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versão On-line ISSN 2304-8557
versão impressa ISSN 0023-270X

Koers (Online) vol.79 no.1 Pretoria Jan. 2014




Goals, ways and the roots of our economic crisis


Doelwitte, weë en die wortels van ons ekonomiese krisis



Bob Goudzwaard

Social Philosophy and Economics, Free University, The Netherlands





This article deals with the question if and how far religious points of view and messages of churches involved matter in the analysis of the roots of the present global economic crisis, and even more in the discussion about how to overcome the crisis itself. Economic experts such as Stiglitz point to the presence of factors such as greed, fear and utmost selfish behaviour. It inevitably leads to the ethical, but in fact also the religious question of how far people, especially economic agents, can go in the pursuit of their own economic interests without doing harm to others. Jesus asked his disciples to follow him: with Bonhoeffer, we could call that a Way-orientation. Where and how far can a conflict therefore arise between human goal-orientations, on the one hand, and a biblical Way-orientation, on the other hand? And is it indeed relevant when considering our present economic crisis? This article defends the last position, describing some categories (such as the choice of ultimate meaning, the sacro-sanctity of chosen instruments, and the demonisation of opponents) which indicate that the borderline has been passed between responsible and irresponsible goal-orientations. The glorification of greed and the delegation of ultimate power to financial markets indicate that at this moment elements of idolatry (or the obedience to Mammon) are at hand. They are also aggravating the present economic crisis. This implies that returning to the choice for decisive normative Way-orientations in economic life is possibly the only true way out of the present economic crisis.


Hierdie artikel vra of, en tot watter mate, religieuse standpunte, insluitend die standpunte van die kerke wat betrokke is, saak maak in die analise van die wortels van die huidige globale ekonomiese krisis, en selfs meer in die bespreking van hoe om die krisis self te oorkom. Ekonomiese kundiges, soos Stiglitz, wys op die teenwoordigheid van faktore soos hebsug, vrees en uiterste selfsugtige gedrag. Dit lei onvermydelik tot die etiese (en eintlik ook religieuse) vraag van hoe ver persone, veral ekonomiese agente, kan gaan in die najaag van hulle eie ekonomiese belange sonder om ander skade te berokken. Jesus het sy dissipels gevra om hom te volg: saam met Bonhoeffer kan ons dit 'n Weg-oriëntasie noem. Waar en hoe ver kan 'n konflik tussen menslike doel-oriëntasies aan die een kant, en 'n Bybelse weg-oriëntasie aan die ander kant ontstaan? En is dit inderdaad relevant wanneer ons ons huidige ekonomiese krisis bekyk? Hierdie artikel verdedig laasgenoemde posisie en beskryf van die kategorieë (soos die keuse van finale betekenis, die onaantasbaarheid van gekose instrumente en die demonisering van opponente) wat aantoon dat die grenslyn tussen verantwoordelike en onverantwoordelike doel-oriëntasies oorgesteek word. Die verheerliking van hebsug en die delegeer van finale mag na finansiële markte dui daarop dat elemente van idolatrie (of gehoorsaamheid aan Mammon) inderdaad tans teenwoordig is en die huidige ekonomiese krisis vererger. Dit impliseer dat die terugkeer na 'n keuse vir bepalende normatiewe Weg-oriëntasies in die ekonomiese lewe moontlik die enigste ware Weg uit vir die huidige ekonomiese krisis is.




Every year the United Nations publishes 'outlooks' on the world economic situation. This is not usually very hopeful material. But the most recent report by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations (2013), entitled 'World Economic Situation and Prospects 2013', is truly pessimistic.1 It states: 'The world economy is on the brink of another major downturn' (Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2013:3). It adds: 'During 2012, global economic growth has weakened further,' bringing with it a heightened 'risk of a double-dip global recession' (ibid:1, 27).2

One of the main causes of this adverse development, the report says, is that many governments are busy fighting their budget deficits, which are much too high. They need to cut their expenses, which then leads to more unemployment. This is a sad story, also for the faltering South African economy. And it begs the question: What are the factors or causes that have led to this current sad situation?

It is not my purpose in this article to provide a detailed discussion of global economic problems. I have another purpose in mind. The discussions about today's crisis, in the reports from the World Council of Churches (2009), almost completely neglect faith-oriented perspectives, including the testimonies and witnesses of Christian churches.3 I would like to explain why, in my view, this omission is harmful, and even substantially diminishes the prospects of our present economic crisis taking a turn for the better.

Usually people say that economic crises are value-neutral or of an a-religious nature. Economic crises are thus best handled by economic experts, without intervention by political know-alls or moralistic preachers. At first this sounds quite reasonable. But then what prevented all of this economic expertise from redirecting today's economy away from the brink of another possible major downturn? Is it possible, then, that we are not really on value-free, neutral ground?

A great deal has already been published about the causes of today's crisis. The most competent analysts, such as Nobel prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz (2010), have concluded that it started with an overflow of newly created money entering the Western economies, mainly in the form of speculative credits created by a large number of greedy banks. Already here it is clear that we are no longer on value-free ground. Stiglitz has touched on a cultural dimension - the dimension of greed. Cheap money, he explains, also awakened the lust of many governments to spend far more than their taxpayers were willing to give to them. Since 2002 money has been so easily available that a number of states fell into the trap of delivering huge programmes without adding to the fiscal burden of their citizens. Think, for example, of the Greek government, which now finds itself purely at the mercy of the financial markets. And in cases like this the financial markets have just one purpose: to get their money back. Yet they live in fear that they will never see their money again.


Two basic orientations

The entire world economy thus seems to be caught in the grip of both greed and fear. Moreover, it seems to have fallen prey to a multitude of selfish agents who are driven by powerful financial goals. Now one could, of course, argue that greed, the fear of losing money, and the presence of harsh financial goals are in no way new phenomena. And because they are not new, one could also argue, there is not any basis for using these to explain the roots of today's economic crisis. I certainly agree that greed belongs to all ages. But I would like to suggest that this does not imply that there is no connection between greed and today's crisis. For example, is today's vigorous pursuit of financial goals not enabled -as never before - by the unprecedented freedom given to contemporary financial markets? This also raises a related ethical question: How far, in the context of today's largely privatised monetary system, can people pursue financial goals such as these before they begin to threaten their own future and the future of others?

But this is much more than merely an ethical question. Addressing a Christian audience today, I would like to draw your attention to the unavoidable fact that risking your own future and the future of others also has a religious dimension. When Jesus asked his disciples to follow him, he was asking them to orient their lives around His way of love, truth, justice and compassion. That is a different kind of orientation from orienting your or my life towards personal goals of material acquisition. There is a difference between what we could call a Way-orientation, the orientation inspired by values and norms such as love, justice, truth and compassion, and a Goal-orientation, which orients our actions to what we ourselves want to reach or to preserve.4

Of course, these two orientations can collide. Suppose they do collide. If we pursue goals that involve enhancing our own economic position, how can we prevent doing harm to others?

As we shall see, this is a key question if we wish both to understand the root causes of today's economic crisis and to search for potential ways out. Let us therefore explore this question in more depth.

Let me take as our starting point that all of us have goals and plans in our lives, and we are often busy trying to accomplish them. In fact, without short- and long-term goals, life is almost impossible. Families need prospects, and no corporation can exist without some kind of business plan. And you and I would never vote for a political party without some kind of programme. But it is also true that our lives and societies would become chaotic without fundamental orientations towards ways of life or norms for life. In the Christian worldview love, truth, justice, compassion and stewardship are destined for all people to be ways or paths to walk on. Even peace is called 'a way' in the New Testament, a way that is clearly different from the goal of guaranteed safety. In Luke 1:79, Zachariah, for example, the father of John the Baptist, prophesied that the coming Saviour 'will guide our feet into the path of peace'.

But does that necessarily imply that by definition there exists a deep tension between these two orientations, between goals and ways? My answer is no. These orientations can go hand in hand. Our own personal goals can certainly be expressions of life-affirming ways of love, justice, compassion and stewardship. But that is only possible if we allow the orientation towards ways of life to take the lead in every critical situation. Self-oriented goals should always remain subservient to what following the Way requires of us. Our own goals need to yield, to give in, or even be given up at the moment that they would lead us astray. To give a brief example: striving for a nation's security or seeking to preserve a people's identity can be legitimate goals. But great tensions arise if people pursue them at any cost, if people are not willing to accept any ethical restraint in the practical realisation of these goals (Klapwijk 1987).5

At first glance this dilemma is of the same character as the two types of ethic that the German philosopher Max Weber formulated about a century ago. He made the famous distinction between 'Gesinnungsethik' and 'Verantwortungsethik', between the 'ethics of conviction' and the 'ethics of responsibility' (Weber 2009; see also: Enderle 2007). For Weber (2009), responsibility must take the lead. But it is remarkable that Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1955), in his well-known treatise on Ethics (written between 1940 and 1943), refused to make this distinction his own (Blackburn, Bonhoeffer & Weil 2004). Unlike Max Weber, for Bonhoeffer the word 'responsibility' was characterised by the willingness to obey Jesus' demand to follow Him even if this has severe personal consequences. Bonhoeffer's ethics was thus not centred on the question of doing more or less good, but on how Jesus Christ as Lord is given shape in our lives and in the life of our societies. 'Gleichgestaltung', living and acting in conformity with our Lord Jesus, was the heart of his ethics (Bonhoeffer 1955).

Bonhoeffer's (1955) ethics is also called the 'Ethics of the Way'. His favourite psalm was Psalm 119. Brian Brock (2005:11), in his interpretation of Bonhoeffer's comments on Psalm 119, wrote: 'The Psalter frames the concept of instruction or command with a dynamic understanding of human behaviour. Commands mark out a path, stand alongside something continuous and ongoing'. This is similar to Martin Buber's (1997) translation of the Psalms. Buber always translated the word 'Torah' as 'Weisung', meaning 'guidance', guidance coming to us from God's fatherly hand. This is much different than a set of rigid statutes. Buber's reading suggests that Psalm 119:96, 'I have seen an end to everything, but your Way is very wide', can be read as 'I have seen an end to everything, but your Way is one that widens as we follow it, step by step'.

I will try to take the same approach. This means that my vantage point starts from the assumption that referring to a Way-orientation, both in our own lives and in the life of our societies, implies much more than accepting some kind of restraint or boundary in the pursuit of our own goals. A true Way-orientation does not restrict life but encompasses life. Ways of life are like water surrounding a fish. They form the climate in which we can breathe freely and are enabled to choose truly responsible goals. But if we reject that perspective, and especially if our own self-oriented goals take the lead, then sooner or later ways such as justice, love and stewardship become distorted or crooked. Then they also lead to deep, unavoidable crises in our personal and social lives.

Let me illustrate all this by exploring some basic criteria that could help us to find a line of demarcation: a distinct line between the legitimate pursuit of one's own goals and targets, on the one hand, and the abyss of neglecting any kind of Way-orientation, on the other. Though this may seem like a highly theoretical endeavour, it is not. We need criteria like these to dig more deeply into the roots and sources of today's economic crisis.


Four basic criteria

The first criterion is related to the central significance of the concept of meaning in all that people think and do. 'Meaning' was the first word of the opening sentence of Herman Dooyeweerd's (1997) A new critique of theoretical thought. There he wrote: 'Meaning is the mode (or way) of being of all that exists' (my translation). We may call this primary meaning. Primary meaning is meaning which comes to us from beyond ourselves. It may come from the Torah, or from Jesus' teachings, or from the future (I think here of Bonhoeffer's concept of living in 'das Vorletzte', the 'things before the last'). It may also come to us as engraved in God's creation. Alongside of that there are kinds of meaning that originate in our own ways of living and thinking, meaning that we as human beings ascribe meaning to things. We may call this secondary meaning (Smit 1987).6 An inescapable aspect of being human is that we actively seek to make sense of the events of our lives and of our world (Smit 1987).7

Primary meaning is, however, not a human construct. It is always perceived as a given meaning. It comes to us or is revealed to us as ways to walk on or paths to walk down. Martin Buber (1997) once wrote that feelings of sympathy dwell within us as human beings, but human beings themselves dwell within love. That is primary, given meaning. At the same time, however, our own self-oriented goals can become so important that we begin to ascribe to them the status of primary meaning. We can become so strongly attached to what we want to achieve or preserve at all costs that we fall into the temptation of considering these goals a matter of ultimate meaning in our lives. For example, our quest for guaranteed security and survival can become so important that we consider it worthy enough to sacrifice everything to achieve it.

But then indeed a deep tension becomes apparent. For there can be only one source of ultimate meaning. If achieving your or my own goals becomes our ultimate purpose in life, then we make these goals absolute, which implies that we reject any critique of them from the perspective of Ways that are given to us. Then we no longer have room for following someone who once was willing to give up his entire life in love for and obedience to his heavenly father.

A second criterion comes to the fore when we look closely at what happens to people's values as they strive for absolute goals. Their attitudes towards good and bad change radically. They bend and twist norms like truth, love and justice in such a way that these norms or values legitimate in advance what they have in mind. Then you can indeed give yourself permission to neglect the real interests of others in economic and financial affairs.

Incidentally, this is and always has been the birthmark of all great ideologies. Often ideologies are seen solely as broad social phenomena, but the process of distorting norms and values can also take place in our personal lives, in our own hearts and minds. Bonhoeffer (2005) wrote about 'Doppelganger', a counterpart or 'double' of oneself that comes to life as soon as we read the Scriptures from a preselected, unassailable position - the 'heavenly double of my earthly ego'. Then the Bible merely echoes what we want to hear and believe.

After we ascribe ultimate meaning to our own goals, and after we distort fundamental values from the perspective of our goals, there is a third criterion for understanding when and where people cross the line between striving for acceptable goals, on the one hand, and pursuing absolute goals, on the other hand, thus rejecting any kind of primary meaning. When human goals become absolute, something changes in the realm of the methods and instrum