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Money has changed – that’s the issue

Markets and moral limits.

Photograph: Getty Images

Peter Selby responds to Nelson Jones's article Money and Morality.

When the St Paul’s Institute, working with JustShare, Penguin Books and the LSE, brought nearly 2000 people into St Paul’s for a public debate on the theme of Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits to Markets (see Nelson Jones, NS 25 May) it was because we knew the theme touched a nerve, not because we have an answer to peddle. The Institute has been engaged for some years, as an agency of the Cathedral, in seeking to get into debate with the financial institutions which are its ‘parish’; as such we could hardly think Sandel’s book unimportant, and we were delighted so many others thought the same.

That’s not the same as signing up to his thesis about the moral corrosion brought about by the intrusion of the market into all sorts of spheres to which it is not appropriate. Certainly we are signed up to the desire to get people thinking hard about which are the things that should be for sale and which should not be and, as Rowan Williams says in his review of What Money Can’t Buy, to do so on the basis of rational reflection rather than relying in feelings of revulsion when we see certain things getting a price.

Nelson Jones in his NS piece wonders whether things have deteriorated from some golden age when money didn’t play the part it now does, and points to many areas where things were much more monetised in the past than they are now. Tellingly, if slightly optimistically, he says we no longer sell people, and however bad the euro crisis gets we still won’t be doing that. There are examples he cites in the ancient world that are at least as unpleasant to think about as some of the examples Sandel gives of the intrusion of market thinking.

In my comments in the debate I voiced my own reservations about Sandel’s thinking, so much of which seems to me to address symptoms without digging deeper into causes. When he gives the example of prisoners being able to buy a cell upgrade, and when Nelson Jones points out that that has historical precedent, the deeper issue is not being faced by either of them: the selling off of incarceration as a business is common policy in the USA as it is increasingly in Britain. In the process of creating that market a financial interest is being created in locking people up. That can’t be unconnected with the fact that we in Britain lock up more people than other European countries and that a quarter of the rising number of prisoners in the world – and a third of all incarcerated women in the world, whose number has increased by a sixth in five years – are in the USA.

The figures that became a matter of public scandal during the Jubilee 2000 campaign for the relief of unrepayable third world debt showed all too clearly that the escalating power fo financial debt was depriving children worldwide of education, healthcare and life itself. The situation is infinitely worse than either Sandel or Jones portrays: the issue is not the buying and selling of things that should, or should not, be free, or whether people value things they pay for more than things they receive for nothing; in the end it is not about getting people to think more clearly than they do about whether markets should have moral limits though all these questions are important. What really matters is that in everything from the depletion of the planet’s resources to the requirement on Greek citizens to sell their democratic birthright to have their debts rescheduled money is deciding matters of life and death, and doing so more and more.

That’s why as a Christian and a theologian I am convinced money has acquired all the characteristics of an idol, aggrandising its power and claiming more and more of people’s lives. And that’s why, because of faith’s commitment to raise fundamental questions about anything that has the potential to be an idol, the St Paul’s Institute will go on engaging that debate at an ever more fundamental level. When it recently commissioned a report on the attitudes of those working in the financial sector (see Value and Values) we learned that most did not think the City should listen more to the Church’s guidance. But we now know, since the Sandel debate came to St Paul’s, that many people do want to know whether pressing economic questions have something to say about the meaning of life and whether those who profess faith are prepared to get involved in relating that faith to those questions.

Because, make no mistake, money did not acquire this power by accident. The last four decades, roughly since the massive oil price rises of the early 1970s, have seen vast increases in the amount of money in circulation, and technological advance has multiplied its speed of circulation. In the absence of means of regulating that the dominant policy has been one of deregulation, allowing the power of money to grow with its quantity. The results are not just the life and death issues I have described, but a situation in which all of us, rich or poor, are compelled to worry more and more about money and think more and more about it.

The issues of monetary reform, dismissed even by the independent commission on banking and widely ignored, are ones we need to press: just as ‘home ownership’ is a euphemism for housing debt, so ‘fractional reserve’ is now a synonym for debt multiplication: is one of the questions we need to ask about the post-2008 crisis whether the system on which we have relied for money creation for nearly a century fraught with inherent instability? I ask the question not because the Institute has a recipe or a policy to commend, but because it is our passion as a community of faith to ensure that these questions are honestly faced. The Sandel debate, and the Jones response are just a start.

Peter Selby is one of the interim directors of the St Paul’s Institute, and author of Grace and Mortgage: the Language of Faith and the Debt of the World. He was until retirement Bishop of Worcester, and Bishop to HM Prisons.