The meltdown of financial markets and the soaring national debts have had a crippling effect on the US, the UK and the EU. The euro is in jeopardy, particularly due to the financial mess in Greece. Governments try to come to grips with this disastrous situation by imposing deep cuts in social welfare.

Despite two world wars and the fall of the Berlin Wall, we seem to have learnt very little- Klaus Vella Bardon

Society, especially the more vulnerable members, always pays the price with less money available for social services, pensions, education and health.

Capitalism is getting a bad press and there is public outrage against the very philosophy that had seemed to triumph with the fall of Communism and was expected to lead the world, at least the Western world, into a future of unparalleled prosperity.

For too long, economic endeavour has been determined by finance and economic experts that are totally divorced from reality. The public is bombarded with statistics and technical jargon that has failed to camouflage the fact that the way they do business is terribly wrong.

The monetary crisis is reflected in the general social breakdown that is afflicting society and the catastrophic degradation of the environment resulting in wholesale overfishing, deforestation, decreasing biodiversity, desertification, poisoning of the food chain and so on.

When asked, in August 1910, what was wrong with the world, G. K. Chesterton gave a very short answer: “The devil”. A hundred years later, few will deny that the devil is having a field day.

The rot has been setting in for a long time. Despite two world wars and the fall of the Berlin Wall, we seem to have learnt very little.

Our financial institutions have betrayed their bona fide depositors and used the financial markets like gambling casinos. As to be expected, we are now faced with bankruptcy. The need to curb the devil’s work is overdue and ethics has to be returned to the market place.

The best place to start is to support and promote capitalism that makes sense. We have to stop subsidising the dinosaurs and return the land to the people that work it, where food is not treated as a commodity to be speculated on in the stock markets. Government policies should cut big businesses down to size, especially those that have no loyalty to their employees or to the communities they are supposed to serve.

The backbone of a healthy society is the family and private property. Private property is not just having a home, a car and money in the bank. Above all, it implies empowerment by giving people the means to earn a living.

These ideas have been championed for years and we neglect them at our peril and that of future generations. As early as the last century, Chesterton and his friend Hilaire Belloc urged the restoration of private property as the foundation for a sane economic order insisting that private property should be distributed as widely as possible.

Their philosophy that mirrors that of traditional Catholic social teaching was strongly promoted by the late economist E. F. Schumacher who pointed out the link between morality and economics with utmost clarity. Morality is more real for us when it is local. That is why Schumacher had titled his book Small Is Beautiful.

Such a philosophy is so clearly spelt out in Rerum Novarum, the landmark papal encyclical on social issues that it bears being repeated verbatim:

“Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which belongs to them; nay, they learn to love the very soil that yields in response to the labour of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of good things for themselves and those that are dear to them. That such a spirit of willing labour would add to the produce of the earth and to the wealth of the community is self- evident. And a third advantage would spring from this: men would cling to the country in which they were born for no one would exchange his country for a foreign land if his own afforded him the means of living a decent and happy life.

“These three important benefits, however, can be reckoned on only provided that a man’s means be not drained and exhausted by excessive taxation. The right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man; and the state has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone but by no means to absorb it altogether.”

This was written 120 years ago in 1891. What is valid for farming is valid for any other economic activity and the grassroots are realising more and more that the way out of the present morass cannot be achieved by the usual financial monkey business that has ruined society in the first place. We need to promote a humane economy of family-owned and cooperative businesses, building up communities that are aware of our eco-system and the food we eat.

Every society has to work out its own special situation and there are obviously no simple formulas that are the solution for everyone. Yet, with goodwill and clear thinking and the restoration of ethics, we will realise that predatory capitalism promoted by big finance does not translate at all into widespread general well-being.

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