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12 December, 2008

Hugh Williams
Hugh Williams

The usual question we ask ourselves in a crisis is, ‘Who is to blame?’ In one sense most of us are, in that we got it wrong. Very few of us saw it coming. So no one can crow and say, ‘I told you so’. No one knows what will happen next week, next month or next year. We all have to live with uncertainty.

Behind economic laws are moral laws. I do not believe that God is punitive. But there are consequences when we break God’s laws. These moral laws include the just price and a fair reward—not an extortionate one—for work performed and capital invested. Human nature being what it is, people are quick to complain when they are underpaid but not when they are overpaid. There are also the virtues of trust, integrity and responsibility.

Some of the ways God’s laws have been flouted are: greed—the notion that ‘greed is good’ because it stimulates economic activity; pride—reflected in the mantra ‘the end of boom and bust’; recklessness—taking unacceptable risks with other people’s savings to achieve my maximum bonus; materialism—the idea that moral and spiritual values don’t matter; consumerism—shop till you drop; and hedonism—let the good times roll.

Will there be benefits from the present crisis? I believe so. Firstly, there will be more discipline: the end of easy credit, obscenely high salaries and bonuses and obscenely high house prices. Housing may become more affordable for first time buyers. There will be more responsible lending and borrowing.

There will be greater realism. Ultimately debt is not an asset or a commodity to be traded indefinitely. It is a liability which someone, somewhere, some day will have to repay. In the present case, that will be all of us. We can hope for a reformed and socially responsible capitalist system, which accepts the need for more regulation to curb its excesses, and a Green dividend—a chance to pollute less as we consume less. And the return of service as the motive for being in business or banking.

Free market capitalism and democracy go together. But without a moral foundation neither can work properly. Wealth creation is an honourable pursuit, but taking unacceptable risks to boost vast personal wealth is not.

So what we can do? Firstly, exercise humility. It would be easy to feel superior and indulge in moralising. But we need to be honest—about where we ourselves may have been reckless, greedy or got into debt. My wife and I got into overdraft this Autumn following our holiday because we had not reckoned on a large service bill to keep our car on the road! The overdraft would have been a lot higher but for a generous and unexpected gift from my brother. And as he says, ‘We need to unclench our fists.’

Secondly, we can have compassion and empathy for those who have lost their savings, jobs, homes or businesses. Find out how your neighbours and people in your community are affected.

For example, there was not much we could do when a friend lost his job. But because we cared and enquired regularly and prayed, he and his wife felt a tremendous sense of support which they have never forgotten. When they celebrated their silver wedding anniversary we found we were the only non-family members invited. His wife said this was because we had stood by them during that difficult 18 months of unemployment.

Finally faith as an antidote to fear—for ourselves and others we meet. It was Franklin D Roosevelt who at the time of the Great Depression declared that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Faith is also a reminder of where true values lie.

Playwright and theatre producer Hugh Williams gave these reflections at a recent gathering at the Initiatives of Change centre in London.

See also ‘How to stay ethical during a downturn’ .

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