Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

Archbishop Justin Welby, three chords and the truth about the economy

Welby doesn’t quite have the truth

“All I’ve got is a red guitar, three chords, and the truth,” sings Bono, lead vocalist of rock band U2. If you want to call yourself a guitarist but don’t want to spend hours learning scales and chord progressions using diminished and augmented chords, learn three chords and accompany a simple song. 

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, is a three-chord guitarist. Like Bono, Welby’s got a red guitar and amplifier – his team of media hustlers who plant stories about their boss’s ability to play three chords and make the Archbishop sound like Andre Segovia playing Paganini.

Like Bono, Welby’s got three chords: reconciliation (remember his motherhood and apple pie address at the UN last month?), sex (the gay and transgender agenda) and equality (i.e. redistribution of wealth).

Unlike Bono, Welby doesn’t quite have the truth. Welby’s midweek rhapsody in red is shamelessly splashed on the front page of the Daily Mail (was the editor so desperate for a lead story?). This is followed by Welby’s “sermon to the nation” dragged across pages 6 and 7. Welby’s high-strung homily is an exercise in semantic subterfuge, moralistic flagellation, guilt stirring, hysteria-mongering laughable inanities, flagrant contradictions, Bible misquoting and plain porkies.

It’s like Harpo, Groucho and Chico Marx coming together; this time reincarnated as Pope Francis, Jeremy Corbyn and Justin Welby, all on steroids preaching the fifth gospel according to St Marx.

Britain’s economy is broken, hollers Welby! Really? Are Britons queuing to buy toilet paper like the Venezuelans who have been distributing wealth for decades? Is Britain on the brink of an economic cataclysm like the Great Depression of 1929? Is the Bank of England printing £50million bank notes worth $1 US as in the days of the Weimar Republic when Germans had to trundle banknotes on a wheelbarrow to buy a loaf of bread?

Britain’s economy is booming. Welby sheepishly (shouldn’t it be “wolfishly”?) admits to this fact but swiftly shushes it as if it is a Victorian child who must be seen and not heard. Has Archbishop Justin never read Aesop’s fable of the boy who cried wolf?

Welby tries to make a case for poverty. “Chronically low pay means that a hard day’s work no longer keeps people out of poverty today: today, a majority of the poor are working families,” he wails. How does Welby measure poverty? By focusing on income trends alone? If so, he falls foul of a major methodological flaw researchers are typically guilty of in their quest for “data opportunism” and the motivation to prop up a certain ideological agenda.

Income data and consumption data provide very different perspectives on just who is poor, note economists Orazio Attanasio, Erich Battistin and Mario Padula in their monograph Inequality in Living Standards since 1980: Income Tells Only a Small Part of the Story. “Income, after all, is valued mostly because it allows consumption. Therefore, studying consumption directly provides a better measure of distribution of wellbeing than study of income,” the authors state.

Empirical evidence shows that consumption-poor households do not coincide with income-poor households and income-poor households report consumption levels far greater than their level of income. In fact, consumption of the “income-poorest” household exceeds earnings. Thus, many Britons who are “income poor” are not “consumption poor”.

Britain’s Office for National Statistics defines ‘poor’ people as those who cannot afford ‘four or more essential items’ including a one-week annual holiday away from home, a colour television, a washing machine and a car! ‘The largest gap between persistently poor individuals and the whole population was the ability to afford a one-week annual holiday away from home,’ its report states. 

Welby doesn’t tell us if he is talking about absolute or relative poverty, primary or secondary poverty. Absolute poverty refers to the actual needs of the poor. It is not measured by reference to the expenditure of those who are not poor. “A family is poor if it cannot afford to eat,” writes Sir Keith Joseph. “Primary poverty has been largely eliminated; the Beveridge revolution has been carried out,” writes Tony Crosland. You can be poor if you can’t afford basic needs; or you can be poor if you can’t afford things other than the basic necessities of life – like three holidays a year in Lanzarote.

Economist Mollie Orshansky, who developed the official poverty measure used in the US, underlined the difficulty in measuring poverty. “Poverty, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. Poverty is a value judgement; it is not something one can verify or demonstrate, except by inference or suggestion, even with a measure of error. To say who is poor is to use all sorts of value judgements,” she observes.

If Welby were really concerned about what he calls poverty, he would first analyse its causes so he can propose solutions. But not once is there any mention of what actually causes so-called poverty in Britain! Is it bad choices, lack of education, dropping out of high school, family breakdown, divorce, poor parenting, drug addiction, poor stewardship of resources, excessive expenditure, or excessive market-driven consumption? Welby won’t tell us!

Correspondingly, he would analyse the causes of wealth. Are rich people getting richer because they are stealing from the poor – as is the case with certain rich people who are lambasted by prophets like Amos and Isaiah? But if a person gets rich by hard work, thrift, wise decisions, luck and taking risks – the foundation of capitalism – why is it morally legitimate to take what rightfully belongs to him?

Welby’s bugbear is not poverty; it’s inequality. He doesn’t love the poor as much as he hates the rich. It’s not that Britain’s poor have too little; it’s that Britain’s wealthy have too much. “Today the wealthiest 10 per cent of households own more than 900 times the wealth of the poorest 10 per cent, and five times more than the bottom half of all households combined,” moans Welby.

Doesn’t Welby understand that the economy in 21st century capitalist Britain is not a zero sum game? Doesn’t Welby understand wealth creation? To cite just one example, the creators of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (much as I dislike their ideology) are young men who became filthy rich not because they stole from the poor. Rather, people like me benefit enormously from these social media giants without paying a single penny.

Very disingenuously, the Archbishop seems to suggest that the rich are to blame because they have stolen from the poor. Hence, his solution is to tax the rich till they bleed. Then we scatter their loot so “poor” vultures can feast on it. Britain’s economy needs “fundamental reform” because it is not working for all, he claims, but his pet ideology of redistributionism took off in Britain over a century ago with Lloyd George’s budget for 1909-10, which introduced progressive taxation.

Economically, Welby’s proposals are disastrous. Has he learned nothing from history? When Roman emperors began levying increasingly heavy taxes, mainly on the wealthy, partly to eliminate the Senatorial class, economic growth slowed to a standstill. Once the wealthy were no longer able to pay the State’s bills, the burden fell on the lower classes and ordinary people suffered. It was the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire. 

Welby mentions Mrs Thatcher in his Daily Mail diatribe. But does he not know that Thatcher wrought her economic miracle by reducing and not raising taxes? Can he not take a peek across the pond and learn how Donald Trump is creating jobs, growing the economy and helping the poor by reducing, not raising taxes?

Morally, Welby’s proposals are perverse. Re-distribution is immoral because it deifies the state as supreme in relieving poverty. It also has a peculiar doctrine of sin, which holds that economic inequality is itself evil. It then conflates these two very disparate doctrines by wanting government to “supply a subsistence floor beneath which no one may fall” and even more perversely “institute a ceiling beyond which no one may rise”, according to French economist Bertrand de Jouvenel who highlighted the immorality of redistributionism at Corpus Christi College, Oxford in 1951.

Welby’s ideology is also morally corrosive. It undermines personal responsibility by transferring authority for crucial life-decisions from individuals to the State. The state supplies our basic needs and leaves us only to decide how we should spend our pocket money.

If the state is going to confiscate large sums from the rich, it must invest this wealth. The state is not only supremely inefficient at investing, but by doing so, it deprives us from taking any initiative. Economically, redistributionism “has not significantly alleviated poverty but has instead substantially institutionalized it”, writes de Jouvenel.

But it is in his recourse to a theological justification for redistributionism, that Welby’s semantic subterfuges are most misleading. “As a Christian I start with learning from Jesus Christ that people matter equally, are equally loved by God, and that justice in society matters deeply – a theme that runs throughout the Bible,” he writes.

Welby is right. We are all equal. God created humans in his image and likeness, declares Genesis. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in his should not perish but have everlasting life, declares John’s gospel. But to conflate the Christian doctrine of the metaphysical conception of the implicit transcendent worth of each person with the collectivist doctrine of equality of outcomes is not only wicked, it is bad theology.

Welby’s second subterfuge is to conflate biblical justice with social justice. He wants to “hard-wire’ justice into the economy”. That is alarming. You can’t ‘hard-wire’ your brand of “justice” into a free market without a totalitarian regime enforcing it. Justice is not redistribution. It is not equality of material conditions. On the contrary, justice demands individual rewards proportionate to individual endeavour. This makes redistribution unfair and unjust.

De Jouvenel rightly noted that it has become “a loose modern habit to call ‘just’ whatever is thought emotionally desirable”. Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek lambasted the “‘Mirage’ of Social Justice” calling it “a quasi-religious belief with no content whatsoever”. Social justice was a particularly dangerous superstition, he said, describing it as “that incubus which today makes fine sentiments the instruments for the destruction of all values of a free civilisation”, leading to “the destruction of the indispensable environment in which the traditional moral values alone can flourish, namely personal freedom”.

Welby’s most sloppy attempt at proof-texting is his appeal to Jesus’ discourse on the Final Judgement (Matthew 25: 31-46). Jesus welcomes the sheep on his right hand commending them for feeding him when he was hungry, providing drink when thirsty, and so on. Puzzled, they ask when they have served Jesus in such manner. Jesus explains: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” 

Welby twists this text to support his agenda: “In that passage he (Jesus) explicitly says that judgment is linked to justice, namely, in the way in which we treat those who are most vulnerable and weakest. Out of that extraordinary passage comes the Christian call to work for the common good and for the welfare of everyone in our society,” writes Welby

Biblical scholars, however, point out that “the least of these my brothers” are Jesus’ disciples (or even the Jews). It is the ‘smallest brothers and sisters’ of Jesus who benefit from these acts of kindness and what is done to them is done to him, explains New Testament scholar R. T. France. So it is not response to human need in general, but how people have responded to Jesus in the person of his representatives.

If Welby reads the verses preceding his proof text in Matthew’s gospel, he will be embarrassed by the parable of the talents. Here, the master entrusts the different sums of money to three servants according to their abilities and expects his servants to increase his asset value using the mechanisms of the market.

The first two servants double their master’s assets; the third servant is afraid to take risks. The master commends the first two servants for doubling his wealth and condemns the third servant for playing safe. Instead of redistributing wealth by taking it from the first two servants and giving it to the third servant, the master takes even the little that the third servant has and hands it over to the first servant who has the most money, saying, “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Matthew 25:29). 

If Welby reads Matthew’s gospel to the end he will know that the primary Christian call, the Great Commission, is not to work for the common good and for the welfare of everyone – it is, in the words of Jesus Christ, to “go and make disciples of all nations”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is presiding over a failing church, which according to yesterday’s news has halved in membership in the last fifteen years in “unrelenting decline”. Welby is neither Chancellor nor Governor of the Bank of England. As a three-chord guitarist, he shouldn’t pretend he is Django Reinhart.

Justin Welby wants to “hard-wire” justice into the economy. Christians should pray hard that Jesus Christ will “hard-wire” the gospel into Justin Welby. 

(Originally published in Republic Standard)

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