The following is an extract from the booklet, One Nation but Two Cities. We are grateful for permission from the author, The Bible Society, Evangelical Alliance and The Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics.

Business and civil society

A Christian conservatism should include business as an element of civil society, existing to serve society and not dominate it. As we saw earlier, Phillip Blond excludes ‘the compulsion and determination of the marketplace’ from civil society. [1] One can agree with the critique of marketplace slavery while maintaining the socially beneficial and ‘civil’ qualities of the market- based activities of business. Whether they are limited liability corporations, mutual societies, credit unions or some other entity, businesses are key elements of what makes civil society possible. This may surprise some and especially some Christians. A suspicious negativity towards business is widespread in society and the Church. People assume not only that the proper motive of business is self-interested profit but that this is the chief motive of most businesspeople. And it is a short but unwise leap from there to assume that getting on in business involves a ‘greed is good’ mentality and, therefore, that successful business is somehow beyond the pale of Christian thought and practice.

Such negativity has some justification in the tradition. The Jewish and Christian Scriptures are somewhat sceptical of merchants who cross the sea hither and thither seeking profit. [2] However, their point is not a negativity to commerce per se. Jesus himself was the son of a carpenter and learnt the trade. Instead, what they criticise is the failure to see that money and markets are temporary expedients in a world ‘between the times’. Idolatry towards money lies precisely in refusing to see both that money is always for something else, namely the goods of God’s world, and that it will eventually pass away. Love of money is the root of all kinds of evil [3] in blinding people to these realities.

However, the world has also blinded Christians’ eyes so that they cannot divide the wheat from the chaff. A mindless negativity towards private business has bewitched some Christians who applaud the Conservative Party’s social values but think lower taxes and free enterprise somehow unchristian. Their false dichotomy has disguised the insight that (a) Conservative social policy can lessen the need for high taxes by attending to deep social problems properly and (b) business itself has tremendous potential to serve the common good, most obviously through the creation of wealth, jobs, goods and services.

A further problem today is that businesses have bought into the idea that if every corporate entity pursues its own sectional interests then the common good will result. This is a highly dubious conception emerging from one aspect of Adam’s Smith’s thought. On this basis, some businesses have forgotten the common good, increasing vastly in size, causing massive environmental damage, developing exploitative labour practices, wrecking local social fabric and creating unacceptably vast income inequalities. Conservatives concerned with just judgement which conserves the common good should be deeply worried about these developments.

Of course the Conservative Party should still be seen as the party of enterprise. It should encourage wealth creation and fair employment in conjunction with profitability and robust competition. Interior to enterprise, of course, is the prospect of businesses failing. Conserving some businesses will entail not conserving others. However, Conservatives must grasp that conserving wealth creation serves a higher goal, namely conserving people and communities. Businesses may become uncompetitive because of global markets beyond the control of employees. But people survive the failure of businesses. Society, represented by the state, must be on hand to conserve them. This conservation is itself made possible by those who create wealth and are taxed accordingly, thereby ameliorating, to some extent, the effects of intergenerational disadvantages.

Let us examine business more closely from a theological perspective. As explained above in the account of divine trust, there are many goods in God’s world. We learn from the Jewish and Christian Scriptures that everything which God made was good. Augustinian thought describes the interrelation of all these goods and their ends. The apostle Paul, reaffirming the message of the Jewish Torah, insists that ‘everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.’ [4] So Christians are to receive goods as goods and thank God for them. And the goal of businesses is to arrange goods, including service and intangible goods, so that all people, including Christians, can receive the goods they need. In order to exist as a community of diverse interests, we need a common economic language in the form of money and a variety of places where that money can be exchanged for goods which are privately owned. In the exchange of goods for money (or other goods), everyone can become more able to access the goods they need and desire. Although its practical outworking is often far from perfect, this is a perfectly reasonable Christian idea. For  it makes practical the idea of an order of value in which one thing is worth more or less than another thing.

The thirty-nine articles of the Church of England, the doctrinal basis of the established church and an aspect of our national constitution, recognised the nature of goods and property in its own distinctive way. The thirty-eighth article teaches that:

“The riches and goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast; notwithstanding every man ought, of such things as he possesses, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.”

Now this article is definitely not an argument for the modern capitalist system nor for the possessive individualism which has accompanied it. But what this article does teach is that money and goods are quite properly owned by people until they are, for example, passed to others in the form of direct transfer of money, property or pro bono services. And, by implication, the banning of the idea that all goods are held in common by all makes possible and necessary a market in goods and, by natural justice, some level of competition in that market to prevent unfair monopoly.

What is true for Christians is true for all people since all, as creatures, may have a share in the goods of the world. Indeed, the article indicates that the idea of property- owning is deep within British life. When Skelton, Eden, Macmillan and then Thatcher aspired to a ‘property-owning democracy’, they were appropriately developing this theological trust. They rightly saw that property helps to secure people amidst life’s challenges. It gives them sufficient independence to launch their own initiatives in the civil practice of business.  

Businesses, goods and trust

This article of faith and its fellow thirty- eight sit within a worldview which is not reducible to economics. It assumes that everything God made was good and that, despite the world’s fallenness, that goodness, although seriously tainted, was not annulled. All the world’s goods still come from God. Over the centuries, Christians have taken time to consider how all the different goods which there are in the world are related – to one another and to God. They have observed similarities between goods and grouped them into kinds or species; and they have seen how goods have different purposes in the world – what they are for. They have seen the relative value of goods in relation to goods of different kinds; and they have seen how goods of the same kind may be better or worse examples of that kind and so may have greater or lesser value. Through markets we can navigate the parts of this terrain which involve economic goods by using money as a common language. Of course, businesses and people may consistently make bad mistakes about the money value of goods. Prices may be too high or low and people may willingly pay those prices. But in an open market other businesses may seek to persuade people about the quality and price of the goods they provide.

Business thus aims to provide goods people need or perceive that they need. People’s perceptions of their needs may be incorrect and businesses may pander to, generate and manipulate those incorrect perceptions. But this is not a necessary part of business. Instead, business at its best will enable people to recognise goods as goods and to come to a fair valuation relative to other goods of the same and different kinds. Therefore, businesses may do much good (or harm) in the social values they promote and can shape the environment in which trust can flourish or fade. Such an outlook disciplines businesses to understand themselves as serving the common good as well as their own sectional good. As Augustine showed, love of neighbour is inseparable from love of self. [5] Just so, businesses’ activities are inseparable from the health of the social organism. For through businesses’ faithful service in providing goods with a fair valuation, a critical trust may grow between customers, businesses and society at large. Accordingly, neither profit itself nor share value taken in isolation can ever be the bottom line. For even those shareholders who, quite reasonably, desire profitability, then proceed to use their dividends to make further decisions about the value of goods. To love money is to fail to see its true meaning, namely as a symbol of the goodness of God’s world.

Consequently, directors, customers, employees, trade unions and shareholders may exercise moral leadership by insisting both on high quality goods and moral business practices concerning, for example, its treatment of employees and the non- human environment. These concerns have good economic rationale. With respect to the mode of business activity, Lord Brian Griffiths of Fforestfach, Vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs argues that a

“company with an amoral standard [of operation] would be a cold, bleak and insecure environment in which to work. Loyalty would not exist. A person’s commitment to honour a promise would forever remain in doubt. There would be no trust. [6]

He goes on to outline the positive commercial effects of solid moral standards in a corporation before commenting that these

“benefits…result from trust; and trust is an example of what an economist would term ‘externalities’…goods which have tangible economic value and which increase the productivity of a company’s operation, but [which] are not commodities which can be bought and sold on the open market.” [7]

Trust, in Griffiths’ view, is the beating heart of business. And so the growth of trust is both the prerequisite and goal of a healthy, moral market economy and the society which gives the economy its rationale. For, as we saw earlier, it is precisely the goods made available by businesses that mediate the trust between customers, corporations and generations of those who enjoy the goods.

Banking and the flight from trust

But trust is precisely what has been in sad decline and some forms of business have been directly to blame. Deep economic problems have arisen when people and businesses have forgotten the meaning and value of money. Money’s basic purpose is to enable people to purchase concrete goods or services. Banking deserves special mention at this point. The failures of many banks, Goldman Sachs included, to support the growth of trust is now well-known. The basic problem is that banking has recently become exciting and has got detached from the mundane business of life. Banking is and should be a boring affair. This is the view of Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, who has championed boring banking for years. Retail banking – the kind we see on our high street and which holds your current and savings accounts and, perhaps, your personal debts – is meant to be dull. Ideally a bank is an institution which should hold your money securely, make it available to you on request and take a low level of risk with your cash in transparently ethical investments. In particular, it should take the excess credit of Mr and Mrs Smith and make it available as a loan, on reasonable terms, to Mr and Mrs Jones. This kind of banking is manifestly not very exciting but is, at the same time, a very worthy endeavour. It is very much secondary to the primary and exciting business of economic life, which is the buying, selling and receiving of goods. A bank lending money to Mr and Mrs Jones is far less exciting than Mr and Mrs Jones actually buying and moving into their first home.

The other, more exciting, side of banking has caused the difficulties. On this commercial or investment side, there has been a dramatic and sustained departure from the boring, concrete realities of the weekly groceries and the bricks and mortar of mortgage-bought houses. Whether the Thatcherite ‘Big Bang’ reforms, which deregulated much of City activities, were ultimately responsible for this departure is a question for qualified economists. What we can all see is that banking has taken off on a flight of fancy into the strange world of bundles of mortgage debt floating around the globe from one bank to the next, abstracted from the actual bricks and mortar in London, Glasgow, Bury St Edmunds, Cardiff and Truro. Christians would argue that there has been a departure from the moral discipline which the structure of God’s world places upon our practical rationality. For a combination of the globalisation of markets and greed brought about a certain unreality in what should have been ordinary transactions. By losing grip on the created goods which people handle on a day-to-day basis and by developing financial instruments which have only a very tenuous link to concrete aspects of God’s world, our embodied lives have been ripped apart. The painful fall-out of job losses and home repossessions is the result.

In this strange unworldly way, banks have taken massive risks with customers’ money. Moreover, having been bailed out by the very people they were meant to be serving, they have not ultimately shared in those risks and their consequences. Martin Luther was scathing about similar, sixteenth century bankers, critiquing them for forcing others to bear risk and shielding themselves from suffering the consequences of loss. For to keep oneself from entering into risk is to seek to live beyond God’s providential government. This is to live a life not fit for creatures. [8] But now that we have all been brought down to earth with a bump and made painfully aware of our creaturely ignorance and incompetence, we need to stay there.

Business should serve this reorientation of our economic awareness and the growth of trust. They should seek to provide goods which are actually goods needed by the people they serve. For, contra some libertarian thinkers, it is not the act of choice itself which is basic to the moralising power of the market but rather the availability of good choices and the absence of bad, morally destructive ones. From temptingly priced, innutritious foodstuffs  to pornographic materials to dangerous mortgage packages, businesses can decide what range of choice to set before people. Choice does breed responsibility but the role of a responsible, moral market is to help people to decide what is genuinely good and its value. This is what markets should be doing. Moral business leadership and responsible consumer attitudes are key to conserving and developing markets in this direction. In this way businesses participate directly in the formation of trust, an intangible which is much needed in today’s trust-poor political and economic culture.

Markets and communities revisited

So we return to the major Conservative question of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We see straight away that an in-principle opposition of markets and communities is unintelligible. Communities gather round common goods with each individual holding some goods in private. Businesses provide some (not all) of those common goods and enable individuals, families and private institutions to have the security of their private goods which enable them to involve themselves in the community’s life. Accordingly, the markets by which businesses operate are necessary, interior aspects of communal life.

But we should be critical of certain ways in which markets operate. There will be occasions when some businesses simply become uncompetitive and unproductive. This was surely the case with many of the old nationalised industries by the 1980s. However, the rapid destruction of patterns of work on which families depended may lead to the evisceration of human hope and aspiration. Instead of supporting social flourishing, markets can bring about worklessness and state dependency for those not quick-footed or versatile enough to adapt to meet changing needs. This is the substance of Phillip Blond’s criticism of the Thatcherite era.

What does this all mean for the Conservative Party today? It means that Conservatives must grasp in new depth the meaning of business so that their right support for private enterprise may be reenergised and reimagined. They must enrich free market thought and practice by conserving the intangibles of an economy. They must see businesses as essential aspects of civil society which create trust and build social fabric as well as enabling diverse families and individuals to have a base of financial security which prevents them from becoming dependent on the state. And they must ask Britain’s leading businesspeople to face up to the moral nature of their role instead of hiding behind the myth of the neutral market system.

On one level, this is uncontroversial. Whether you are a One Nation conservative, a more libertarian Conservative or even a New Labourite you will, at some point, be happy to affirm that business achieves socially helpful outcomes. But times will come when the nature of that affirmation is tested. Then we will see what people’s true commitments are. Will they be for sectional interest alone or will they be for the goods which mediate the forms of trust that serves the common good?

There are no quick fixes in this area. Nonetheless, any Conservative policy should seek the moralisation of business leaders, the extension of the work of mutual societies and credit unions, better education about handling money and action to discourage irresponsible lending and borrowing. These things, among others, make for the growth of trust.

 ©  Dr Joshua Hordern


  • [1] Blond, P., Red Tory, 3
  • [2] Revelation 18 represents a particularly dark view of the matter in rich symbolic language.
  • [3] 1 Timothy 6.10
  • [4] 1 Timothy 4.4
  • [5] Augustine, de Doctrina Christiana, cf. O’Donovan, O., The Problem of Self-Love in Saint Augustine, Wipf and Stock, 2006
  • [6] Griffiths, B., ‘The Business Corporation as a Moral Community’ in Griffiths B., Siciro, R.A., Berry, N., Field, F., Capitalism, Morality and Markets, Institute of Economic Affairs, 2001, 21
  • [7] Ibid., 24
  • [8] Luther, M., Trade and Usury, trans. Jacobs, C.M., Luther’s Works volume 45, Fortress Press, 1962

Dr Joshua Hordern is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Lecturer in Theology, Jesus College, Oxford University; Coordinator of the Postgraduate Diploma in Theology and Religion; Director of the Healthcare Values Partnership.