Is market fundamentalism compatible with morality and religion?

Traditional Conservative politics, as the name suggests, amongst other things, places a significant emphasis on the conservation of the tried and tested, the reliable, the traditional, and so on. Traditional conservativism prioritizes practical experience over abstract theorizing, and prefers gradual changes, organically developing and emerging from the local community, to sweeping changes imposed from above.

For a traditional Conservative, a dramatic revolution that overturns the customs, laws, and traditions of a nation or community based on the thoughts of an armchair philosopher is anathema.

But the Conservative Party we have today is no longer conservative. As former Chancellor Philip Hammond put it, 

“The Conservative Party has been taken over by unelected advisors, entryists and usurpers who are trying to turn it into an extreme right-wing faction. Sadly, it is not the party I joined.” 

Another former Tory, Anna Soubry, agreed, “The right wing… are now running the Conservative Party from top to toe. They are the Conservative Party.”

If it is not conservative, what is the ideology that guides this now extreme right-wing party? It is Market Fundamentalism. A Market Fundamentalist is one who believes without reservation the idea that markets are the best way to allocate resources. The value of everything (including every human being) is its market value; any other notion of value is subjective and should be rejected. All resources, money, education, healthcare, food, housing, etc should be allocated by the market. That means that any other way of allocating resources – for example, state pensions, state education, state healthcare – is sub-optimal and should be abolished, to be replaced by market-based solutions.

The policy changes needed are therefore to cut taxes and reduce public spending. These policy changes are not based on evidence; they are based on ideology. For example, tax cuts for the wealthy – a core principle of Market Fundamentalism – are not supported by the evidence. And the policy prescriptions are not incremental, they are radical. They are not traditionally ‘conservative.’

What is more disturbing still is that no major ethical or religious belief system endorses anything even remotely like Market Fundamentalism. Of course, the world’s major religions all have long histories containing many different perspectives, so it would be impossible in an article of this length to adequately summarise all the nuances and positions held within them. Despite this, we can provide a brief overview of some of the main positions.

Christianity remains the single largest religion in the UK, and traditionally at least the UK has been a Christian nation, so we should start there. Christianity has consistently affirmed the immense value and dignity of all human beings, and our obligation to care for each other as a result. For example, in the book of Matthew, Jesus tells his followers that anything they do for the vulnerable they do for him: 

“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

In his recent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis has railed against the dangers of ‘unfettered capitalism’ and has called on us to care for the poor not just through private charitable giving but also through state intervention and economic policy. He writes:

“The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies … We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.”

Closer to home, in the UK, our own Archbishop of Canterbury has recently called on the government to rethink our social care system to ensure that everyone who needs it is provided with good quality care.

These statements  from the Catholic and Anglican churches that the state has ethical responsibilities of this nature show that they (and thus Christianity more generally) are incompatible with market fundamentalism.

Continuing with the Abrahamic traditions, Judaism, unsurprisingly given Christianity emerges out of it, also affirms the intrinsic value and dignity of all human beings. In the Jewish scriptures, human beings are described as being “made in the image of God”, and God repeatedly affirms the importance of caring for the most vulnerable in society. Israel is commanded to 

“learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

Islam likewise affirms the importance of caring for the poor: 

“Give to close relatives their due, as well as the poor and needy travellers. Surely the wasteful are like brothers to the devils. And the Devil is ever ungrateful to his Lord.”

 Muhammad himself is reported to have said:

“A servant says, My wealth. my wealth, but out of his wealth three things are only his: whatever he eats and makes use of or by means of which he dresses himself and it wears out or he gives as charity, and this is what he stored for himself (as a reward for the Hereafter), and what is beyond this (it is of no use to you) because you are to depart and leave it for other people.”

Turning to the East, the Hindu Rigveda asserts that 

“The man with food in store who, when the needy comes in miserable case begging for bread to eat, hardens his heart against him, when of old finds not one to comfort him. Bounteous is he who gives unto the beggar who comes to him in want of food.” 

Likewise, more recently, the Hindu guru, His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, wrote:

“why do wrong, believing ‘this is mine and this is yours’? Share one another’s fortune and misfortune, help one another rise. All this is taught by dharma.”

Buddhism also affirms the importance of charity and generosity. The Buddha urges his followers to rid themselves 

“of the stain of stinginess” and to be instead “freely generous, open-handed, loving to let go, committed to charity, loving to give and to share.” 

In a similar vein, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has written:

“I believe that our strong focus on material development and accumulating wealth has led us to neglect our basic human need for kindness and care. Reinstating a commitment to the oneness of humanity and altruism toward our brothers and sisters is fundamental for societies and organizations and their individuals to thrive in the long run. Every one of us has a responsibility to make this happen.”

And it is not just traditional religious belief systems that teach these precepts. Humanism, as the name implies, stresses the intrinsic value of human beings, whilst emphasising the importance of empathy, consideration of others, and our interconnected social nature as human beings.

The world’s great religious and philosophical systems are unanimous, every human being has immeasurable intrinsic value, quite distinct from their market value, and it is incumbent upon us to recognise that value and to care for others accordingly.

Market Fundamentalism, however, rejects what these religious leaders have said: that there is an obligation on us both as individuals and as a society to care for others. They say instead that all support for the needy and vulnerable should be entirely at the discretion of the giver (with no suggestion of obligation or coercion), not given unconditionally and at much lower levels than are currently provided by modern welfare states.

Lord Rees-Mogg and William Dale Davidson explained in their influential paean to Market Fundamentalism, The Sovereign Individual, what this would mean in practice for the poor and vulnerable:

“The collapse of coerced income redistribution is bound to upset those who expect to be on the receiving end of the trillions in transfer programs. Mostly these will be ‘the losers or left-behinds’, persons without the skills to compete in global markets.

When the hope of aid for those falling behind is based primarily upon appeals to private individuals and charitable bodies, it will be more important than it has been in the twentieth century that the recipients of charity appear to be morally deserving to those voluntarily dispensing the charity.”

In summary, Market Fundamentalism is not only quite different from traditional Conservatism, it is an ideology incompatible with every major religious and ethical system. That this has become the dominant ideology in today’s cabinet should give us all pause for thought.

If you are concerned about this government and would like to help, take a look at the 99% Organisation and join us.

Richard Playford PhD, is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Ethics and Religion at Leeds Trinity University