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Archbishop - Economics is 'housekeeping' for humanity

Monday 16th November 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has urged us to keep economics in perspective as it is only one aspect of human existence. In a keynote address to the TUC Economics Conference today he said: "'Economy' is simply the Greek word for 'housekeeping'."

"Remembering this is a useful way of getting things in proportion, so that we don't lose sight of the fact that economics is primarily about the decisions we make so as to create a habitat that we can actually live in."

Dr Williams reminds us of the damage that's been done over the years (as well as the more recent crisis), which, he argues, is a direct result of treating economics as something independent of any human context:

"Appealing to the market as an independent authority, unconnected with human decisions about 'housekeeping', has meant in many contexts over the last few decades a ruinous legacy for heavily indebted countries, large-scale and costly social disruption even in developed economies; and, most recently, the extraordinary phenomena of a financial trading world in which the marketing of toxic debt became the driver of money-making – until the bluffs were all called at the same time."

The Archbishop also calls into question the never-ending search for economic growth:

"It sets up the vicious cycle in which it is necessary all the time to create new demand for goods and thus new demands on a limited material environment for energy sources and raw materials. By the hectic inflation of demand it creates personal anxiety and rivalry. By systematically depleting the resources of the planet, it systematically destroys the basis for long-term well-being. In a nutshell, it is investing in the wrong things."

He argues that in order to know what we should be searching for, we need to know what matters in life:

"To decide what sort of change we want, we need a vigorous sense of what a human life well-lived looks like. We need to be able to say what kind of human beings we hope to be ourselves and to encourage our children to be."

Dr Williams goes on to suggest that:

"If we're looking for new criteria for economic decisions, we might start here and ask about the impact of any such decision on family life and the welfare of the young."

"My point is that, now more than ever, we need to be able in the political and economic context to spell out with a fair degree of clarity what our commitments are, what kind of human character we want to see. Politics left to managers and economics left to brokers add up to a recipe for social and environmental chaos."

Recalling the British labour movement's "commitment to humane values, to humane relationships and intelligence and imagination" he urges that that legacy be taken into the future:

"I would urge you, then, to pick up what is still alive in that legacy, to revive the passion for humane social existence; to reflect on what human character is needed for stability and justice to prevail; and to resist the barbarising and dehumanising of economic life which jeopardises natural and human capital alike."

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