This On Rock Or Sand book will be a bit of a disappointment


I'll not argue theology with the Archbishop of York, coming originally as I do from the tran- not con-substantiation side of the argument. But when said Archbish strays over into Adam Smith and economics I'm afraid that it really is incumbent upon both I and us to point out to him the errors of his ways. There's to be a new book out, On Rock Or Sand, telling us all what's wrong with our country. And as far as theology goes well, theologians sound like the right sort of people to be telling us all about it. However, it would be helpful if, when those same theologians decide to tell us about economics, they have some clue as to the basics of the subject. This illustrates the problem nicely:

The book characterises the welfare state as the embodiment of the Christian command to “love thy neighbour” and warns that people should not rely on what the founding father of free-market capitalism Adam Smith called the “invisible hand” of the market to create a fair society.

Smith never said anything so drivellingly stupid. The one reference in Wealth of Nations to "invisible hand" is during a discussion of the general propensity to invest capital at home rather than abroad. The modern day usefulness of this being that, even in a world of perfect theoretical capital mobility, some incidence of a corporate profits tax will always fall on shareholders. This is something that is useful to know but it's going to be a very minor footnote in the recipe for a just society.

Which is why, of course, Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments are such agonisingly long books. For they're largely an exploration of when markets cannot be left safely to handle the creation of a just and or efficient society. Which is something we would hope someone desiring to comment upon them would know.

For example:

Dr Sentamu adds that a post-war vision through which the welfare state and NHS developed has “given way to an individualist and consumerist vision, with public goods such as health … and education … increasingly becoming privatised, where society has become a market society, with everything going to the highest bidder and the poor being left behind in the unceasing drive to increase the nation’s Gross Domestic Product.”

Smith discusses the very point of non-market access to education. And backs it, at least at the basic level. On the grounds (not that the phrase existed then) that being part of a generally literate and numerate society was indeed a public good. And we can go on, using the same logical structure, and argue that much of traditional public health is similarly a public good. Sewage, drains, the control of infectious diseases, the effects of vaccination, yes, these are indeed public goods. But the treatment of your or my cancer might well be good for the public, good public policy, publicly good even, but it's not a public good. As your or my university degrees are not a public good.

What really annoys is that Christian churchmen will be the first to agree that thousands of very bright people have chewed over the intricacies of theological debate for millennia. Even, that as a result some truths have been uncovered. And yet when it comes to economics they're unwilling to similarly agree that some thousands of very bright people have chewed over the subject for some centuries now and have uncovered some truths. Or if they are willing to accept that in theory they've apparently not bothered to find out what those truths are.

I've no idea as to whether tran- or con-substantiation is actually correct. And I'm also not all that interested to be frank about it. But I would make the effort to understand it all before pronouncing upon the matter. We'd all rather wish the Archbishop would make the same effort when he steps outside his own specialist knowledge base, eh?