The love of money is the root of all evil. Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, 6 v10
Paul may be overstating the matter, but not by much. Over the last thirty years or so, we in
have run a dangerous experiment which has confirmed once again that Paul was right. During the experiment, we came to think that ‘resources’ meant money, when really it means people and their energy and creativity and insight, plus the bounty of the earth. It therefore became acceptable to waste people by letting them be unemployed and to waste the bounty of the earth by avoidably damaging the environment – all provided we were saving money by doing so. We came to rely on the financial services ‘industry’ for a large chunk of our national income, while we ran down manufacturing industry and outsourced services off-shore. The financial crisis of 2008 alerted us to some of the dangers of doing this: the Government – we – had to bail out banks that were ‘too big to fail’, and we are now embarked on years of austerity to repay what we borrowed in order to do so. But to say that is to state only the money side of the matter, and it was by considering only the money side of things that we got into trouble in the first place. The love of money is the root of a great deal more evil than just most of us finishing up being a bit poorer. A society that in practice extols money above all else is corrupting itself, and that corruption will have all sorts of unexpected and unwanted effects. Britain
The experiment involved people in the financial services ‘industry’ threatening to leave the country if we didn’t pay them vastly inflated salaries and bonuses. As a society we bowed to this blackmail, telling ourselves we must pay up because that’s how we would get what we called ‘the best people’ to run the financial services our economy increasingly depended on. There was something not only distasteful about this but also very foolish. In the first place, we learned once again that, as Kipling put it, once you have paid the Danegeld you will never get rid of the Dane: he keeps coming back for more. Employing greedy people to run financial services is about as sensible as employing paedophiles to run children’s homes: of course they will abuse their position to satisfy their lusts. Why ever would we have expected anything else?
But the idea that the services of ‘the best people’ were to be obtained only by paying them huge sums of money was deeply corrupting. It told young people that it was money, and in the end only money, that really motivates people. This isn’t true of course, but how do you encourage a young person in a vocation to be a teacher, say, if society says that to take such a job is to admit that you are not one of ‘the best people’? And speaking of teachers, it was strange indeed that although we believed that ‘the best people’ could only be bought with huge salaries, and we said that we wanted ‘the best people’ to be teachers, we didn’t follow the logic of this by increasing teachers’ pay in line with City rewards. It wasn’t only the young who were corrupted. Older people were encouraged to regard volunteering as a mugs’ game. A society that had come to value those services that it paid obscene amounts to buy was hardly likely to encourage the voluntary efforts of Brown Owl, the special constable, and the rest of the army of truly ‘best people’ who make society work.
Our national reliance on the financial services ‘industry’ went hand-in-hand with its growth. We wanted lots of big financial institutions in the City, and those financial institutions were paying more and more to those they self-regardingly said were ‘the best people’. Instead of there being a few City fat-cats whose relatively low level greed could be quietly ignored, we had increasing numbers of increasingly rich people parading their wealth increasingly ostentatiously. This enabled well-qualified people who could conceivably have got City jobs to argue that if non-financial businesses or the public services wanted them, they would have to pay – not as much as the City but – relatively more than those in similar jobs used to be paid. Thus the malign influence of City rewards spread over the whole employment scene. The result was that, over the same thirty years, income inequalities inexorably rose. The average pay differential between the boss of a medium size company and the company’s lowest paid employee is many times greater than it was thirty years ago. This matters partly because increasing inequality is hardly to be seen as a good thing in society. But even more importantly there is hard evidence that where income inequality is great and growing, all kinds of other social evils come along as well. We may not understand exactly why it is that teenage pregnancy and violent crime, among other undesirable things, tend to rise with income inequality, but they do, as our experience over the last thirty years bears out. And the income inequalities had another malign effect: they drove house prices out of the reach of many young people. It’s not much use tackling such symptoms of corruption if we don’t tackle what we know to be its cause.
Nor is it really enough to ask our society to simply stop loving money, because if money is not to be the driving force of our system, what is? Jesus observed that a choice has to be made between what he called God and Mammon. In choosing Mammon, we have self-evidently made the wrong choice, but if our notion of what ‘God’ means has been hollowed out and prevented from updating itself, we have nothing to put in its place. That’s why the mess we’re in is a spiritual mess, and, sadly, by insisting on an outdated notion of the divine, our traditional spiritual guides have offered us a choice between a notion of God that most people don’t and can’t wholeheartedly accept and a Mammon that offers us all we could wish for but, once we are hooked on it, delivers much that we don’t. Traditional religion won’t get us out of the mess we’re in, even if there are within it some of the understandings we need for our spiritual and social renewal. That doesn’t mean there’s no escape; but it does suggests that in finding that escape faith will be more helpful than religion.