Anglican Samizdat

February 10, 2009

Trollope on the financial crisis

Filed under: Christianity,The fall of the West — David Jenkins @ 6:41 pm
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There’s nothing I like better than taking a Trollope to bed, so I read this from Rowan Williams with interest:

Readers of Anthony Trollope will remember how thoughtless and greedy young men in the Victorian professions can be lured into ruin by accepting ‘accommodation bills’ from their shifty acquaintances. They make themselves liable for the debts of others; and only too late do they discover that they are trapped in a web of financial mechanics that forces them to pay hugely inflated sums for obligations or services they have had nothing to do with. Their own individual credit-worthiness, their own circumstances, even their own personal choices are all irrelevant: the debt has acquired a life of its own, quite independent of any real transaction they are involved in.

Given that the risk to social stability overall in these processes has been shown to be so enormous, it is no use pretending that the financial world can maintain indefinitely the degree of exemption from scrutiny and regulation that it has got used to.

Marx long ago observed the way in which unbridled capitalism became a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and agency to things that had no life in themselves; he was right about that, if about little else.

He makes some good points in this article; the idea that government regulation is a solution and that Marx had useful insights on the problem are not among them.

Contrast that with this from Theodore Dalrymple:

There is no finer way to destroy bourgeois society, said Lenin, than to debauch the currency, a policy that he therefore favoured.

A great deal of debauchery has gone on since Lenin’s day, not necessarily with revolutionary intentions. Whether it was at all avoidable, at least at an acceptable price, is a question I do not enter into; but that it has had an effect on people’s conduct, and even on their character, seems to me to be very likely.

When I was growing up (and I am not yet an ancient man), many of the coins we used were a hundred years old, and some were a hundred and thirty years old. Occasionally, indeed, one would find a pre-Victorian coin amongst one’s change. This was not entirely absurd: for, to take a single example, it cost only two and a half times as much to post a letter as it had a hundred and twenty years earlier. Now it costs 77.8 times as much in nominal terms. Most of the debauchery of the currency, then, has occurred in my lifetime.


My caution notwithstanding, it is clear to me when I look at the value of what I have accumulated that I have done far better out of inflation of asset values than out of saving. Good for me, and good for millions of others in like situation, you might say. We have all done very well out of it. Yes, but in the process the very values that we once thought of as bourgeois – thrift, honesty, self-restraint, etc. – have been destroyed.

The first thing to note is that neither writer is a financial expert. Rowan is the alleged leader of a religious institution, so it is reasonable to expect him to have some insight into the heart of man; unsurprisingly, he does not seem to have noticeably more than Dalrymple who is an agnostic.

Both, though, appear to see the problem as this: the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? Unhappily, Rowan leads a church which, in its sophisticated Western expression, no longer believes that, so his solution is government regulation along with the admonition that we must be nice to one another. He pays little regard to the fact that the government has nothing to regulate it, and is composed of men suffering from the same complaint that caused all this in the first place.

What is worse, the solution is one that Rowan’s church is vigorously working against: the recognition that man is sinful and can only be redeemed through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ who took our sins – even our financial sins – upon himself.

Neither Rowan Williams, Theodore Dalrymple, nor Anthony Trollope gives us a solution; Rowan should but, true to Anglican form, appears eager to shift the blame onto capitalism.


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