, , , , , , , ,

Are European values in jeopardy? This was the subtitle of a discussion on ‘Money and Morals’ that took place Sunday, February 26, at the Burgtheater, organized by the Institute for Human Sciences, IWM, in cooperation with the Austrian daily ‘Der Standard’ and the Erste Foundation. The meeting, which brought together the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, with Gesine Schwan, political scientist and SPD candidate for the German federal presidency in 2009, as well as Peter Eigen, founder of ‘Transparency International,’ and Heiner Geißler, CDU politician and former German federal minister, was part of the series ‘European Debates’ which has been organized by IWM since 2010.

Values is a loaded concept, and the same is true for money and morals, and therefore, unsurprisingly perhaps, the discussion gravitated towards sweeping statements of the type we need more solidarity, less emphasis on competitiveness, must ‘domesticate’ our economy, give civil society a voice, and return to virtues.

Preaching was also not absent, whereby it was not Cardinal Schönborn who took the lead in this respect, but Heiner Geißler who sermonized against capitalism as if he represented the reincarnation of Karl Marx and Jesus Christ in one and the same person. Geißler’s new book entitled Sapere aude (Show courage!) will be published next week, and therefore his polemic also served the purpose of self-advertising.

By far the most interesting part of the discussion was the one on the type of economic model to strive for in the future. Peter Eigen did not have a problem with capitalism as a concept but was happier with that of a free-market economy, and agreed with Gesine Schwan that regulations are as important as capital. Furthermore, their optimal combination must be achieved in the framework of a social market economy. The model of the social market economy, which is distinct from but displays affinities to catholic social teaching, was the model which guided European recovery after the end of World War II. In its emphasis on justice, re-distribution and the role of the state it also underpins the present European institutional framework, and the latter’s approach to socio-economic development.

The speakers disagreed on the necessary pace of reform and the driver of change. Three of them favored an iterative multilateral approach which does justice to different nations, policy domains and stakeholders. Heiner Geißler, who proclaimed that it is not possible to baptize capitalism clean, favored a more revolutionary tactic concentrating on the financial markets, but he failed to provide the details as to what this might entail.

In actual fact, nobody disagreed with the proposal to regulate financial markets, yet Geißler’s polemic was alienating not least for its language: to ‘clean’ or ‘baptize’ capitalism are terms that should be used with more caution given their susceptibility to associations with ideologies that build on scapegoating.

What definitely went missing in the discussion was the presentation of the pro-capitalist view. A debate only deserves its name if it engages contrarian views and there were none of those on this panel which, for one, included three practicing Catholics. This made it especially easy for Cardinal Schönborn to assume a noble stance. When asked about the contribution of the Catholic Church to European values, all he had to do was comfortably lay back and point to the fact that bishops, like himself, are not the only representatives of the Catholic Church, since the speakers on either of his side were not only active citizens but also believers.

More generally, the debate at the Vienna Burgtheater showed the difficulties inherent in discussions that remain abstract and too ideological. Contemporary calls for an ‘end to capitalism’ risk becoming a fad—just like Fukuyama’s famous ‘end of history’ thesis back in 1989. Change happens at middle-range, not at the extremes.