Morality is back on the economic agenda



It is a welcome change to see budgets spoken of in moral terms: usually economics is considered a morality-free zone. The government recently insisted on a moral responsibility to future generations to fix the deficit.

Maclolm Turnull and Scott Morrison on Sky NewsAnd in a press release the Australian Catholic bishops welcomed on moral grounds the compromise that saw dropped from the budget measures which would further disadvantage vulnerable people. The difference between the two conceptions of morality was that the government's argument was focused on the budget, whereas the bishops' argument focused on particular groups of people.

The bishops focused on fairness. They insisted that 'budget repair should be achieved without unfairly placing the burden on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society'.

In giving priority to fairness they argued that the economy should serve people and not control them. They worked out of the Catholic understanding that the relationships between people which constitute the economy are only part of a broader set of relationships that form a good and just society. The economy must serve the flourishing of all people, particularly the most vulnerable.

The bishops recognised that this view of the economy is not universally held: 'Australia is in danger of allowing the economy to become a kind of false god to which even human beings have to be sacrificed.'

The indication that all is not well in any society is the way in which it treats the poor. In Australia the fact that almost 14 per cent of Australians, including 600,000 children, live beneath the poverty suggests the extent of the sacrifice already made to the economy god.

The bishops concluded their press release with a commitment 'to continue to address the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor'.

The press release does not break new ground. Its themes are those developed over more than a century of Catholic social reflection, although expressed with some of the pungent urgency characteristic of Pope Francis. Its interest lies in the fact that it no longer represents a fringe view. It represents a growing consensus about received economic wisdom.


"The bishops were right to welcome the negotiation between the major parties that modified some of the humanly destructive elements of the budget package. But that was only a beginning."


Neo-liberal economic theory may still rule in academia and in the public service, just as it is enshrined in the Coalition's mantras of jobs and growth. But it is increasingly seen by others as hollow and as self-destructive. It encourages greed and predictably concentrates wealth in the hands of the already very wealthy, increases inequality, weakens the capacity of governments to govern for the common good, and ultimately stymies the economic growth that is its own idol. The popular disillusion that it fosters, too, makes for fractious politics in which the trust needed in order to take strong economic measures, whether for good or for bad, is lacking.

In this predicament governments are reluctantly realising that politics must drive economics and not vice versa. It is no longer sufficient to define the national welfare in terms of economic growth, whether that is encapsulated in slogans of innovation, or of jobs and growth. These abstractions must be means to social goals so that economic freedom will be coupled to the carriage of the common good. The challenge facing governments now is to foster a conversation about what kind of a society we wish economic relationships to serve, and how to realise that society.

From this perspective the bishops were right to welcome the negotiation between the major parties that modified some of the humanly destructive elements of the budget package. But that was only a beginning. The conversation needs to be broader, extending to the challenges of the movement of peoples, climate change and the conditions that will encourage social inclusion in the face of technological change.

This larger conversation will necessarily involve an ethical dimension. It is about shaping the kind of society that is conducive to human flourishing. The primacy of politics, and so of ethics, will also mean returning to an older understanding of economics. Because the relationships that constitute the economy are so critical in the shaping of society, economics will also need again to be seen as part of moral philosophy.

This has practical consequences. The reviews into banks, big business, the financial industry, taxation and mining, for instance, will naturally focus on how these institutions serve society as well as their shareholders, and will place them under ethical as well as legal scrutiny. The same scrutiny will also be applied to the practices of tax minimisation, patenting and corporate behaviour involved in globalisation. The practices of multinational corporations and economic treaties will need to respect the welfare of the host society, and particularly of the disadvantaged.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, budget, economy, social inclusion



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Existing comments

Its hard to digest morality when its suddenly driven by dark suited Canberra Spivs who cant get off their asses long enough to realize that their tenure depends on them making the economy work for once. The class struggle aside, the Liberal encumbents overiding duty is to create jobs. Brexit for example should provide a huge opportunity for Australia to get back into apple production and export of frozen lamb, beef, fish dairy products to the UK. What Canberra needs as a matter of urgency is a National thinktank on job creation. As for morality, shove the topic back on the bishops laps. Theyve droned on about it for years and sent us to sleep in the pews with their boring nonsense. Marx was absolutely right when he said religion was the opium of the masses.

francis Armstrong | 21 September 2016  

Thank you Andrew for this call to foster the fledgling conversation about the role of the budget as being a tool which is to be applied in the furtherance of the common good. Almost every item in the budget,from $50 billion for submarines to $6 cuts in income tax on above average earnings, warrants examination in the light of social justice teaching. That teaching has unfortunately been so commonly and accurately described as being the best kept secret of the an associated context Pope Francis has observed that 'purchasing is always a moral—and not simply an economic—act.' The economic writers in The Age are not infrequently adverting to the association between ethics and economics. Hopefully Christian spokespersons will do likewise.

John Hassett | 21 September 2016  

At long last. I hope the bishops now make an effort to ensure that their message goes to every parish for promulgation to the faithful, and then to the rest of the community, difficult as it may be to achieve this. This will demonstrate the relevance of the church to our daily life.

Brian Wright | 22 September 2016  

The idea that people should look after each other and that there should be work and sufficiency for all (ie socialism) was not invented by Marx. He was, of course, a great promoter of socialist thought and the dictum "from each according to his ability to each according to his needs". What many do not realise is that this saying actually came from the New Testament describing the communal way of life of early Christians. Acts 4:32–35: 32 And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. 33 And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. 34 Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, 35 And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. Not all religious teaching is the opiate of the people!

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 22 November 2016  

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