The Archbishop of Canterbury and the market economy (part one)

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s latest foray into the world of political economy does him even less credit than his previous attempts. He is an intelligent man, but capable of arguments that are laden with the highest degree of sophistry. This comes not from any deliberate desire to deceive, but, I suspect, from a desire not to re-examine certain prejudices about the world of business and economics – in other words what, for most of his flock, is the practical world in which we have to live.

The title of the article set up and knocked down a straw man: ‘Markets alone should not determine our conception of what is desirable’. Are there any readers of this blog who believe that markets alone determine our conception of what is desirable? If there were, I suggest, they would not be reading this blog as they have chosen to come to the blog of a charity for which no charge is made to access the content.

Perhaps the Archbishop did not write the headline. So, let’s move on from the straw men to the non-sequiturs...

The Archbishop says: ‘We hear of international markets in organs for transplant and are, on the whole, queasy about it; but here is a routine instance of life, quite literally, being transferred from the poor to the rich on a recognised legal basis.’

If this were an undergraduate essay, one would run out of space in the margin to make comment. I can find no example, except that of Iran, where the organ trade takes place on a legally recognised basis. The Archbishop may be right and Wikipedia and other sources I have looked at wrong but, even so, he might wish to note that in Iran there is no waiting list for transplants and that the illegal organ trade causes untold human misery in those countries where trade takes place but is illegal.

When it comes to a command of the facts, the Archbishop has form. He recently argued in favour of a financial transactions tax citing Pope Benedict’s apparent support for such a tax, a claim that has no foundation whatsoever. However, for a theologian, the Archbishop’s reasoning with regard to organ sales is very poor. There is a straightforward reason for a Christian to oppose organ sales – our bodies are not ours to sell (Muslims, I am told, take a different view). That does not necessarily mean that Christians should believe that organ sales should be illegal – the common good and human dignity may not be served by creating the conditions for a black market in organs – that is a matter for debate and prudential judgement.

So, why is the Archbishop using the example of organ sales to have a pot shot at the market economy? Organ sales tell us nothing about the market economy in general, partly because there is, indeed, no market in organs, but also because organ sales  are  a special case. For a Christian, the existence of organ sales simply tells us that people do things that Christians regard as immoral. However, the problem according to the Archbishop is not that people do things that Christians regard as morally wrong; it is that society has taken on a general disposition of commodification which sees everything as a potential object for economic exchange.

Indeed, he argues this explicitly:

‘He [Sandel] quotes the reasonable and even eloquent apologias offered by financial metaphysicians for these practices so as to remind us that, once the principle of universal exchangeability is granted, we are going to have to work hard to establish any exemptions. If - to take the most extreme example - my bodily life is a thing that I own, like a car or a computer, what exactly is there that makes it unacceptable for me to offer it on the market, or for someone else to offer me a measurable profit in return for it?’

For a Christian – though not for the Archbishop apparently – the answer to this question should be straightforward. According to Christian teaching, we do not own our bodies. How more exact would the Archbishop like the Christian faith to be?

Instead of taking such general pot shots using inappropriate analogies backed up with bogus facts, would it not be better for a moral theologian to help us understand ‘what is desirable’ rather than arguing in an unsophisticated way that markets alone cannot help us understand what is desirable? Am I alone in finding Archbishop Williams’ sermons on markets very unhelpful? After all, markets are about human action in the economic sphere. Williams argues that markets are corrosive of morality. Surely, it is the action of persons, not markets themselves that are the problem.

Part two will follow tomorrow…

Just read a piece by Fr. Robert Sirico. As he puts it, it is not that the market shapes cultural choices as it reveals them.
I am sure you misread the Archbishop’s second paragraph when you take ‘but here is a routine instance of life, quite literally, being transferred from the poor to the rich on a recognised legal basis’ as referring to the market in organs for transplant mentioned in the previous sentence. It is clear (though could be clearer) that he is referring back to the sale of blood which has been the subject from the very beginning of the first paragraph and remains so at the beginning of the second paragraph. If not, why the need for ‘but’ in the quote above? Also, by describing it as ‘routine’ he is implying that it is regarded as normal practice by contrast with organ sales which many are ‘queasy’ about. It is ‘symbolically’ powerful because the Biblical tradition says ‘the life is in the blood’, hence the comment that here life is quite ‘literally’ being transferred. So I don’t think the Archbishop can be accused of factual error here. I also think you are unfair in your interpretation of this sentence: ‘If – to take the most extreme example – my bodily life is a thing that I own, like a car or a computer, what exactly is there that makes it unacceptable for me to offer it on the market, or for someone else to offer me a reasonable profit in return for it?’ You say that it is apparent from this that the Archbishop doesn’t know the answer to the question, an answer which should be straightforward from Christian tradition – that we do not own our bodies. But this is a book review, and in this sentence the Archbishop is in the mode of presenting the argument of the book, as is clear from the previous two sentences. The sentence I have quoted says nothing about the Archbishop’s view; that comes much later, in the third paragraph from the end: ‘And religious qualms around some high-profile public questions (euthanasia, abortion) are best understood as arguments rooted in a deep aversion to anything that encourages us to think of our bodies as a form of property.’ Exactly the kind of thing you wanted him to say.
@Mark. You are right on the first point (I assume) having read it again. However, I have to say, it is written very unclearly. Indeed, from a strictly grammatical point of view surely the "here" belongs to the example immediately before - but I agree that is probably not what was intended by him. So I plead "not - intentionally - guilty" but accept that the Archbishop is "not guilty" too. Your other point is fair too except that, once again, the whole argument is muddled by the discussion of education in between (the subject of today's blog). I have previously commented in jest that I think that the Archbishop does the opposite of the IEA (in the field of theology) and takes quite simple arguments and makes them more or less incomprensible. This is a lesser problem than the one of which I have accused him, though. You may point out on my next blog that the Archbishop mentions Bobbitt's "market as state" theory. However, these are just very confusing ways of thinking about things trying to pin the blame on markets for the problems of government.

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