Building an economy that works for the common good

by Most Reverend Dr Philip Freier, Archbishop of Melbourne and Chairman of the Advisory Council – The Age 14/01/2016

The Global Foundation meets in Rome this week to help advise countries how to build a brighter future.

Commentators have endowed the economy with a will and even personality of its own. They say it is hesitant or uncertain; ailing, sick, or needing a transfusion. But, more ominously, they regularly call for sacrifices on its behalf. Such language can have dangerous implications for ordinary people, because it affects how we relate to each other. Sometimes it becomes no longer as people, or family or citizens, but merely as individual components of the economy – lifters or leaners, to quote a former treasurer.

We can see ourselves less as part of a great joint enterprise but as competitors, motivated more by self-interest and less by compassion. Yet there is also a sense in which the personal metaphor is appropriate, and that is to indicate another truth, that the economy is no more or less than the interaction of persons.

In suggesting we can over-emphasise the economy, I do not mean to deny its centrality, its direct impact on people\’s jobs, family lives, hopes and plans. But, to paraphrase Jesus\’ teaching about the Sabbath, the economy was made for people, not people for the economy.

Once, when people talked about the economy, they meant local or national. Today, even ordinary citizens are far more aware of the global economy, and that it is beyond even the most powerful nation-state to dictate or direct. Technological advances, especially in communications and transportation, have brought undoubted economic benefits, but there are costs as well, such as increased opportunities for exploiting people and rising alienation, where people feel powerless to influence what is happening.

At its heart, the economy is founded on relationships: real people expending personal effort and making transactions to acquire goods and services. It is an accepted truism that the quality of our relationships in our personal lives is the most important factor in the quality of those lives – unethical conduct is felt deeply personally.

We have a sense of our activities contributing to the common good or detracting from it, and most laws reflect that understanding in attempting to curb harm and offer incentives for constructive conduct. And we know that the ethical or moral character of relationships is a powerful force for good, not least in promoting fairness and restraining greed.

I contend that the economy at large is simply the composite of all such relationships and engagements, and cannot be detached from them. The ethical character of relationship, and the good it brings, should always be a factor in the economy, at any level of consideration. In other words, while a thriving economy is a proper priority for political and financial leaders, it does not trump every other consideration, especially ethical ones.

Recognising this is vital in building a sustainable global economy that works for the common good. The Global Foundation meeting in Rome tomorrow and Monday will, I hope, provide some leadership in this direction. The Global Foundation – launched by then prime minister John Howard in 1998 – keeps a low profile, but it has had an important role as a catalyst in tackling global challenges. In 2008 the foundation ran a dialogue in Beijing and Washington to enable China, the US and Australia to discuss climate change cooperation, and it continued to advise China on climate change policy for another five years.

Since 2013, in its global advocacy role, the foundation has helped form the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and in 2014 it launched the concept of an Asian Food Partnership, led by business, to improve Asian and global food security.

Since 1997, the foundation has played an unofficial role in elevating official relations between Australia and the European Union, France, India, Brazil, and China to the level of \”strategic partnership\”. It has run global dialogues to improve ethical and effective global governance in partnership with eminent people and institutions. It convened a strategic process across many sectors in the Asia-Pacific from 2000 on involving governments, think tanks, universities, the World Bank and IMF, holding meetings in Washington, Beijing, Sydney and Singapore.

The meeting in Rome involves 50world leaders. They include the heads of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, and the World Bank, Bertrand Badre, two of the top Vatican officials in Cardinals Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State and George Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, plus the international head of McKinsey, Dominic Barton, Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp, and an array of political and economic decision-makers.

Seeking to build on Pope Francis\’ encyclical Laudato Si, encouraging reform in the global economy, the meeting will ponder whether the preferred pathway for the global economy is one of incremental improvement or if a more profound paradigm shift is required.

As the foundation\’s Secretary-General Steve Howard has observed, this meeting comes at a time when many global economic leaders are searching for new modes of thinking, operating and co-operating. We need a new vision for what is mutually possible, and a new narrative – even a new vocabulary – to guide humanity\’s shared journey into the future.

Melbourne Anglican Archbishop Philip Freier is chairman of the Global Foundation\’s Advisory Council.

Read more:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top