Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Launch of On Rock or Sand - the well-ordered society?

Launch Panel (alas my only shot!)
To the launch of On Rock or Sand at Church House which was very interesting and impressive. John Sentamu gave an excellent speech and then four of the contributors spoke on the panel: Justin Welby, Andrew Sentance, Julia Unwin and Ruth Fox.  The key points they made that I noted down:

Archbishop John:
  • Anyone who suggests that the book is an attack on the government or is party political is completely wrong, and missing the point.
  • The financial collapse happened because people borrowed money they didn't have to buy things they didn't need.
  • The consumer society is a mechanism for creating and distributing unhappiness.
  • We should move away from talking about "benefits" to talking about "social insurance".
  • The focus should be on wellbeing not the "Welfare State"
Andrew Sentance: There are plenty of policy suggestions in the report, it's not just handwaving. He instanced three from his section:
  • Focus on sustainable growth.
  • Shared prosperity. In particular the tax system should be redesigned.
  • Responsible business. Not just regulation but through climate of opinion and investor pressure.
Julia Unwin said that "no one has ever got out of poverty except through their own efforts" (!) and the focus should be on supporting them to do so.

Ruth Fox thought there needed to be more thoughtful engagement with politics. She spoke of "less democracy and more accountability" but I don't think she has taken on board Amartya Sen's point that democracy isn't primarily about voting but about public discussion.

Justin
  • began by saying that he had been at a meeting with Jean Vanier the founder of L'Arche who said that "living with the weak transforms the strong and helps them be more human."  By actually helping people who are less fortunate (not just handing them money) we are made better people and society is improved.
  • He called for a People Centred Economy not Economy Centred People.
  • He spoke of the dangers of democracy being subverted by a Vetocracy where powerful versted interests can block change that is not in their narrow interest (thinking particularly of powerful donors in the US but the point is much wider).
I haven't read the whole book yet. But there is one clear mistake. In the foreword Archbishop John says we need to focus on 4 principles:
  1. that all human beings are of equal worth in God's sight.
  2. that both children and adults will flourish only in the context of a well-ordered society, and a society is well-ordered only if it offers all its members ways of flourishing.
  3. that flourishing requires both a measure of security in the face of typical human needs, and a measure of openness to individual creativity and initiative.
  4. that work is not merely a means to secure what we need to consume, but a form of communication with other people which dignifies us as individuals and draws us together in community.
Now 1, 3 and 4 are fine. But 2 seems to me to be profoundly mistaken. By God's grace people can flourish in societies that are very far indeed from being well-ordered (whatever that really means) - no-one could claim the 1st Century Palestine was "well-ordered" in an absolute sense. The idea that we should be working towards some kind of ideal society as a primary goal is, as Amartya Sen has pointed out, fundamentally misconceived.  Of course we should other things being equal try to make society better but it will never be ideal, and it is dangerous to assume that it can be.

So on balance an excellent initiative and a very interesting book, which should be the beginning of a process and not the end.

I also had the great pleasure of meeting Betty Boothroyd - a great lady!

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