After 40 years, the jury is still out over the worth of the Templeton Prize. Most people have never heard of this Anglo-American award that goes to someone who has made “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”
But its prestige is inarguable. Presented by a high-ranking member of the British royal family — usually Prince Philip, this year Prince Charles — the prize’s financial worth has risen to above $1.5 million this year and its value is explicitly pegged to stay above the Nobel Prizes.
The annual prize ceremony also gives the recipient a pulpit in the form of an acceptance speech. This year Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks used the platform, in however quiet and philosophical a manner, to accuse contemporary economic society of a lack of morality. A lack that he says threatens the very future of Western civilization.
Sacks is not the first Jewish recipient of the prize, nor even the first former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth to win it — Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, who won in 1991, took both those honors. Sacks, though, is the first to invoke George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to criticize the direction of Anglo-American society in its current capitalist phase.
The ostensible subject of his talk was “outsourcing.” But the speech quickly took the concept of outsourcing from goods and services to “memory,” “welfare” and “conscience.” Whereas it seems like a good idea to follow Adam Smith and David Ricardo’s economic principles (“you do what you’re best at and I do what I’m best at and we trade”), we have entered dangerous waters once “morality itself was outsourced to the market.”
Sacks started with a joke — “The news that I had won this prize almost rendered me speechless, an event that would have been unprecedented in the history of the rabbinate” — but the substance of his speech is a bitterly serious excoriation of the gap between the American founders’ 18th-century vision and the current Western reality.
By his account, the ongoing systemic failures include, as well as the loss of pay and purpose concomitant with outsourcing and automation,
Wildly inflated CEO pay. The lowering of living standards, first of the working class, then of the middle class. The insecurity of employment, even for graduates. The inability of young families to afford a home. The collapse of marriage, leading to intractable problems of child poverty and depression. The collapse of birthrates throughout Europe, leading to unprecedented levels of immigration that are now the only way the West can sustain its population, and the systemic failure to integrate some of these groups.
Sacks’s books provide the historical context for his critique. But, in an election year where libertarian issues and demagoguery are on stage, there are two elements of his criticism that need further debate.
First is his assertion that we have entirely neglected our own internal ethics — “the West has, in the immortal words of Queen Elsa in ‘Frozen,’ let it go.” He did not put it in these terms but we need to have a start-up attitude to personal morality. Not just doing what has always been done, or leaving it to others, but to be “inner-directed.” As Jews with varying levels of beliefs, we need to think of how we frame our own morality, especially in an electoral season dominated by a candidate who has no apparent ethics separate from legal or financial consequences.
Second, Sacks addresses the mass misconception of what the founders meant by “liberty.” He explains that Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and even Adam Smith believe that liberty is not freedom from regulation, but the rewards of opportunity for members of a nation that has successfully internalized morality. He quotes Jefferson:
A nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.
The types of freedom to act in ways that are unrestrained by either state or personal morality, he reminds us by way of John Locke, are not liberty, but “license.”
Locke…. contrasted liberty, the freedom to do what we ought, with licence, the freedom to do what we want.
Sacks suggests that libertarians, in their misreading of founding texts and in their abrogation of communal responsibilities, are actually embracing licentiousness.
Rather than simply outsourcing care for our needy to the state; we need to care for community from a place of individual morality. It’s not the state that’s to blame, it’s how we have outsourced, along an economic model, qualities that are inimical to being outsourced.
There are few points of optimism in the speech. But he does imply that the first point of economic and spiritual success is the same: “widely distributed networks of trust.” As the yelling continues to November and beyond, we would do well to remember that.