Money and Morality
Posted March 27, 2009on:
The shopkeeper’s son comes home from school and asks his father, ‘Father, what is ethics?’ ‘Ethics is like this, my son. A customer comes into the shop and gives you a hundred dollar note; you and he both think it is a ten dollar note and you give him change for ten. Just as he is leaving the shop you see that it is a hundred. Now, this is the question of ethics: do you tell your father or not?’
In my post ‘Blind Oracles’ (6 March 2009) I pointed out that there is a moral undergirding to market exchanges (what Adam Smith and those in his day called ‘civic virtues’)- moral habits of trust, truthfulness, honouring promises, and so on, which are indispensable for the viable functioning of the economy, which should themselves not be undermined by market activity. Dishonest businessmen are parasitical on the basic decency of the rest. Where money-making is the only respected game in town, or where all public conceptions of morality are reduced to ‘self-interest’, the market economy is undermined. Indeed social life itself becomes impossible.
In the three weeks since that post was written, we have witnessed the Bernard Madoff trial; a public outcry in the US over fat bonuses paid to AIG executives (and in the UK, fat pensions to former bank CEOs); the relaxing of Swiss banking privacy under pressure from EU governments pursuing tax dodgers; a credit card scam involving Indian call-centres; and fresh concerns over who is benefitting from the billions of taxpayer dollars poured down the financial black-hole. To change metaphors, this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Last week, my brother-in-law in Copenhagen almost lost his job. He is the manager of the Danish subsidiary of a German company whose profits are counted in billions of euros. He was asked by the parent company to ‘downsize’ by ‘laying off’ two sales managers who were an ‘unjustifiable expense’ (this has become the Orwellian business jargon of recent times). This he did, reluctantly. The company is still making massive profits, but as not as much as last year. When asked a month later to ‘lay off’ two more employee, he refused. He told his superiors that he could not and was willing to resign himself. Not only would he not go against his conscience but he would not jeopardize his marriage, as he would have to work longer hours with fewer people in his team. The execution order has been stayed.
Not many people make the choice my brother-in-law made; nor can they afford to. Should we not protest against an economic order that forces us to choose between saving our marriages and saving our jobs? One of the ways the global capitalist order has been promoted is by hyping its ‘freedom’ when, in fact, it brings new forms of enslavement in its wake. On the one hand we are told that we live in an era of unparalleled freedom of choice. On the other hand, there is a profound sense of resignation to fate. Managers complain that their decisions are controlled by impersonal ‘market forces’. They are compelled to ‘downsize’ or move their operations elsewhere, otherwise they lose out.
The values espoused by capitalism are not optional for people who wish to remain employed. Worldwide, few labourers can choose to work part-time or with flexible hours in the interest of being available to their families. We are forced on to a treadmill of consumption and a 24/7 economy, and the slightest downturn in consumption threatens someone’s (or some country’s) livelihood. Unbridled capitalism demands that we prioritize work over family, greed over generosity, shareholders over neighbours. Like Marxism, this is a fundamentalist religious faith. Anyone who questions these values is persecuted as a dangerous heretic.
In an essay written at the peak of his fame, called ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, the great economist John Maynard Keynes said: ‘When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession- as distinguished from the love of money a means to the enjoyments and realities of life- will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, how distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.’
The Biblical notion of Sabbath was intended to protect men, women and animals from the tyranny of accumulation. It reminds us that our identity comes not from our work but from the God who alone gives meaning to human work. ‘When we work we are most god-like’, observes Eugene Peterson, ‘which means that it is in our work that it is easiest to develop god-pretensions. Un-sabbathed, our work becomes the entire context in which we define our lives. We lose God-consciousness, God-awareness, sightings of resurrection.’
Do we have people courageous and imaginative enough to inject such ‘sightings of resurrection’ into the dismal world of economics?