The Archbishop and the Accountants
By Anthony de Jasay
In a finite world of known resources, with none left unclaimed by a putative owner, nothing can be given to somebody without taking it from somebody else. This is true whether the transfer is voluntary, mutually agreed on, imposed by brute force or recognised authority. The identity of the given and the taken is shown up in double-entry accounting. Its practice may be the manifestation of a vulgar truism, but it is nonetheless a clear indicator of where we stand and a safeguard against foolish thinking. It is a pity that its lesson is so often forgotten or ignored, sometimes deliberately and sometimes inadvertently. Ambitious theories of what their avid readers are pleased to call “distributive justice” or “social justice” deal with resources as manna falling from heaven, as cake that got baked in some unexplained fashion by little green men and is now ready for us to slice and share out as justice demands, or as the product of the “laws of economics” to be distributed “as society chooses”. Politicians who promote some wholly laudable broadening of the social safety net or the extension of a highly useful public service, and who meet with resistance on grounds of unaffordable cost, contemptuously dismiss the objectors as petty “bean-counters”. Ordinary people, both the selfish and the altruist, are tempted by the promise of collective benefits and regularly fail to connect them to the burden that must fall upon the likes of them if the benefit is to be provided. Manifestly, not all people think like accountants. Some think like Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. But no one else speaks with the authority of his office.
In the June 9, 2011 issue of the New Statesman, the voice for three generations past of the soft-Left intelligentsia of Great Britain, the Archbishop wrote an article castigating the U.K.’s centre-right government for its radical deficit-cutting stance. He leant as far Left as anyone could without totally losing his balance. Admittedly, it is not the first time that the holder of his office descends in the political arena and attacks always the same one of the two contending teams, Archbishop Ramsey did so when he turned his ire on Mrs. Thatcher a quarter century ago. Even if not unprecedented, rank partisanship by the leading cleric of the established church in a fundamentally decent, civilised country is wrong and is not doing either religious or lay institutions any good.
In the avalanche of comments triggered off by the article, many defend it by claiming that the Archbishop has no less a right to express his views on matters of common interest than any ordinary citizen, and he was in fact writing in that capacity. This, of course, is arrant nonsense. A high dignitary in a sensitive position remains a high dignitary and cannot help being regarded as such no matter how loudly he claims that he is writing just “as an ordinary citizen”. In fairness to the Archbishop, it is not he who pretends to such an impossibility. But his eager defenders.
He does however, advance far more serious and destructive propositions. I shall call the first “California Democracy”, the second “St Augustine’s Plea”. In both, the Archbishop argues as if accountants had nothing to say about reality.
He finds that the British people are filled with fear of the impending pain the harsh long term deficit-cutting policies of the present centre-Right government will inflict upon them–policies for which they did not vote. This, he suggests, is a denial of democracy, though he protests that he is not advocating a proliferation of plebiscites. It seems, though, that he must be advocating just that. Otherwise, how could people vote for or against particular policies? Not spelling this out, but in effect denying it, must cast doubt on the logic, the sincerity or both of the Archbishop’s complaint. This reads rather like a barely disguised incitation not to submit to the sovereignty of Parliament.
Under the form of democracy prevalent in the U.K., people vote for representatives and vest certain powers in them. Most of the representatives belong to parties which either govern or oppose the government. In this system, constant adversarial debate from one election to the next is designed to inform the electorate about the rights and wrongs of the policies either party proposes to follow if given the chance. Obviously, blanks must remain, all promises may not be fulfilled and circumstances may alter cases. However, to say that the electorate “has not voted for” major policies is to blame the Cameron government for practicing representative rather than direct democracy.
The Archbishop is implicitly demanding a hybrid between the representative and the direct, which we may for simplicity label “Californian Democracy”. In such a hybrid system, there is a machinery for asking the electorate whether they wish to adopt some new policy or amend an old one so as better to serve the public as well as to raise some state tax to a similarly benign effect. The electorate fairly reliably answers that yes, they do want the new measure that will make some thing better, and no, they do not want the tax to be raised. California, enjoying this enhanced form of democracy, has duly arrived to the brink of bankruptcy and has been blundering along it for many years thanks to the grace that protects drunks, but at least nobody can seriously say that “they have not voted” for it. To be sure, the Swiss practise a somewhat similar system that works better, but then in Switzerland everything works better.
Taking office in 1997 and earning respect for fiscal restraint and prudence, the Labour government between 2000 and 2007 went on a spectacular spending spree, reassuringly calling it “investment” in health and education. The result has been at best mixed in the National Health Service and dismal in education, (which does not necessarily confirm, but at least does not contradict the suggestion made a while ago in this column about the negative productivity of government). The upshot was that Britain entered the 2007-2009 stormy years greatly weakened and emerged from them a fiscal wreck. In the 2010 general election, the incumbent Labour party offered to halve the deficit by 2015, the centre-Right coalition wholly to eliminate it by the same date, making it very clear that most of the reduction must be achieved by severe spending cuts and only a smaller part by higher taxes. The electorate could have been under no illusions about the pain to come when it voted for this programme.
A minor but highly interesting detail of the article is the accusation that the present British government is resuscitating the distinction between the “deserving and the undeserving poor”. Whether it is doing this, and whether doing so is sinful, harmful or both, must be open to informed judgment. In this, it is quite unlike murder, torture or willful humiliation, which we must reject as sinful and harmful without arguing for or against them. The present column would strongly argue that bringing back the distinction would be morally right and also sound policy, but it is perfectly legitimate to judge the matter differently. However, the Archbishop presents the making of the distinction as obviously beyond the pale like murder, torture or perhaps child pornography about which there is no room for argument. By a linguistic sleight-of-hand, it has been made into a shameful wrong that we all condemn.
The crucial point of the article, however, is that the deficit-cutting programme inspires anxiety and is wrong because it does not guarantee “cast-iron standards” of health, education and other “strategic priorities”. In the plainer English that used to be required at Cambridge and Oxford when the Archbishop was there as a young man, everything could not be a priority at the same time, let alone a “strategic” one. Even in the trendier and woollier language he now uses, deficit-reduction is not a priority, though everything else may well be. It comes after all the “priorities” have been taken care of under “cast-iron guarantees”. When will that be?
The answer is in St Augustine’s much-mocked prayer to God:” Give me chastity and continency–but not yet”.
The accountants, if asked, would point out that as long as all the highly desirable “priorities” are met, the non-priority items, such as the fiscal balance, will reflect the fact. The deficit will not stop; indeed, for all we can tell, it may actually worsen, since this is what it means to say that the “cast-iron standards” have priority. Whatever the present generation is given over and above what it earns, is an increase in the burden of the debt the next generation must carry. Within reason, it is our policies that decide how great the burden of the children shall be. They have no say in the matter. Perhaps there are arguments, having to do with such metaphysics as the “utility” of inter-generational income, that could justify this, though I hope that few would fall for them. In any event, before trying to justify the fact, it should be frankly recognised that it is a fact because the accounts must balance by definition. No one, not even a high authority, should get away with acting as if it weren’t so.
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For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.