Final Thoughts

For Robert Bellah et al. in The Good Society, social science and policy analysis have not taken the place of public philosophy but, instead, have regrettably strengthened the notion that our problems are technical, rather than moral and political. In this, they echo the critique developed by Ellul and Winner. In particular, they are concerned about the erosion of trust in the political system and public institutions that results from the current emphasis on Lockean individualism and the associated economic theorising with its emphasis on efficiency. It threatens to undermine our democracy. In their words:

If policy elites stand outside the world of citizens, designing social policies evaluated in terms of outcomes, efficiency, or costs and benefits, as they define them, they short-circuit the democratic process, and this is so whether they believe that people are essentially ‘interest maximisers’ or even that they are motivated in part by ‘values’. Politics under these circumstances becomes the art of image manipulation by expert media managers.[42]

The consequence is a gross abuse of power that eats at the heart of the liberal tradition.

No society can survive without stable moral traditions and social conventions backed up by effective means of coercion. The prevailing scepticism about the possibility of establishing any moral principle as true or valid beyond reasonable doubt troubles some with the theoretical thought that as a consequence we are unable to identify the difference between might and right.[43] This search for epistēmē in moral matters was, however, always an illusion. At a practical level—the level of practical wisdom or phronēsis —we nevertheless possess a highly developed moral vocabulary and a long political tradition, both of which provide a source of stability. This represents the social and moral capital of our civilisation. Brennan and Buchanan[44] have, however, argued that there is now a widely sensed deterioration in the social, intellectual and philosophical capital of Western civil order. Hirsch had a similar sense of foreboding, believing that an excessive reliance on self-interest as the fundamental social organising principle would undermine the basis of the market system itself:

In brief, the principle of self-interest is incomplete as a social organising principle. It operates effectively only in tandem with some supporting social principle. This fundamental characteristic of economic liberalism, which was largely taken for granted by Smith and Mill in their different ways, has been lost sight of by its modern protagonists…The attempt has been made to erect an increasingly explicit social organisation without a supporting social morality…In this way, the foundations of the market system have been weakened, while its general behavioural norm of acting on the criterion of self-interest has won ever-widening acceptance.[45]

The fear is that in acting on the precepts of economic fundamentalism modern governments have participated in changes in the institutional structures of their societies that could weaken the matrix of social rules on which their economic systems depend. For their part, Nancy Foulbre and Thomas Weisskopf argue that the care and nurture of human capital has always been difficult and expensive, and that the erosion of family and community solidarity imposes enormous costs—costs that are reflected in inefficient and unsuccessful educational efforts, high crime rates and a social atmosphere of anxiety and resentment.[46] Such forebodings are, however, as old as civilisation itself. They could reflect the prevailing uncertainty about the foundations of our moral values as well as the intuition that civilisation is always under threat from what used to be called human sinfulness.

It is at this point that it is wise to recall that it is the control of our greed that represents one of the prime victories of culture over ‘animality’. If this is so, it is greed that also represents one of the prime threats to our civilisation; economic fundamentalism is an ideology that attempts to justify that greed. In particular, it promotes selfishness and materialism. Even for the non-religious, however, the acquisition of personal wealth and power is not a satisfactory basis for self-definition. Consequently, economic fundamentalism is a significant threat to our civilisation. Its application to public decisions cannot be reconciled with the ethical import of our cultural heritage, with its Christian underpinnings, its command to love God and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Nor can it be reconciled with other religious traditions, including Buddhism, with its calls for compassion and detachment. Taking something that is good—such as rational thought, or economic analysis, or markets, or human rights, or liberty, or law, or money, or consumption—and turning it into an absolute is the essence of a new idolatry.