The '1 percent' don't have a monopoly on greed
The truth is we’re all greedy. Every last one of us. You don’t need to drive an expensive car, work in a glass tower or be worth millions of pounds to be self-interested
The Church of England’s continued suffering at the hands of the Occupy LSX can be quite difficult to watch.
This isn’t just at the hands of the demonstrators themselves - although the sight of cleaners having to mop human faeces from the entrance to the Cathedral does chill the soul.
It is also the increasingly tragic attempts of the Church to align itself with this new movement.
Following the resignation of two Cathedral staff and the rather tepid foray by Rowan Williams, the latest churchman to try to hop on the Occupy bandwagon is Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York.
The good doctor’s key rallying cry is that greed – viewed here exclusively through the prism of bankers’ bonuses and tax avoidance – should become as socially unacceptable as “racism, sexism and homophobia.”
This poses problems, not least of which is that greed is a sin that differs fundamentally from the other three he listed. Greed is simply aspiration – an entirely admirable thing – taken beyond the bounds that another person thinks is acceptable.
Like beauty, greed lies in the eyes of the beholder, and this is the problem at the heart of the Archbishop’s ill-considered attempt to get 'down with the kids'. Preaching against sin is the proper place of a priest. Joining one group of sinners to execrate another is not.
How does the Archbishop define greed? His call is centred on easy targets: bankers’ bonuses, big businesses, the usual satanic shibboleths of capitalist excess.
But if we take it as read, that his moral judgement of corporate and financial capitalism is correct, is that narrow band of easily-envied and remote people really the limit of greed?
The truth is we’re all greedy. Every last one of us. You don’t need to drive an expensive car, work in a glass tower or be worth millions of pounds to be self-interested.
Let’s take tax avoidance. Tax evasion is the non-payment of taxes you owe the state. We can all agree that’s wrong. Tax avoidance is the art of not actually incurring those taxes.
When people rail against ‘tax avoidance’, they are castigating companies for not paying taxes incurred in some parallel reality.
As a company or individual, the only way to escape being a tax avoider is to deliberately structure your assets and conduct your business in a way that maximises the government’s tax entitlement. What percentage of the citizenry would, with their own money, work to deliberately owe the government more money?
I bet it’s not 99%. But the supposed supermajority is riddled by greed even deeper than that.
For a lefty, the most likely example of common or garden greed is likely to be the caricatured Conservative voter – voting for a party that (so conventional wisdom goes) will take less of their money to distribute to orphans and nurses. What despicable people! We can happily lump them in with the bankers.
Yet surely those on the left could also be called greedy? After all, they are demanding not – as the right-winger does – that they be left with what they have, but that money be proactively taken from others and spent on them.
We’re not talking about life essentials like nourishment, shelter and a basic education here. We’re talking about things like the ‘right’ to spend three years at university at someone else’s expense, or a ‘living wage’ of tens of thousands a year to enable people to do whatever they want.
The fact that many on the Left can believe that their ‘entitled’ demands, for non-essentials they can’t afford, doesn’t constitute greed owes to a bizarre form of moral alchemy.
In essence, acquiring wealth by free exchange with other individuals in a market is greedy, sinful capitalism. On the other hand, using the state to forcefully coerce assets out of people who happen to live in the same country as you isn’t.
Voting for universal benefits you don’t actually need? That isn’t greed. That’s your social conscience. That’s your rights. Right?
Wrong. There’s nothing Christian about forcing another to spend their money on a problem. For centuries, Christians have busied themselves with charity and good works – voluntary acts of kindness.
The much-lamented collapse in British charitable giving mirrors the inexorable rise of the tax burden across the last century.
Of course, correlation does not automatically equate to causation, but it isn’t hard to believe that people might be both less able and less inclined to undertake charitable commitments when those assets are already being confiscated by the state.
Dr Sentamu is well within his rights to criticise greed. I don’t support much of what he’s saying about disbarring companies from the honours list and so forth, but he has every right to say it.
But the Church has no place trying to gain some cheap street cred by siding with the sinful mob.
If the Church must have a message for the tented sewer encircling St Pauls, it must be this:
“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.”
“Now get off our steps.”
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