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

In my last blog post, I looked at Archbishop Williams’ use of legal organ sales as an example of the degeneracy of the market economy. The fact that organ sales are not legal is a detail that seems to have escaped his attention. But, this was not the only problem in his recent article in Prospect. A number of further statements struck me as being particularly absurd. For example:

‘On the day I write this, the education secretary has announced an initiative to hand over some responsibility for A-level examinations to the universities, and the public reaction to and discussion of this has been cast almost entirely in terms of whether this will guarantee a “more competitive workforce.” That education could have some value other than improving profits seems to be unthinkable. But the Skidelskys firmly remind us that it is we who are the oddities in terms of cultural and moral history in so shrinking the range of political discourse.’

Firstly, as with the Archbishop’s statement on organ sales and his citing of Pope Benedict’s apparent support for the financial transactions tax, as far as I can see, this is simply not true. I have looked in detail at this debate and written about the issue myself on the IEA blog. In fact, the debate is almost entirely couched in terms of A-levels providing appropriate preparation for higher education (or otherwise) and the possible (detrimental) effects on widening access to higher education.

However, the marketisation (or otherwise) of education – the context within which Williams was writing - tells us nothing about how we view education. Rowan Williams conveniently forgot to mention that he was writing at a time when education, syllabuses and examinations are almost entirely determined by the state. There is no significant market in education (with the exception of nursery education and some parts of higher education beyond under-graduate level). Profit is not the motive. The state may pursue (notwithstanding the comments I make above about the A-level debate) utilitarian and materialistic objectives – but the problem there is the relationship between utilitarianism, materialism and the state - it has nothing to do with the market.

But, let us assume for a moment that much more education was provided through the market. Does it follow that this means that education would then only be pursued for utilitarian and materialistic objectives and not for its own sake? Certainly not. Indeed, how can we distinguish between people who purchase education in the market for purely materialistic means (perhaps to obtain better qualifications to obtain a better job – and the Archbishop should not scoff at people’s attempts at self-improvement through vocational qualifications) and those who simply wish to purchase education in order to learn? For example, in the 1930s, many libraries were provided on a pay-as-you-go basis for a profit. Is Williams arguing that this means that such libraries were commodifying education and that people in the 1930s were much more materialistic with regard to education than they are now? This would be absurd. Indeed, it would undermine the rest of his arguments. It happens to be the case that, even when we are driven by high motives to buy something such as education or a music CD, the market might well be a very effective way of ensuring that we satisfy our demands for such high culture. Indeed, as I have noted, it is the nationalisation of education that has arguably seen the demise of the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself.

The muddle carries on throughout the article. We are told that the current generation is perhaps the first that has been so attached to the accumulation of material wealth – yet this is the generation that, it would appear, has saved less than any other, especially in the US and UK. We are told that developing countries by producing for export instead of the domestic markets are having wealth sucked out of them by richer countries, when clearly the opposite is the case (their trade surpluses are matched by the accumulation by poorer countries of assets in richer countries).

Williams’ mental muddle is laid bare when he goes on to question Catholic social teaching’s attachment to private property. Private property, in Catholic social teaching, brings many benefits – not just material. But, why does Williams criticise Catholic social teaching’s promotion of private property? Because, he argues, it raises the question of fairness. Catholic social teaching promotes property for all – something with which libertarians would quibble. Williams argues that this is not enough. He wants material fair shares for all – a sudden lapse into materialism when it suits his socialist pre-disposition it would appear.

There is actually quite a lot of evidence concerning people who purchase education in the market, albeit not in a free market. While those who are in continuous full-time education from 4 or 5 years old are all to some degree coerced, both the Open University and Birkbeck offer undergraduate education to volunteers, and numerous adult education courses offer A-levels and other qualification or non-qualification based courses. The volunteers do have costs, but they certainly do not all have utilitarian motives, since quite "useless" non-vocational courses continue to be offered. It would be a simple if huge and tedious bit of research to classify all the courses offered, and count number of places taken up, in adult education.

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