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Faith in Practice

Principled economics

Lizzy Clifford

FIPDilnot.jpgA former Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Andrew Dilnot was awarded a CBE in 2000 for services to economics. As Principal of St Hugh's College, Oxford, he is the first principal of an Oxford college to have been educated at a comprehensive school.

There has been a tendency to think that the financial crisis is a bigger and more extraordinary event than in many ways it is. Of course it is big, and a lot of people's lives have been terribly affected by it, but if you take the long view, the thing that should astonish us is that we haven't had a recession for 16 years! Yes, I think some bankers acted irresponsibly, but we were all involved. We were all spending more and more, enjoying a higher and higher standard of living. It's part of our created nature, and we all share that Old Testament characteristic: the   pattern of disaster, repentance, and wisdom, which is very quickly eroded.

As an economist, I'd like to believe that economics offers a way of thinking about the world that has some really powerful insight and truth. It's a way of understanding things about the world that can otherwise seem quite puzzling.
People can often be surprised that there are quite so many Christian economists. I've not felt any particular antagonism between economics and faith throughout my professional career. Our modern societies in fact make little sense without very clear moral values. The Health Service, for example: it makes no economically self-interested sense for me to pay taxes for an elderly widow, in some part of Britain I've never visited, to be treated. We must either love these people, or we're mad.

One of my favourite Old Testament verses is in Job: 'He who made me in the womb made him too' (Job 31:15) that's what we're recognising, the importance of equality of value in God's eyes. The same is true of education. We educate everybody because it's right. These are forms of altruism that wouldn't occur in the animal world. My argument is that these are all forms of Christian moral values which, in the Western world, come from a shared moral heritage.

I went to a very large comprehensive in Swansea. That was an interesting experience, because I was small, good at sums, and sounded like an English person in a school where not many people were like that. The school also hadn't really had any tradition of sending people to Oxford and Cambridge. So, rather to my surprise, I arrived at Oxford in 1978 as an undergraduate reading PPE, with no clear idea what I was doing.

Choosing to do economics was a funny thing; it's what I had a gift for. One of the things I say again and again to my students is that it's incredibly lucky to come across the thing that you love and you're good at. I had been an average pupil at school, but when I started doing economics at the beginning of the sixth form, it was something completely different for me. I could do it and I loved it, and I've gone on loving it for more than 30 years now.

As principal of St Hugh's College in Oxford, I'm involved in almost everything: from what role the dining hall plays in the life of the students, to doing all I can to facilitate our fellows being able to get on with their research. One of the things I'm very keen on is encouraging all sorts of Christians to come to the college chapel as well as all sorts of people who aren't Christians, those who are just interested in coming along.

I believe that my faith is true. And I also think that my faith should and must affect my views about everything. But I strongly believe that neither a university - nor an economic research institute - should have any explicit affiliation to one particular faith. And yet the high value I see in
education is entirely consistent with the Christian faith, as is putting a very high value on every individual. I do think that seeking after wisdom and understanding is really what a university is about, and I think that's part of what God calls us to.

Towards the end of my time at Oxford as an undergraduate I became a Christian. I met a group of people who were Christians, and I'd been puzzled by their lives, how contented they were, how clear they were about what they thought they wanted to do, and what they thought they should do. I hadn't thought very much about it, until I met the woman who is now my wife. I fell head-over-heels in love with this person, who also seemed to have whatever it was I thought these friends of mine had.

I felt somebody tapping on my shoulder, but I was fairly disconcerted by it because I had no background in any religious faith, and I thought the experience was just a bit weird. But I started going to church with Catherine and reading a lot. I can't think of a particular day, but over a period of six months of thinking about it and really feeling led towards faith, I was there. Honestly, if two years before somebody had said to me 'What do you think about Christianity?' I would have said, 'It's clearly stupid. Science demonstrates to us that it's nonsense.' Catherine and I have been part of the same church for 27 years now.

I think of theology as our overarching truth. We ought to be able to fit our individual bits of the pursuit of knowledge and understanding into an overriding truth that is a theological one. I don't think as Christians we need to be involved in the specifics of decision-making at policy level but we do need to be humble about whether the policies we have are the right way of achieving our shared theological objectives. I think sometimes we tend to get involved in how we should achieve our theological objectives, and don't speak loudly enough about why we should do it. And I think that can be a far more powerful message.

Andrew Dilnot was talking to Lizzy Clifford