Capitalism for the Kingdom?
Redefining Next Generation Economics
On November 7 Faith in Business hosted a seminar at Ridley on Capitalism for the Kingdom. Taking as its starting point Eve Poole's book Capitalism's Toxic Assumptions, the day was an opportunity for business people, policy makers, and ordinands to discuss how to redeem capitalism. Over 30 people attended.
Dr Poole was joined by three learned interlocutors, Sir Roger Gifford, Country Head of Nordic bank SEB (past Lord Mayor of London); Dr Esther Reed, Associate Professor of Theological Ethics, at the University of Exeter, and Director of the Network for Religion in Public Life; and Dr Michael Hodson, industrial economist and lecturer in social enterprise. The seminar was chaired by Richard Higginson.
Eve’s book starts from the premise that market capitalism depends on seven big ideas; competition, the ‘invisible hand’, utility, agency theory, market pricing. shareholder value, and limited liability. Eve believes these assumptions have served capitalism well in the past, but over the years they have become toxic, and need to be balanced or corrected by other ideas. Eve argued her thesis in an engaging and entertaining way, with props ranging from a CCTV camera and a wizard marionette to a toy Santa Claus and a fish oven glove.
After Q&A, Esther Reed responded to the chapter on utility, giving this a much more thorough survey than is customary among Christian ethicists. She identified three particular contributions they can make to the debate on utility. The first is about protecting the inalienability of certain ends as objective goods in their own right. The UN Sustainable Development Goals are a good example of this kind of baseline thinking. Second, business ethics should be teleologically grounded, that is, directed towards the destiny of all creation in Christ, rather than being essentially and restlessly relative. Thirdly, Esther coined the term 'homo solidarius' to describe our ontology as Christians in the marketplace. Our function should not just be to maximise our own utility, but to improve the lot of the whole of God's creation, which necessitates a bias to the poor - and to the planet – because an unfettered market will tend to overlook them.
Michael Hodson then talked about defining capitalism as the ownership of the means of production, and championed the explanatory power of the notion of the Invisible Hand. He reminded us that government's role was to intervene whenever there was an instance of market failure, and that to separate discussion of economic models and morality was a false dichotomy – in fact the most toxic assumption. God’s purpose for the economy is ultimately about the delivery of his Kingdom. So a key question for Christians should be business design, and he pointed to some encouraging examples of this in social enterprises.
Roger Gifford drew on his experiences as a career banker and as former Lord Mayor to reflect on the vital importance of governance and self-regulation. He noted that if markets were about the survival of the fittest, then Christians ought to be concerned with those who fail or fall away. Creative destruction – to cite Schumpeter - sounds exciting, but it comes with a human cost. He also reflected on time. Do we have time? Do we 'do' time? What is 'overtime'? For him, time is the Invisible Hand, correcting the market in its wake. So we should dwell on 'time' as something that is theologically salient. He felt major lessons had been learnt from the financial crisis of 2006-8, and are being implemented; some of the audience were less sanguine about this.
The day ended with a panel discussion and general debate on how and to what extent the market was redeemable. Several additional toxic assumptions were identified, in particular the assumption that growth is inevitable and good, because this leads businesses into the territory of greed and jeopardises the health of the planet. Eve’s conviction remains that quiet action by consumers, investors, employees and employers can add up to the big changes we urgently need, by shifting behaviours and adjusting the way financial ‘votes’ are cast in the market.
Reflecting on the day at a concert that evening, Eve was haunted by the words from the psalmist sung by the choir: how can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? Days such as this one at Ridley open our eyes to where we might do so.