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

Recruitment Genius: EWI / IWI Installer

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of design...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst / Helpdesk Support Analyst

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is the UK's leading ...

The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Management Accountant

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Manag...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Freeman, centre, with Lord Gladwyn, left, and Harold Wilson on the programme The Great Divide in 1963  

John Freeman was a man of note who chose to erase himself from history

Terence Blacker
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
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
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'