Mammon


Mammon. He's Back.

Disturbing signs in the great economic crisis debate.

We do tend to have moralists in charge no matter which way we vote these days. Now there's nothing wrong with morality per se, it's one of the cornerstones of civilisation. But it's like a belt, it makes all the difference in the world whether you're using it to keep your pants up or to auto-asphyxiate yourself.

Gordon Brown and Kevin Rudd were chummily dissecting the evils of unfettered free markets in St Pauls yesterday, to the utter delight of the Bishop of London. Greed and otherwise unscrupulous behaviour are the root of the current mess, they say, together with lax regulation. Mammon is back, basically, as announced in the House of God.

Alas this is the same tired old distinction trotted out just about everywhere today, even in ruthlessly secular business. Every local school even has a 'value statement' to sit neatly on the wall next to its mission statement and vision. It's centuries-old, it's what philosophers call the fact-value distinction. The facts are just facts, which you can paint with values of any shade. This is also the lunatic distinction the Church itself subscribed to after the battering it took from the Galileo affair - leave the facts of existence to science, and religion can then take care of the values and morals attached to these facts. And in this case, Brown and Rudd concur that there was nothing wrong with the free market (the fact is just what it is) - the evil was that it was shackled to the wrong set of values, which put it to the wrong uses.

So the whole crisis risks being completely misdiagnosed as some grand lapse in morals and values, just as the equally moralistic Howard and Bush accelerated the process with their own religious fervour, flaying the welfare cheats, bureaucrats and academics. Because make no mistake, the God-botherers are there in force, on both sides, and what superficially looks like a convergence of political philosophy between Left and Right is instead a re-casting of politics in theological terms - the battle is increasingly between diffferent moral viewpoints. As always it's either all euphoric good news, or the end of days.

What went wrong is much more practical. Flawed models of money creation, linked to a generally unregulated finance sector, led to spiralling, unsustainable levels of debt. The debt fuelled booming economies, mostly via Ponzi speculation on assets. Now there's no more 'leverage' to be had, the debt became so ridiculous that eventually nobody could repay it. Because the Browns and Rudds of the world however are happy that the basic system works, it just needs better morals at the helm, few of the actual causes are being properly targeted. Although to be fair they're more likely to review their ideas as conditions change than the zealots on their opposing sides, some of whom still actually believe the mess is down to t he marklet not being free enough.

Facts and values aren't separate things. They're always created together - facts are suffused with values, and values are always associated with some fact. They're two sides of the same coin. If you're an employer and you say you value women in the workplace, but you don't hire any, then the facts of the case reflect your real values. If you think matter has ultimate, fundamental components you'll agitate to have billions spent on atom smashers - Big Science and its Big Machines.

Or as the man and woman in the street say, it's easy to talk the talk (the value statement up on the wall), but harder to walk the talk. But ultimately we all walk our values, no matter what we say they are.

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