THE INTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY FOUNDED IN 1840
OF PUBLIC SERVICE
The slogan “build back better”, with its tinge of hope for a new world, resonates with the Easter message. But what does it mean? It is the banner under which the British Prime Minister – echoed by the American President – hopes government and society will face the future as the Covid pandemic subsides and something more like normality returns. “Better” implies there is a “good” to aim for, and not just more wealth and greater efficiency. It implies a moral improvement, and a transcendent goal. US president Joe Biden has gone further than the UK prime minister Boris Johnson in articulating what that improvement and that goal might consist of. But Biden signals his attachment to certain general ideals, broadly speaking the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Johnson remains a pragmatist, whose guiding political philosophy, beyond holding on to power, has always been elusive.
In almost the opening move of his presidency, Biden has steered through Congress, a $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan”. Its most spectacular ambition is to halve child poverty, which implies a substantial redistribution of wealth in one of the world’s most unequal societies. That is the kind of ambition which should appeal to his British opposite number. To achieve it would be a compelling argument for voting for the Conservative Party in the next general election. There are no votes, on the other hand, in reducing the income of the poorest section of society by £1,000 a year, the current Tory plan. This comes on top of the £12 billion taken out of the welfare budget – Britain’s poverty relief plan – under his Tory predecessors. It has escaped no one’s notice that the people hardest hit by the pandemic and its associated lockdown is that same poorest section of society, people who were already struggling to keep themselves and their families afloat.
But commending the example of President Biden to Boris Johnson is not enough. Indeed Catholic Social Teaching has not yet quite caught up with the full measure of the challenge of building back better. The call this week by 24 world leaders – including the UK prime minister, the German chancellor and the French president, though not the presidents of the US or China – for a new global settlement to help the world prepare for future pandemics is an acknowledgement of the need for global solidarity to address global problems. But solidarity needs the balancing balm of subsidiarity. The British approach to mass vaccination has so far been a resounding success, while the vaccination programme in the EU, which has often been described as having been based by its founding fathers on the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, has been marked by hesitancy and muddle.
The pursuit of a European common good has collided with the priorities of the democratic process. There is an unresolvable conflict between the central control of economic and social policy, in the name of the common good, and the need of politicians to seek regular re-endorsement at the ballot box, in the name of subsidiarity. Brexit was only one manifestation of it. Yet to turn Europe into a single nation-state with one government would make the levers of power so remote from ordinary people as to seem like a bureaucratic dictatorship. EU vaccination policy certainly has that aroma to it.
Yet the British experience was far from a triumph of “Anglo-Saxon” free-market economics. The private sector was tasked with setting up a national test-and-trace service, at immense cost to the taxpayer but with very little benefit. The vaccine rollout, on the other hand, used the existing public sector infrastructure of the National Health Service. The other British success, the development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, was a striking example of Whitehall civil servants “picking winners”, and publicly funded research at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute. AstraZeneca chose with admirable public spirit to market its vaccine at cost, forgoing the huge profits it could have made. The vaccine success story in the UK owes little to market forces, everything to an ethos of public service.
But how is that ethos to be built into government and business? Politicians need to be popular to be elected; businesses need to make a profit to survive. The former need high ideals and challenging visions to capture the public imagination, such as the defeat of poverty. The latter need some other goal than the maximisation of shareholder value: in other words, companies need to be about something else than self-interest, either of managers or workers. Employees cannot be expected to engage wholeheartedly with an enterprise whose sole purpose is to enrich someone else, probably already better off than them; merely providing employment is not in itself a sufficient purpose for a company. And the state has to be revalidated as an agent of the common good. In both public and private sectors, this entails a new view of work as a noble and elevated calling. Everyone has a vocation.
The Biden anti-poverty project implicitly revives an idea whose time could be coming as part of the postCovid world: a common universal wage. It could be a powerful instrument of social justice, particularly when advances in artificial intelligence and robotics may well make good jobs more difficult to find. The universal basic income is not an entirely novel idea, having been suggested more than 500 years ago by St Thomas More no less. It partly exists already if free healthcare and free schooling, and the welfare state itself, are seen as part of the “social wage” which is available to everyone.
It could make good economic sense. John Maynard Keynes once suggested half-seriously that, contrary to received economic wisdom during a recession, bankers should stand on street corners handing out five-pound notes to passers-by. Following Donald Trump’s lead, Joe Biden has decided to continue making cash payments to every citizen on the government’s books. Putting money in people’s pockets does not make them idle: it makes them spenders. Shops benefit, wholesalers benefit, manufacturers and importers benefit, and so do tax collectors. This is not discredited trickle-down economics, it is social justice trickle-up. Catholic Social Teaching – and Boris Johnson – could do worse than embrace Keynes as a wise and kindly guide to building back better.
2 | THE TABLET | 3 APRIL 2021