The Liberal Argument Against The Archbishop Of Canterbury


The conservative argument against Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is that he’s a wet lefty and nothing more need be said. The realist argument is that that’s what the Church of England is for, where junior sons can go bemoan primogeniture and inequality when the Navy’s full. The liberal argument is a little more nuanced and all the more damning for that. He’s entirely missed what community means, equating it with statism its entire opposite.

Raising taxes would make people happier, says Archbishop of Canterbury

Well, no, not really. We can call into evidence here Richard Murphy, Senior Lecturer at Islington Technical College. He tells us that there’s a tax gap. Some £120 billion a year difference between what people should be paying in tax and what they actually are paying in tax. That’s £120 billion pieces of evidence against the idea that taxes make people happy. Even HMRC accept there’re 35 billion such pieces of evidence of the contention.

Sure, we might well like the things that tax money buys us – or even, according to the Senior Lecturer, the absence of the inflation that would happen in the absence of the taxation. I too am happy we pay rough men to do violence in the night on our behalf while we’re abed on Crispin’s Day, perhaps less so at the funding of grievance studies but still. Tax is the cost of those things, not the benefit.

But it’s here that the Welby view of the world goes seriously awry:

The Archbishop said: “Prosperity depends on the security and quality of work, and the balance of work and life, the quality of our relationships, and not just about the amount of income we receive.

“It rests on the common good as well as individual wellbeing,” he said.

The “common good” includes elements such as political discourse, science and culture, and protecting the environment, he added.

“Public safety and security, clean air and beautiful natural environments, public parks and spaces, arts and culture, the sense of belonging to a community – these are all important contributors to individual wellbeing; but can only be enjoyed if we pay for and secure them collectively.

“For these reasons, the very nature of public goods highlights the importance of public taxation in contributing to public, shared prosperity.”

There’s the technical point that he’s cocked the definition of public goods again. We couldn’t actually have communal exclusion if community were a public good for such a good is, by definition, something that is non-excludable. And don’t forget that the argument in favour of alleviating relative poverty – inequality – is that people are excluded from the community by having rather less than others. It’s simply not possible for something to be excludable and also a public good. Note that he really is appealing to the very nature of public goods here.

But the more important and liberal point is that he’s got that definition of community and communal wrong. They are the things that we voluntarily do together. Government is the name for the things we are forced by state power to do together. They’re not, quite obviously, the same thing. As Edmund Burke noted in his comments about the little platoons, as Aditya Chakrabortty is so delightfully observing and yet still not noting in his Guardian series.

A liberal – something we are around here – would be one who argues that we want to maximise the space in which people do that voluntary communal stuff, minimise where they’re forced by state power into government. That is, reduce the taxation and the force and allow the flowering of that civil society. As Chakrabortty himself keeps pointing out, we do get the flowering if only we do leave that space.

That is, the argument against Welby isn’t that he’s a wet lefty nor just misinformed about economic definitions. It’s that he’s a statist trying to impose his vision on us all rather than, say, a Man of God who agrees there are many paths into the sight of the Lord – or that paradise on Earth if you’re not into Sky Fairies.