Book Review: James Featherby's 'Of Markets and Men'
Published 06 September 2012 | Wayne Clarke
The political right in the US has been re-discovering the work of Ayn Rand, a thinker who continues to influence those who consider market forces to be the proper driving force behind prosperity and morality. Rand’s politics reject religion and any form of altruism. Capitalism is the route to morality through the promotion of individual rights.
James Featherby has a different vision. Writing in his new book, “Of Markets and Men”, Featherby outlines his belief in “the market”. He believes in capitalism. He has worked in The City for more than thirty years, advising companies on mergers and acquisitions. His vision is that the nation’s financial sector can work for the good of all. He stands on the conviction that business can be based on public duty. Moral principles, he says, are for the common good and are also good for business. Business is based on trust and trust is based on honesty and mutual concern. So now, Featherby argues, is the time for root and branch change. And he has some practical proposals for how the financial world can be more neighbourly and principled.
Featherby’s first “bold step” is that big businesses should have built into them a public responsibility as well as a private purpose. Most business plans these days will include an “environmental impact assessment”, detailing how a project will minimise environmental damage. In a similar way, this first proposal argues, businesses should consider the social damage of their operations.
His notion of “public duty” is closely related to a familiar idea in business of “corporate social responsibility”. Businesses make statements about their ethical stance and their responsibilities to their employees. Many have good track records on giving to charity. “Of Markets and Men” wants business to take this a stage further - not to see the common good as an add-on, but for all investment to have financial purpose and social purpose, to have goodness written through it like a stick of seaside rock.
Featherby’s three other proposals for reforming business are more technical. He says that debt at personal, corporate and national level is something we can’t ignore any longer. He suggests some novel solutions to reducing the debt in our nation, like giving money to individuals for the purpose of repaying debt, though he doesn’t explain how this could happen without sending inflation soaring. A more reasonable proposal is to use the tax system to discourage businesses from using debt to finance their activities.
The third proposal is sensible and overdue – to discourage financial transactions based merely on speculation. Investment based on what the future markets may produce, such as futures and derivatives, is no more than gambling on people’s actions and often depends on the misfortune of others.
Featherby’s fourth big idea is to put pressure on those who speculate with other people’s money to make sure that money is put to good use, not just to make more money. A lot of talk about ethical investment is about what not to invest in, but the proposal here is that we should focus just as much on the good our investments can do.
The proposals in “Of Markets and Men” are sensible and well-thought out. They carry the values of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice and joy. The world of business, private investment and the money markets are at the cutting edge of our world, and this is the voice of a man who knows what he’s talking about, a man with a godly heart and a godly head.
I have one major concern about “Of Markets and Men”. Can deep-rooted problems really be fixed by rules and regulations? We have seen how the rich avoid paying tax by buying into ingenious tax avoidance schemes. There will always be a way for human selfishness to override regulation. Most people who are drawn to the world of corporate finance have already bought into the dream of personal wealth and a culture that is individualistic, self-seeking and pragmatic. Cultural change has to start with attracting different people, people like James Featherby, into the world of finance.
And that challenge is for the church. Are we as churches encouraging people to make careers in the most significant sectors of our society? Are we growing change-makers who will transform our world? Or will this book go unheeded because good Christian people are unwilling to take the tough option?
"Of Markets and Men: Reshaping Finance for a New Season" is out from the Centre for Tomorrow’s Company and the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity priced £5.99 (ISBN: 978-0-9572949-1-2)
Reviewed by Wayne Clarke, minister of New North Road Baptist Church in Huddersfield
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