Faith & Reason: If we are richer why aren't we happier - or better behaved?

A new report published this week by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland investigates 'the ethics of affluence' . Has the market run out of solutions, it asks?

Share
Related Topics

There's a lovely New Yorker cartoon that has a middle-aged man rushing up to his wife waving a bank statement and shouting "Gee, honey! At last! We've got more money than sense!"

That's a kind of slogan for our age. And it neatly sets the remit of the Churches' Prosperity with a Purpose report, published this week. It's designed to stimulate debate in the run-up to the general election. (I was involved in it as scribe and chief bottle-washer.) Good Christian folk tend to be embarrassed with the notion of wealth, knowing that it's bad for us - or at least for other people. We're happier being unhappy about other people's poverty. But we've become so stinking rich over the past half-century that we can't any longer ignore the elephant in the Rectory sitting room.

So the Churches at last acknowledge that the engine of this wealth is that old monster, the competitive market. The report's main author, the Roman Catholic commentator Clifford Longley, demands that we "get out of our monastic mindset", and recognise that the market provides us with choices that enable us to serve the common good. Surprisingly, the Catholic hierarchies have welcomed the report most loudly, so maybe something new is happening.

There's a quite new recognition that the market is not a necessary evil but a necessary good. The Churches, have, in their lazy way, tended to locate vanity, ambition and greed in the boardroom rather than in the council chamber or the Synod - or indeed on every stage where the human comedy is enacted. And we get our prescription for the management of the market exactly wrong. We complain about the ruthlessness of unrestrained competition; whereas we need to make the fat cats do what they hate most - compete. The market itself is the great redistributor, and thereby an instrument of social justice. But it also gives us the means to provide education, health care, pensions, imaginative culture and all the things that the market finds difficult to deliver.

But, if we are richer, why aren't we happier, or at least better behaved? The explanation lies in traditional Christian realism. We know that what most characterises humanity is not our nobility, but our capacity for self-delusion. Confronted with such a wealth of possibilities, why would we not be bloated, plastered, stoned, sexed up and broken down - and finally broke?

Once, necessity kept us in line. No longer. We know about the disciplines of poverty. We understand about frugality and the sharing of one another's burdens - how to get by when you've got less money than sense. We are only dimly aware that there are disciplines of affluence, and a necessary education of human desire, if we are to enjoy all this stuff we've now got. But it's hard to separate the good things - jobs, pensions, public services, and contentment, earned wisdom - from the junk. The report points up the retreat into private gratification, the treatment of politics as yet another form of entertainment, which the politicians and the media seem happy to play to.

In short, the old Puritan prejudice seems right after all. We're worse at enjoying wealth than enduring privation. But the wealth will not go away, except through some catastrophe. So how are we to manage it better?

This urgent question now confronts the whole world, as hundreds of millions of people emerge from poverty into that market-driven affluence. The engines that drive new global wealth are no longer wholly controlled from the West. But this explosion creates inequalities that make our own seem trivial. In our usual lazy way, we imagine Indonesian football-makers to be the great victims of the global market. But the millions who are not yet on the globalisation escalator suffer a far worse plight.

And it seems that the machine can grind on indefinitely, creating new forms of wealth and of poverty. World recessions apart, the only limit on our affluence appears to be the capacity of the planet to bear it. And we think we can handle that. When the problems get obvious enough, the market will sort through possible solutions till it finds the ones that work most cheaply. The planet won't implode, and the rich will be able to afford the necessary protection, as with everything else.

Except that climate change, especially with the likely flooding of London, New York, Paris and the like, will discommode even the richest. And it could get much worse than that. The medieval Muslim traveller Ibn Batuta has a tale about a camel caravan crossing a desert where "the thirst became so terrible that the price of water rose to a thousand dinars a skin. But all perished, buyer and seller alike."

Our wealth looks as if it might lead us into the desert and leave us to die there - maybe really. And our epitaph might be "They Had More Money Than Sense". Or, "They Could Have Fixed It".

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ed Miliband created a crisis of confidence about himself within Labour when he forgot to mention the deficit in his party conference speech  

The political parties aren't all the same – which means 2015 will be a 'big-choice' election

Andrew Grice
 

Beware of the jovial buffoon who picks fights overseas

Boyd Tonkin
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all