Tim Montgomerie, editor of the ConservativeHome blog, wrote an interesting column in the Guardian recently. He took up a theme that was running in the media all last week – can capitalism have a human face? Is there a possibility of businesses being moral and ethical, and run by people who have high levels of what 3Di calls spiritual and social intelligence?
Capitalism is amoral – we’re our own worst enemy
Why do protesters blame all of our ills on capitalism?
I’m not defending the financial sector. Greedy banks hid toxic debts in increasingly ingenious financial vehicles that fooled every auditor, every regulator and every ratings agency until it was too late. But who was really fooling who?
Capitalism is not immoral but amoral. It does what its users demand of it. It has given us a choice of food, travel and technology that kings could only dream of. It will invent whatever instruments governments and consumers want, and if not given limits, its inventiveness knows few bounds.
These limits come from two sources: politicians and culture. And ultimately, it’s the culture that counts. The Catholic theologian Michael Novak said every nation has an economy, a democratic government and a moral culture sphere – what David Cameron calls the “big society”. It’s the family, the church, the charity, the local school, the trade union – the parts of life not controlled by commerce or government – and it has shrivelled in the west. We have entered a vicious cycle where both government and capitalism have eaten into the culture’s ability to be a countervailing and moderating force.
Liberal capitalism requires social conservatism. It needs the virtue-generating institutions or there’ll be no thrift, no duty, no honesty, no Protestant work ethic.
Civilisation is a project that starts anew with every generation, else we’re all on the road to the Lord of the Flies. It has traditionally been the work of the family, church, synagogue or mosque, but in an era when families are weaker and places of worship are in decline, there are big questions as to who will discourage people from getting into impossible debt in order to buy things that can’t give them happiness. Who or what will ensure we produce adult citizens who keep their word or don’t steal when no regulator, policeman or CCTV camera is present?
We need to tax unearned wealth more and wealth creation less. Big companies should feel greater obligation to employ local labour.
But arguments about the integrity of capitalism are, in the end, just diversions from the underlying weakness of our time. How do we put moral limits on big business, big government and the people who operate them? More pertinently, how do we put limits on ourselves?
Mr Montgomerie asks exactly the right questions. Hopefully more and more of us are concerned to find the answers.
If more of us are prepared to try the Clinton approach (see previous blog: Jenni Russell) and not pretend we already know the answers then progress can be made. We should all be on this journey together – listening, debating and learning.