A word from one religion to another

As a man of religion, Archbishop Denis Hart is well-placed to understand the thought processes behind the free-market fundamentalism which has dominated economic policy in the Angloshere for decades (The Australian, “By making economy more personal, money will serve us and not rule”, 23/12).

With their mystical belief in the “Invisible Hand” – but not in the quite visible society of humans – neoliberals eschew modern mathematical knowledge which shows, not surprisingly, that just letting economies run on their own may result in academically satisfying equilibria, but is unlikely to produce optimal outcomes for humans.

Rather, these supply-side disciples prefer the folksy wisdom of their 18th century Messiah, Adam Smith – but only selected parts of it, for Smith himself advocated progressive taxation, public education and government infrasructure, all heresy to the modern young radical conservative. It seems that like most religious extremists, neoliberals have little regard for their own holy texts.

Yet Merv Bendle (Letters, 24/12) plays Scrooge to Hart’s Ghost of Christmases Past, giving a “Bah! Humbug!” to the latter’s plea to put people before markets. In the process, Bendle makes some extraordinary claims, denying the existence of any successful managed economies in terms of both production and distribution of wealth (ignoring the many affluent European social democracies), and equating non-market economies with poverty (overlooking the many laissez-faire disaster zones in the developing world).

Research shows that what wealthy nations have in common includes transparent democracy, high education levels, natural resources, and less edifying things like colonial history. Their choice of economic system has little if any relevance.

None the less, Bendle concludes that the Catholic Church should throw its weight behind free-market capitalism. There is a very good reason why this will never happen, and why in the poorest parts of the world the opposite has occurred: the market notoriously fails to justly distribute wealth and in many poor countries is the cause of shocking inequality. Particularly with a Latin American incumbent in Rome, the Church is unlikely to join the neo-liberal cheer squad.

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