Homo Economicus: Measured by the Market

We’re seldom allowed to forget that we live in a multi-racial, multi-faith and multi-cultural world.  Yet across all the divides there is one great leveller: the market.

At some levels it’s harmless enough.  Everyone enjoys Coca Cola and everyone uses a mobile phone.  But at other levels it’s far from harmless.  The market delivers cocaine as well as coffee, and great multi-nationals bulldoze their way serenely through ancient habitats and traditional cultures.  What Solomon said of the grave is now true of the market.  It is never satisfied.

All of which sounds comfortably remote.  The bulldozer, after all, does its worst only in ‘developing’ countries.  But there is a much more invidious problem, and much closer to home.  The market is re-inventing the human species.  Once we were first and foremost ‘homo sapiens’; now we are ‘homo economicus’.  If we are economically productive, we are something; if we are not economically productive, we are nothing, and once our dear Chancellor, Mr. Osborne, hears of us he will instantly brand us as not simply ‘out-of-work’, but ‘unwilling to work’; and in view of our worthlessness he will drive his bulldozer through our Benefits.

Whatever happened to the idea that humans derive their dignity not from their productivity, but from the fact that they are made in the image of God?  Nothing can change that, and certainly not unemployment.  So long as someone remains human she has an unconditional claim on our respect and a categorical right to the support and protection of her community.

But unfortunately the Chancellor is heir to a long tradition in British government that anyone receiving public support must be made to feel humiliated.  It was very much in evidence during the Highland Potato Famine in the 1840s, when measly measures of oatmeal were doled out to starving crofters only on condition that they put in long hours of backbreaking and meaningless labour.  This was the only way to make sure they didn’t become scroungers (a tendency deemed to lie in the very genes of a Highlander).  Now Mr. Osborne wants to squeeze those on benefits till the pips squeak.

There is one honourable way to balance the welfare budget: raise taxes.  Unfortunately this runs directly counter to the age-old Tory philosophy that a man should be able to do what he wants with his own; and this philosophy is no longer confined to lairds and squires.  It is shared by all those ‘hard-working British citizens’ who believe that it is thanks to their own admirable characters that they have been able to find work; and having found it, they’re determined that the rewards will stay in their own pockets.

We need to re-educate ourselves.  A tax is not a ruthless exaction by a grasping and prodigal government.  It is an investment in community, providing us with the lampposts, police, schools and ambulances none of us could ever provide for ourselves; and with the support and care we (and I stress the ‘we’) will need when ill, jobless, aged and helpless.  Without community, we are nothing; and without resources community is powerless.

But the market is not confined to the worlds of commerce and politics.  Even in the academic world, everyone is judged on her performance as ‘homo economicus’.  How much does she produce?  How many students does she attract?  In America, the idea is rapidly gaining ground that professors should be paid according to the number of students in their departments; and, conversely, departments which attract few students should be closed.

A few weeks ago I sat in a group of middle-aged folk where the conversation turned, inevitably, to what their children and grandchildren were doing.  Two things quickly became clear: they were all students, and they were all doing a degree in Films.  No one was doing Greek, and no one was doing 16th century Scottish History.  Yet in the one lies the root of democracy, and in the other the key to all that Scotland was, right down to our own life-time.

By all means let there be people who can explain to us why so many films are junk; and by all means let there be experts in marketing who will sell our goods to the Chinese, and experts in mathematics who will check that ‘homo economicus’ is meeting her targets.  But is this all that’s meant by education?

The people, remarks the novelist, Marilynne Robinson, are now the ruling class.  In that case, the sooner they learn some Greek, History and Logic the better.  Otherwise we’re doomed to a new Dark Age under the tyranny of ‘homo economicus’, who knows no value apart from the pound in his pocket.

And now, sadly, the market is taking over the church.  Ever since its birth in mid-18th century America, Evangelicalism has been driven by individualistic entrepreneurs impatient with the historic structures of the church, and convinced that things would move much more quickly if they set up their own private spiritual businesses.  Hence the emergence of countless institutes, seminaries, organisations and TV channels, each with its own President or Director; and countless independent churches, each with its own (very) Senior Pastor.

Many in Scottish Presbyterianism are increasingly mesmerised by this American ‘business’ model.  Staff at the Free Church College have already been asked to take a cut in salary ‘to reduce the deficit’; and there is now a serious proposal to drop the church connection from the name, and call it, instead, the Edinburgh Theological Seminary.  Those behind the proposal make no secret of the fact that it’s driven by the market.  Nor do they deny that they’re aiming at the American market in particular.

But the market, whether in America or Timbuktu, will not be content with a mere change of name.  It will demand that the programme be made more ‘attractive’: drop the requirement for Greek and Hebrew; broaden the appeal of the teaching staff by bringing in more Evangelical ‘names’; give up the teaching of Scottish church history (vital for Free Church ministers, but of no interest, allegedly, to the people of Kentucky); distance the college from church control; and, above all, make the programme more ‘practical’.

This last will be the death of us, reducing the College to ‘Tips For Preachers’ and producing graduates who think they know how to say it, but have nothing to say.

The market will certainly not demand that we preach ‘Christ crucified’.

This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on Friday 24 January 2014.