Bishop David Urquhart

The Birmingham Post carries an article by David Urquhart, Bishop of Birmingham, It is easy to agree poverty must end but the question is what do we do? To my mind the key paragraph was this one:

Despite the complexity of the issues I think there are steps that the seventh richest nation in the world can take to help redistribute some of our resources and ensure we care for the most marginalised in our communities. An obvious start would be a higher minimum wage, or the living wage, which has been adopted by many organisations and helps to ensure people do not have to take on several jobs to make ends meet or supplement their income with benefits and food-parcels.

Well yes, at least this. But why has a rich country like the UK ended up with such acute poverty, while the richest get richer at a phenomenal rate?

The answer, we have been taught, lies with economics. I am not an economist, but economic theories like other theories depend on assumptions from somewhere else. Where else? Our presuppositions. Or philosophies. Or worldviews. Or paradigms. Choose a word you don’t understand, because it is our lack of understanding that produces the contradictions and absurdities.

In general terms, every economic theory depends on a theory about the way things are and the purpose of human life. Here, as I see them, are the main contenders for that underlying theory, greatly simplified to draw out the main issues. I begin with the one I believe in.

  1. We have been created by a god who has designed our environment to meet everyone’s needs. The economic imperative is to make sure everyone has enough for the kind of life God intends for us. So when people are driven to extreme shortages the provisions are being misused and the purpose of life is not being achieved. The wealth should be redistributed.
  2. We have been created by gods who do not care, or only care about a few things. Aristotle and the ancient Epicureans believed the gods created us but leave us to our own devices. Others in their day believed we have an obligation to burn sacrifices and maintain temples, but otherwise are free to do what we want. In this case the imperative is achieved as long as the sacrifices are burnt and the temples maintained. Provided these actions are performed it doesn’t matter if some people starve to death.
  3. We have not been created by any gods at all. In this case there are no economic imperatives imposed upon us; indeed, no imperatives at all, as there are no minds competent to transcend the judgements of human minds. In the absence of any such purpose or imperative, if our lives are to have any purpose at all we shall have to create our own.

Given these three theories, let us now ask which of them provides the presuppositions for modern capitalist governments. At first sight the answer is the third. Beliefs in gods are set to one side as private choices for individuals; public life with its governments and economic processes must proceed without reference to any religious beliefs. Overwhelmingly, our public political and economic discourse is of this type.

But not entirely so. Central to the policies of all modern capitalist governments is an economic imperative. We must maximise economic growth. We must compete against ‘our competitors’. It is these imperatives which stop governments redistributing wealth so that everybody’s needs are met.

Yet of the three theories, the third has no basis for any imperative at all. According to the third, it is up to us to decide what purpose to give to our economic practices. Who are the ‘us’ who decided to prioritise economic growth and competition?

The answer, of course, is the ruling classes. Almost invariably, when societies omit God from their public discourse they end up turning their ruling classes into gods. It is pretty inevitable. If there is no public recognition of a divine imperative, some group will seize the opportunity to fill the vacuum with an imperative that suits their self-interest. When they succeed they become the ruling classes. Their values become the public values of the whole society, the highest authority beyond which there is no appeal.

In effect our ruling classes use the rhetoric of the third theory while importing the notion of an imperative from the other theories. The actual content of the imperative is pure self-interest on their part, whether they know it or not.

Because I believe in the first of the theories, I think there is an imperative to redistribute wealth so that everyone has enough and nobody has too much. Economists may debate what the practical effect would be, and some effects may damage some economic objectives; but in my view, no economic objective justifies the extremes of poverty which have recently been introduced in the UK.