Paul says, so, amongst us, let As I was beginning work on this sermon, Irene came upstairs with a large gallon jug of hand sanitizer. She walked it over to her computer and began muttering. Apparently, Health Canada is recalling at least fifty brands of hand sanitizers because they contain ethanol and other unsafe chemicals. People who use these sanitizers may suffer skin or eye irritations or breathing problems—not good in this Covid era.
Ah. Government regulation of business. How irritating! I mean, if these products were really dangerous, wouldn’t people eventually just stop buying them? Why don’t we let the market—the buying public—decide whether or not to take the risk? Do we really need Health Canada to get involved?
Or again. Years ago, I replaced the patio behind our house. I went to city hall with plans in order to get a building permit. They declined it because zoning regulations only permit a ten-foot-wide patio when it is more than four feet off the ground. So, I built a smaller patio, paid less money, but the builder earned less too.
And then, last year, my neighbour, who lives in a house that’s the mirror image of ours, built a much wider patio. Without a building permit, I’m sure. The builder earned more money. The homeowner is happier. Do we really need City Hall to tell us what we can and cannot build?
Actually, there is an economic theory that suggests we don’t need city hall regulations. Called the theory of the “invisible hand,” it suggests that the buying or selling or manufacturing public should always be free to do what we want, with few regulatory constraints, because ultimately, the sum total of all our freely made economic decisions will guarantee the best outcome for all.
Adam Smith said so. He wrote the famous Wealth of Nations. And what he said, basically, was that our societies will become wealthier if we allow everyone to pursue their own selfish economic interests. The cumulative effect of everyone buying and selling whatever they want for themselves will be like that of a billion particles of water—polluted or not—all coming to shore at the same time, a rising economic tide that lifts all boats. Here’s a little BBC cartoon that explains this idea with a bit more style than I can. Let’s watch:
Self-interest, in other words, makes us all worker bees who—while each pursing our own golden pollen—are actually building a better hive for everyone together.
Adam Smith is not the first philosopher or economist to suggest that our selfishness can be the basis for a healthy society. The important Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, who lived 300 years ago, put it this way: “Out of ferocity, avarice, and ambition, the three vices which lead all mankind astray, [society] makes national defence, commerce, and politics and thereby causes the strength, the wealth, and the wisdom of the republics; out of these three vices which would certainly destroy [a] man on earth, society thus causes civil happiness to emerge.”
It seems as strange as black magic, as impossible as alchemy. Just mix a few poisons like lead and arsenic and cyanide and behold, endless gold! The invisible hand is almost godlike in its blessings and infallibility.
Of course, nothing is ever so simple. Especially not economics, often described as the “dismal science.” So, what do we make of this theory that drives politics even today?
Well, it stands to reason that there is truth in some of the wealth part of the theory. At least in the short term, fewer regulations may well mean more profits. For example, if you don’t need to spend as much on the concrete you use to build huge buildings because there are no regulations about what strength concrete needs when it cures—you will have a greater profit.
But as even hardened free marketeers are willing to admit, poor building codes with respect to concrete standards have led to countless deaths in places like Haiti and Indonesia and Iran when earthquakes struck. And regulations covering toys and cribs and strollers and sidewalks, and speed limits and seatbelts and helmets have saved the lives of countless people. Regulations are necessary for complex societies like ours to build safe infrastructure and for modern consumers to have safe products.
And yet, it is an article of faith—remember the invisible hand is godlike and omnipotent to turn every evil individual choice to good, at least in the aggregate—it is an article of faith among many politicians—if fewer and fewer economists—it is an article of faith that the invisible hand must not be handcuffed by regulations. We need as few of those as we can get along with, and we have far too many—environmental, safety, financial transparency, rental, commercial regulations—that are bad for business. So, at least, the political argument goes.
But let’s put all that—and many other arguments and discussion points—aside for a minute. This is a very complicated and contentious area for public discourse, and it will be very easy to get lost in all the details. So, instead, I want to focus for a minute on something else—on the notion that what really matters most when it comes to human flourishing isn’t our buying and selling, regulating or deregulating.
No, what matters most to human flourishing in business and politics and nations is not the invisible hand but holding hands.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that the picture of people as economic consumers whose individual decisions, whether moral or not, matter much less than the total impact of their decisions for economic growth is dehumanizing. It turns us into statistics rather than people with hearts. In consumer societies, what we really need—which is connection, and family, and love, and loyalty, and safety, is ignored in the interest of more stuff and choice as the be all and end all of happiness. But this causes untold personal suffering and alienation between people who otherwise should matter most to each other.
Sacks says, “A consumer-driven, advertising-dominated culture militates daily against ongoing attachments. It is constantly inviting us to switch to a different brand, try something new, go for a better deal elsewhere. It should not come as a surprise that this begins to affect human relationships as well. A society saturated by market values would be one in which relationships were temporary, loyalties provisional and commitments easily discarded.” (155)
He adds that where the invisible hand is at work, work has become “more demanding, in part, because workers can be discarded. The old corporate ideal of committing to your employees for long or even life is long past.” Loyalty is obsolescent. We live, more and more, in a gig economy, where people work harder and longer because they always work under the threat of being let go, of becoming surplus, and working for companies that treat workers as commodities matter little if their work can be shipped overseas. But this gig economy, then, means less time for family and for fun, more time that kids spend on computers and in front of screens or with caregivers hired at extremely low wages in spite of the incredible importance of their tasks—because it is a matter not of relationships or nurture, but commerce, supply, and demand. Invisible hands may be magic, but our hands are for holding tight to each other. Evolutionary scientists have long known that altruism—societies of people or monkeys or mice—where individuals work together to help each other, often at great risk to themselves, thrive. “Survival,” says Sacks, “turns out to depend not so much on individual strength or self-interest, as on habits of co-operation. One man loses against a lion, but ten men stand a good chance of winning if they can coordinate their efforts.” And I say this applies to politics and economics, to infrastructure and regulations that, for example, guarantee financial transparency or honesty, as much as it does to hunting lions.
But Such cooperation is predicated on trust—and trust shared is as real and as important to our society as fiscal capital the invisible hand deals and plays. And such trust, such social capital, like financial capital, must be earned through sacrifice and risk.
Which finally, brings me to our faith. One of the classic roles of religion, says Sacks, has been to preserve a space—physical and metaphysical—immune to the pressures of the market where trust and attachment can be nurtured. When we stand before God, we do so regardless of what we earn, what we own, what we buy, what we can afford. We do so as beings of ultimate, non-transactional value, here because someone—some force at the heart of being—called us into existence and summoned us to be a blessing. The power of the great world religions is that they are not mere philosophical systems, abstract truths strung together in strictly logical configurations. They are embodied truths, made vividly real in lives, homes, congregations, rituals, narratives, songs and prayers” . . . in community. They create social capital and trust.
Or as Jeremy Rifkin says, in our text: “Traditional relationships are born of such things as kinship, ethnicity, geography, and shared spiritual visions.” This is a very different vision than one where Vico’s vices of ferocity, avarice, and ambition are honored. Even Adam Smith, in another book, wrote that, “to feel much for others, and little for us, constitutes the perfection of human nature.” our love be genuine. Let’s hold fast with our hands and hearts to what is good. Let’s outdo one another in showing honor, contribute to the needs of others and extend hospitality to them as well. Let’s rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Let’s associate with the lowly and feed the hungry. Let’s overcome evil—not with selfish consumeristic choices—but let’s overcome evil with good. That’s how you build a healthy church—and society.
We live in an era where we’re generally too busy or too distracted for such traditional relationships. Service clubs like the Lions or Rotary have gone by the by. We hardly know our neighbours to nod at them, never mind love them. We bowl alone, according to a recent book. Our bosses have us tied up in knots with email at all hours. Traffic tie-ups make us leery of leaving home, so we cocoon when we can. Our kids don’t play in the streets but go to bed bleary eyed texting and playing shooter games that made someone in Silicon Valley a millionaire. And now Covid forces us to be even more socially distant. It’s hard.
But, thank God and thank Paul for reminding us—we have choices. We have the ability to push back not just regulations, but against being nothing more than commodified labour or consumers. Read today’s text, again, when you get home. Think of it the next time you vote or the next time you decide how you feel about a homeless shelter in your neighbourhood. Think of it the next time you have to decide between your laptop or doing a puzzle with your kid. Think about Paul’s words the next time you have to decide between a bigger car or house and a shorter work week or longer vacation. It’s complicated. I know that. I have kids and grandkids too. But with Paul’s advice in mind, whether at home or work or in the voting booth, we can choose for holding hands more and more often rather than being played by the invisible puppeteer’s hand.