REBUILDING THE CHRISTIAN MIND: Economics and Debt
Tom Chester concludes that in a world that is God's the market cannot be King
WHEN THE Berlin Wall came down it was not just politics that began to look very different. The economic landscape has radically shifted too. Around the world central planning has made way for market reforms. Ideological struggles are replaced by politicians promising better management. Yet even politicians' power to manage is slipping away to the markets. Not only did the recent attack on currency dealers by the Malaysian Prime Minister sound like Canute defying the tide, it made the sea more stormy.
But it is not only politicians who are having to find their bearings in the new economic landscape. Christian thinking is having to wake up to a new economic scenario. Those whose economic priorities are driven by a biblical concern for justice for the poor are having to adjust to the hegemony of the market.
There is an increasing recognition, sometimes grudgingly conceded, that a market-centred approach offers the best hope for the poor. Market reforms and export expansion have proved more effective at producing economic growth and increased wealth and wages. The poor in the so-called Asian tigers are significantly better off after years of a combination of market reforms and government intervention. Not only do market reforms encourage economic growth, in many cases they allow the poor to break free from corrupt state structures.
So do Christians simply accept the dominance of the market? Is this, as Francis Fukuyama suggests, the end of history, at least of economic history? Is there nothing else to be said? The answer is clearly, No.
First, the market is haunted by the spectre of materialism and consumerism. Unchecked market expansion undermines moral values, local cultures and social ties. The market values only that to which it can attach a price. Yet relationships, love, God's creation - these things are quite literally priceless.
Advertising sells us a false dream, the dream of happiness and contentment through consumer purchases. If I can just have that holiday, that car, that salary rise, that packet of breakfast cereal, then my life will be complete. Contentment is just around the corner. But, says Jesus, a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.
The market is a good servant, but we must not let it be our master. Should we employ a childminder simply because it makes economic sense for both parents to work? Can we argue for arms exports on the basis that if we don't export them others will? Or is it idolatrous to meet the needs of the market simply because that market exists, regardless of ethical constraints? The market was made for man, not man for the market.
Second, most of the world's poor are excluded from the benefits the market brings. They lack the capital - whether land, finance or education - required to take up the opportunities afforded by the market. The market offers no corrective for this and often increases these inequalities. Government intervention remains important. Indeed the success of the Asian tigers has been built on market reforms and government intervention.
What's more, in a market-dominated world economic exclusion goes hand in hand with political exclusion. Concentrated wealth creates concentrated power, whether it is multinationals by-passing regulations or media moguls controlling our culture or Western governments dominating trade. These centres of wealth not only threaten democracy, but have the potential to exploit the poor in ways unimagined by the prophets of the Old Testament.
The market offers hope for the poor, but only if we allow them the opportunities to take part - access to capital and education in a context free from exploitation. Nothing typifies these missed opportunities like the problem of Third World debt. Seen by many as a remote economic problem, it is in reality a profoundly moral issue, as the following story demonstrates.
A doctor saw a woman with her two boys. One was thirteen years old, the other three; both were ill. The diagnosis was simple and the prescription straightforward. Some time later he saw the mother again and asked after the children. The older child was doing well, but the younger was dead. Unable to afford treatment for both children, she had made an impossibly painful choice. The oldest received the medicine, the youngest she had to watch die.
This true story for Zambia highlights the devastating impact of Third World debt. For 27 years Zambians had free health and education. Now they must pay and it is too much for the poor. Zambia has to pay far more in debt repayments than it spends on health and education. Most of the aid Zambia receives from the West returns immediately in debt repayments. And Zambia is not alone.
On Monday 13 October the Jubilee 2000 Debt Coalition was launched in the Houses of Parliament. The principle of Jubilee, central to the law of Moses, was designed to protect the poor and the livelihood of families. Lending to those in need was commended, but in the year of Jubilee loans were to be cancelled (Deuteronomy 15). It was a way of ensuring that people were not kept in the slavery of debt forever. It meant that people had the opportunity to begin again.
At the start of his ministry Jesus proclaimed the year of the Lord's favour, a reference to the Jubilee year. Jesus frees us from the slavery of sin, cancelling the unpayable debt we owe to God. But Jesus also expects those who have received mercy to show mercy.
Jubilee 2000 is calling for a one-off cancellation of unpayable debts owed by the poorest countries of the world. It would not encourage profligacy because it would be a unique act, timed to coincide with a new millennium. It would not solve all the problems of the Third World, but it would represent a great opportunity for the poor of the world.
In the last century Christians like William Wilberforce were in the forefront of the long campaign against slavery. Now it is time for Christians to lead the campaign against the slavery of international debt.
Tim Chester is Research and Policy Director of Tear
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