Remarkable what you can learn from bishops these days


The Anglican bishops have decided to tell us all something about how to achieve the good life. Amazing what you can learn from bishops these days really:

Adam Smith, the father of market economics, understood that, without a degree of shared morality which it neither creates nor sustains, the market is not protected against its in-built tendency to generate cartels and monopolies which undermine the principles of the market itself.

No, not really. Smith thought the market would do just fine. But that there will always be attempts to use the law and regulation in order to privilege certain producers into those cartels and monopolies. It was actually Karl Marx who insisted that markets inevitably led to monopolies, Smith who pointed out that not messing with markets with regulation was an aid to preventing monopolies.

But we are also a society of strangers in a more worrying sense. Consumption, rather than production, has come to define us, and individualism has tended to estrange people from one another. So has an excessive emphasis on competition regarded as a sort of social Darwinism. (This is a perverse consequence of allowing market rhetoric to creep into social policy. For an economist, competition is not the opposite of cooperation but of monopoly).

Yet that is extremely perceptive. We might go further (as we do) and argue that competition is actually how you decide to cooperate with, the first being the precursor to the second. The supplier to the steel mill is, after all, cooperating with the steel mill in being a supplier.

One important principle here is the idea of subsidiarity – the principle that decisions should be devolved to the lowest level consistent with effectiveness. Subsidiarity derives from Catholic social teaching, and it is a good principle for challenging the accumulation of power in fewer and fewer hands. It does not mean that everything must be devolved to the most local level. Nor is it about handing small matters downward whilst retaining all meaningful authority in the hands of the powerful.

We would most certainly support that. We might insist that rather more things can and should be done at rather lower levels than some others but we're absolutely fine with the general principle.

As an example, “post code lottery” has become a term of disparagement for local variations in public services. But that implies that a single standard, determined and enforced nationally, is the only way to order every aspect of public life. It is certainly true that many services should be available as equally as possible to every citizen. But it is also true that different communities have different needs and may choose different priorities. If people feel part of the decision-making processes that affect their lives, there is no reason why, in many aspects of social policy, local diversity should not flourish.

Quite, who wants a monolithic drabness to the nation?

The desire for neatness, as much as the desire for control, is characteristic of how politicians tend to think – especially those in government or contemplating office. They are often backed up by bureaucracies which are allergic to messiness. But human life and creativity are inherently messy and rebel against the uniformity that accompanies systemic constraints and universal solutions.

By now we're rather wondering whether there hasn't been a revolution in the Anglican Church. Perhaps an influx of Austrians?

Whether on the political right or the political left, it is a long time since there has been a coherent policy programme which made a virtue of dispersing power and control as widely across the population as possible.

We have been chanting that lonely hymn for some time now.....

This document is much more interesting than the predictable ways that the various newspapers have been covering it. interesting in the sense of being something of a curate's egg: parts of it are excellent.