Last week’s contribution posed the question ‘Is income inequality bad?’. I ended up dribbling the question by posing two other questions: Are we creating an economy that excludes certain segments of society? If yes, then income inequality is bad. Are the economic resources being used for the common good? If the answer is no, then income inequality is bad.
I would like to follow in the wake of these two questions and make some further considerations. These are prompted by the annual international convention of the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation, held in Rome at the end of last week.
The convention dealt with the topic, ‘The good society and the future of jobs: can solidarity and fraternity be part of business decisions?’.
This was a challenging topic indeed as the way we answer it demonstrates a great deal about the values we uphold.
One of the points that emerged from this topic may appear to be banal, but I am still going to mention it. Does society really exist? When Margaret Thatcher had claimed that there is no such thing as society, she had shocked many people. However, irrespective of what an individual may think, the level of individualism that exists in today’s society has reached levels that one really doubts whether we still think of the term ‘society’, in the same way we used to some 20 years ago. Proof of this is the individual pursuit for wealth and profit, even at the expense of others.
Solidarity and fraternity should not be viewed as anathema to the market concept that drives business decisions
The next point is even more complex: what makes a good society? One possible answer is a society that is inclusive by nature; a society that does not exclude any segment. However, what we have been noticing is a society that is creating further inequalities as parts of the middle class are being pushed downwards while the rich become richer.
There are some who are already predicting that high unemployment will be the norm and, at best, we can push it down only slightly from its current level.
So, by definition, the good society is one where solidarity becomes a way of life (a social value, as Pope Francis put it), which as a result becomes a society that fraternises.
Thus we come to the more fundamental question: can solidarity and fraternity be part of business decisions? The issue is that the market concept has essentially evolved, with one exception when the concept of the social market economy was developed, without ever considering the solidarity concept. They have traditionally been placed as being opponents of each other.
So the market concept is based on the premise that if we look after our individual interests, it will be best for all. The more we strive and the more we compete against each other, the more we will benefit from the wealth we ourselves create.
The answer to this was initially the communist tradition. The state is best equipped to look after everyone’s interests and therefore the ownership of the means of production (including capital) should be owned by the state. However, we all know that this has failed for various reasons; probably least of all the fact that those who purported themselves to be representing the state also looked after their own individual interests.
When communism failed, it was seen by some as the ultimate victory of the market concept. Today we know that the market concept does not answer all our economic questions and one of the losers of the international financial and economic crisis of the last six years has actually been the market concept.
This is why solidarity and fraternity (which may be seen as twin siblings) need to be looked at more closely and should not be viewed as anathema to the market concept that drives business decisions. In fact, they are essential factors that need to be considered in business decisions.
This does not mean throwing the profit element out of the window; as we are all aware that, without profit, no business can survive and thrive.
It only means that the pursuit of profit needs to be characterised by a behaviour that reflects solidarity and fraternity.
One might ask how can this be possible. And it is indeed difficult in a culture that has developed over decades and centuries to find practical ways of making solidarity and fraternity part of our business decisions.
On the other hand, I would ask whether the person who pursues profit at all costs and irrespective of everything and everyone else, is actually the master of his or her situation or one has become a slave of this pursuit for profit. I believe he has become the slave.
On the other hand, a person is born to live with other persons and this implies an accountability to each other and for each other. There is a principle of interdependence among persons, even in the economic life of the community. Once we accept this principle, it is a very easy step to believe that solidarity and fraternity should form part of business decisions.
It actually frees the individual to become the master of his or her situation and not remain a slave of the pursuit of profit irrespective of everyone else.
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