economically disadvantaged is to fall for an analysis based on economics rather than identity. Some have said that those poorer sections of the electorate of voted for Brexit were acting irrationally, but that is to profoundly miss the point, which a more recent commentator gets in spades when he writes that: ‘Brexit voters, like Trump supporters, are motivated by identity, not economics.’
We have created a society in which young people find it difficult to afford a home in many parts of the UK, where the age at which people start having families is higher than ever, and where the birth-rate is such that immigration makes sense to provide a (low-paid) work force for the future. The loss of a sense of a common identity, a common morality, of the ties that ought to bind us, is palpable. Mrs May’s first speech as Prime Minister suggests she, or her advisers, may understand some of this, and the rhetoric of our Pope and of the Church suggests they do too. But the question is what follows from this? How do you recreate a sense of moral purpose in a society where the only God is the Market?
There is a long and honourable tradition of Catholic social teaching. It is, perhaps, time for Catholics to pay as much attention to it as they do to our own internal culture war – before it is too late.