Over the years, I have written many times about the integral role that Christianity played in the evolution of English liberalism, arguing that English liberalism is in fact a specifically Christian doctrine, an application of broad Church Protestant Episcopalian doctrine to the political realm, and arguing that we should not expect classical English liberalism to be able to survive long without Christian underpinnings.
On the other hand, I have not raised the same concerns about the survival of Capitalism – another specifically Protestant Christian concept – without Christianity. Perhaps I should have been concerned about that. After all, at the end of the Soviet empire, we saw that in Eastern Europe and Soviet Asia those countries in which Christianity had persisted most devoutly (e.g. Poland) were markedly more successful in transiting to Capitalism. The reason often given was that in still-Christian countries there continued to be a moral underpinning to transactions – one was still supposed to keep one's word and a bargain was supposed to be fair and just – whilst in more amoral cultures the sudden switch to Capitalism and markets was interpreted as the introduction of a law-of-the-jungle screw-the-other-guy-as-much-as-you-can-get-away-with system.
But, though I should have been warned, I wasn't. The reason was that I thought that Capitalism (which I understand here narrowly to mean a system in which the providers of capital – the capitalists - are separate from the users of it – the entrepreneurs) and markets could survive on the basis of market ethics, even absent morality.
The distinction between ethics and morality is not an old one – only having first been accepted broadly about 500 years ago – and so may not be familiar to all readers here. In simple terms, we can think of morals as being truths that apply to us all whilst ethics are norms that apply only to those that sign up to them. If the gods will that we not murder, then murder is wrong. But whether we regard ourselves as bound to deliver a contract when we are verbally told we've won it, or when we receive the email saying we've won it, or when we sign the contract might reflect a norm of behaviour in our industry rather than morality (or law) as such.
There are all kinds of ethical codes: business ethics, medical ethics, legal ethics, journalistic ethics, and so on. What might be perfectly acceptable for a journalist might be totally outrageous if done by a high-court judge.
For markets to function, certain ethical norms must be observed – things like the principle that a deal should be to the benefit of both parties; or that one tells the truth insofar as it is relevant. But markets permit of considerable liberalism with respect to broader morality. My barber can be a Satanist and yet still cut my hair well and pay her bills on time.
Since markets required just a very narrow set of clear ethical norms, could be generous about broader morality, and the required norms (though they may actually have evolved from and reflected Christian practice) were well-embedded in post-Christian societies, I had assumed that the loss of Christianity did not necessarily threaten markets in the same way it threatened liberalism.
But what I hadn't really thought through was something so obvious that it is difficult to comprehend that its significance was not clear to me: the way the decline in Christianity would damage policymaking. If left to themselves, markets (perhaps even Capitalism) might survive the decline of Christianity by exploiting embedded ethical norms. But the decline in Christianity would mean that they would not be left to themselves.
Christians believe in private property – it is so fundamental that it is even guaranteed by the Eighth Commandment. Christians believe that justice ultimately belongs to the Lord and his Last Judgement will set all things right. They believe that the trials and tribulations of this world can be productive tests rather than always destructive torments. Thus, relative to certain other philosophies, Christians would be less likely to see it as the role of government to avoid individuals experiencing trials and tribulations, even if these are unfair, if doing so involves violating private property.
More than that, although Christianity came ultimately to reject Greco-Roman philosophically-driven prohibitions on usury – and thus made Capitalism (a centrepiece of which is the lending of money at interest – fundamental to Capitalism's division between the provision of capital and the control of firms) possible – that was not originally because Christianity regarded all lending at interest as morally harmless. If I lend money to someone believing she will probably not repay, I am inciting someone to make a promise she will probably break. Inducing promise-breaking would normally be regarded as morally improper, and should be regarded as no less improper when the promise is to repay a debt.
But if we reject Christian morality, in respect of private property, promise-keeping, usury, the status of justice and so on, replacing it by purely utilitarian concerns – the management of "welfare" – then these key moral underpinnings of public policy with respect to markets and capitalism will be abandoned. If policymakers think right and wrong irrelevant, but only technical welfare management counts, it will be very difficult for markets and capitalism to survive intact. Policymakers will think it their job to keep people in their houses, even if they cannot afford to pay their mortgages. They will think it important to maintain order, even if the maintenance of order involves vesting the position of the wealthy at the expense of the poor. They will think it important that individuals should not suffer as a result of pure bad luck if such suffering can be spread across society. They will think almost any contract permissible that promotes aggregate social welfare and higher GDP, even if that contract incites the breaking of a promise.
In general, because policy is no longer predicated on the notion that our ultimate hope lies in Heaven and in the transforming of Earth by participating in the Kingdom of Heaven here, they will be tempted to collectivise most suffering so as to limit its impact on any individual – even though such collectivisation destroys private property and comes at the expense of justice and social mobility; even though such collectivisation damages incentives to probity and converts the state into a mechanism for keeping the rich rich.
If, therefore, Capitalism and markets are to survive the decline of Christianity, it is not enough that post-Christian ethical norms be embedded in social practice. We also would need a set of Christian political ethical norms to be fully embedded into policymaking. Unfortunately, precisely what the "decline of Christianity" means in this context is the decline and uprooting of Christian political ethical norms. The issue never was whether most ordinary people were Christian or behaved in accordance with Christian morality. It was always a top-down matter from the start.
So, contrary to what I had thought for so long, we cannot have a decline of (political) Christianity without that threatening our economic order as well as classical English liberalism. Ho, hum.