In Caritas in Veritate Pope Benedict XVI writes:
Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution (no.36).
I cannot imagine a starker contrast to this claim than the economic “analysis” offered by Alessio Rastani a couple weeks ago on BBC television.
His viewpoint is nicely summed up in the comment, “You see, I’m a trader. I don’t worry about that kind of stuff.” His job, he informs us, is to make money. And if we know what to do during a market crash, we too can turn it into an opportunity to grow rich. This is why so many people are pissed off. This is why the Occupy movement has taken such hold. This mindset of purely commercial logic with absolutely no concern for or attentiveness to the common good is why so many have despaired of the culture which currently governs the financial sector.
I played this clip for my students and asked them why Mr. Rastani’s comments might make people’s jaws drop, as the interviewer remarked. Only one person in the class seemed to get it; he said, “it doesn’t seem to bother this guy if his profits come from the misfortune of others.” “But he said that anyone could do it, and he told us all how,” remarked another student, who was quick to defend Mr. Rastani. And yes- that was the student who just happened to have a pretty sweet internship at Merrill Lynch last summer.
Now I would like to give Mr. Rastani the benefit of the doubt. I have no idea what it is like to trade stocks: what skills are involved, what knowledge is required, what the margin is between success and failure; but certainly the logic of “I’m just doing my job” is woefully insufficient. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we all know where we’ve heard that kind of explanation before: “I was just doing my job, just taking orders…” The same blind spot is at work, though: a blindness to the relation between particular action and the common good as a whole.
Pope Benedict again:
The market is subject to the principles of so-called commutative justice, which regulates the relations of giving and receiving between parties to a transaction. But the social doctrine of the Church has unceasingly highlighted the importance of distributive justice and social justice for the market economy, not only because it belongs within a broader social and political context, but also because of the wider network of relations within which it operates. In fact, if the market is governed solely by the principle of the equivalence in value of exchanged goods, it cannot produce the social cohesion that it requires in order to function well. Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfil its proper economic function. And today it is this trust which has ceased to exist, and the loss of trust is a grave loss (Caritas in veritate no. 35).
The myopathy of the “I’m just a trader” mindset may be professionally advantageous, but as we have seen, if extended to an entire sector of the economy, it is deeply pathological. It erodes the basic solidarity and trust that form a much deeper part of society’s foundation than the structure of its financial transactions. The success such a mindset might bring is not worth the price.
The antidote which Catholic social teaching prescribes for this pathology is simply a deeper awareness of the profound interdependence of the contemporary world.
The principal new feature [of the contemporary world] has been the explosion of worldwide interdependence, commonly known as globalization…. It has been the principal driving force behind the emergence from underdevelopment of whole regions, and in itself it represents a great opportunity. Nevertheless, without the guidance of charity in truth, this global force could cause unprecedented damage and create new divisions within the human family. Hence charity and truth confront us with an altogether new and creative challenge, one that is certainly vast and complex. It is about broadening the scope of reason and making it capable of knowing and directing these powerful new forces, animating them within the perspective of that “civilization of love” whose seed God has planted in every people, in every culture.
The well-being of each affects the well-being of all. For the Church, this claim isn’t just a pleasant sounding slogan; we actually think this is the case. And yet I’m not sure I can think of a practical principle more at odds with the mentality displayed by Mr. Rastani and those like him. I do not mean to single out this one gentleman as if he is somehow a living encapsulation of social sin. Whatever his qualifications as a representative of the financial sector (and they appear pretty meager indeed), he has nevertheless become the face of the discontent surrounding the current eurozone crisis. While he may just be a normal guy angling for attention in the international media, his comments betray a culpable blindness to the common good that a growing number of us consider to be rampant in the corridors of Wall Street. If nothing else, this viral interview puts on display the persistent tension between the search for short-term profitability and the long-term demands of integral human development.