Saturday, 13 February 2010

John Milbank on the economic crisis

In December, Luke Bretherton organised a conference on the church's response to the economic recession. This is part of a wider – and much needed – initiative, to mobilise the churches in an anti-usury campaign. (Incidentally, since entire Christian denominations are driven by a commitment to usury, we can hardly become a credible witness until we get our own house in order. Whether the churches worship God or Mammon is still very much an open question.)

At the conference, John Milbank's address was entitled "The Moral Market is a Freer Market". It's a very lucid analysis of the economic crisis – especially the "crisis of abstraction" – and of the way Christian theology can shape economic thinking. Here's an excerpt:

"The point about talking about a culture of trust is not some kind of moralistic wishful thinking; the point about a culture of trust is actually that an entrepreneurial culture needs trust. Even if you believe in the free market, it turns out that the model of individualist utilitarianism that goes all the way back to Adam Smith is actually the wrong model. Itʼs the wrong model for the free market itself because if you have endless checking up on people, if you donʼt have trust, that actually inhibits initiative, risk and creativity. This is why the Italian economist Stefanos Zamagni is saying we need to return to the principles of Italian political economy, not Scottish political economy, because the Italian political economists from the 18th century onwards saw sympathy as part of contract itself, not as standing outside contract.

"In the end Adam Smith subordinates sympathy to self-interest and he says that if your butcherʼs selling you meat heʼs not doing it out of the goodness of his heart. But this is untrue. In fact people do enter into economic relationships at the local level for social reasons, for personal reasons, and Zamagni argues in a really powerful way that the more we have relatively informal contracts between people, the more itʼs based on trust, the less you need the intervention of state law on the one hand, or of inner control by firms on the other hand. So this is a different way of thinking about the free market. The market would actually be freer if it was a moral market....

One of our legacies in the West is the division between self-interest on the one hand and altruism on the other. But altruism is not a Christian term. It was invented by the atheist Auguste Comte. Charity is always reciprocal, charity is never a one-way gift, itʼs always a matter of give and take. If it has sometimes to be a one-way gift thatʼs in exceptional circumstance, because the point of charity is mutual bonding."
You can download the full transcript of Milbank's address from the Faith and Public Policy Forum.

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