Update # 1 on “Has Europe lost its soul?”

Last week I made mention of a lecture that was given by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathon Sacks at the Gregorian University in Rome. His lecture was a brilliant discussion of the Judeo-Christian roots to the market economy, and I wanted to take the time to read it carefully and post a comment regarding it.

Here is my first updated post. Others will follow.

Sacks makes the point very early on that the market economy never reaches a stable equilibrium, and in fact, experiences what he called the process of “creative destruction,” by which he means that the very values (values which arose from the Judeo-Christian heritage but which can easily be secularized) that give rise to the market also undermine its stability. Because of this, the loss of a religious awareness and sensibility in the market, i.e., the loss of “soul,” will lead to decline economically. He said, “When a civilisation loses its faith, it loses its future. When it recovers its faith, it recovers its future.”

Not only the market economy but the emergence of capitalism (related although not necessarily synonymous with the market) and democratic politics were made possible by the Judeo-Christian moral foundation of society and culture, asserts Sacks in quoting Niall Ferguson’s book, Civilisation.

What are these moral and spiritual roots that give rise to and contribute to the fall of capitalism and the market?

According to Sacks, there is first of all a respect for the human individual created in the image of God. The market gives freedom and dignity to human choice. Secondly, there is a biblical respect for private property rights. Thirdly, there is a biblical respect for labor and entitlement to the fruits of that labor.

He continues by saying that Judaism has a positive attitude toward the creation of wealth. It considers job creation as a high form of charity to others for it gives them dignity in sharing in the creative/productive activity of God. Poverty, something not idealized in Judaism, is alleviated by the market, yet untoward consumerism is frowned upon.

The interesting piece of Sack’s discussion for me centered on what he saw as the limits of capitalism. The Judeo-Christian ethic teaches the limits to which capitalism need adhere. Whereas it may be a good system of generating wealth and offering dignity to workers (in contrast to socialism or communism or totalitarianism) it is not perfect. It does not easily redistribute wealth.

Sacks points out that in the Bible there is an entire structure of welfare legislation that is often overlooked by modern-day economists and politicians. This system of redistribution ensured that the poor would have a means of livelihood. Every seven to fifty years there would be redistributions of land and debt to correct the inequalities created by the market to reestablish a level playing field. Thus, Sacks points out that the concept of welfare, or if you will distributive justice, is Judaic in origin and comes from a constitutive element of the free market which is that every person has dignity in the image of God and the economy’s task is to develop structures that honor that dignity.

Food for thought in today’s economic climate, yes?

About Deacon Bob

Moderator: Deacon Bob Yerhot of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota.
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