‘Values’ Talk at Davos

By Jay Richards

Over at Sojourners, Jim Wallis discusses the rhetorical change that has taken place at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He describes conferences prior to 2008, in which discussions on “moral values and the economy” were insignificant, and seemed like “extracurricular activities.” In contrast, at the 2008 conference, after the financial crisis hit, “values” were suddenly a hot topic, with a plenary session on “Values and the Market.” In 2009, “there were 17 sessions with the word ‘values’ in the title.”

Wallis goes on:

I found myself on a plenary panel with Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, addressing the subject of “Rethinking Values in the Post-Crisis World,” and talking about business with a moral purpose—even as a tool for eliminating poverty. But some of us began to feel the danger of just holding values seminars as a response to a devastating economic crisis. Behaviors created this crisis, and unless our values talk led to changed behaviors, it all wouldn’t mean very much.

Out of that conference a Global Agenda Council on Values was formed, and I now find myself unexpectedly as its chair. This Council on Values has been given the task of shaping what the World Economic Forum is calling the “Moral Economy Dialogue”—a multi-year process that will develop serious tools for personal, organizational, corporate, and national values assessments that focus on changing behaviors.

I agree with Wallis that we should evaluate economic policy on moral principles (I prefer “moral principles” to “values”) and that principles without behavior don’t do much good; but I find little comfort in the fact that it’s now fashionable to use the word “values” at Davos.

First of all, using phrases like “human flourishing” and “the common good” (which Wallis mentions) are useless if there’s no agreement on what such phrases refer to.

Second, and worse, such phrases too often serve as euphemistic cover for questionable economic policies, rather than general, well-defined moral principles.

Finally, and most crucially, even if we agree on certain moral principles, such as the inherent dignity of the individual or the need to alleviate poverty, what have we solved? Economic outcomes do not grow automatically out of abstract moral principles. And without economic knowledge, we can’t know what behaviors ought to follow.

For example, let’s say the CEOs of the major investment banks and companies most involved in the 2008 financial crisis were all deeply committed to “human flourishing” and “the common good,” and were never motivated by selfishness. Moreover, they all wanted to act according to their principles. Would that have prevented the financial crisis? I doubt it.

Or, what if every member of Congress wanted to “cure poverty as we know it?” Would they then agree on issues like the minimum wage, or subsidizing mortgages for people with poor credit, or extending unemployment payments, or government-to-government foreign aid? Of course not, because they would still have different economic views, and so would disagree about how to alleviate poverty. Wallis and I probably agree at the level of general moral principle, but we still disagree on all sorts of economic policies.

That’s why talk about “values” in economics and business—even when that vague term refers to universal moral principles to which we are all committed—is window dressing unless it’s yoked to economic reality. Worse, if it’s used as a cover for behaviors of questionable economic wisdom, it’s actually misleading.