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?
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The Independent Online

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".