In general, London’s tube strike had very little impact on me. In fact, whizzing on my bike past commuters trudging home on foot or cooped up in overcrowded buses and sweaty cars made me feel pretty good.
But without wanting to get bogged down in the rights or wrongs of the strike, it does raise for me an interesting question – should we do what’s best for us or best for everyone?
I imagine the tube staff who went on strike found it fairly easy to justify their actions. They wanted better pay and conditions when the trains start running overnight in September. Doesn’t everybody seek to improve their working conditions if they can? In fact, aren’t we encouraged by the capitalist society we inhabit to get as much as we can in every circumstance?
But the anguish and chaos each strike leads to reveals a bigger issue here. What is best for the tube drivers turns out to not be the best for millions of other Londoners. The strike cost the capital’s economy millions – potentially £10 million a day – put huge strain on the emergency services and made it very hard, if not impossible, for millions of Londoners to make it into their offices or take their children to school. Should that be weighed up by the Underground staff next time they contemplate a strike?
Navigating through the modern world constantly throws up different versions of this dilemma. Imagine you’re a Greek citizen worried that your bank will collapse and destroy your savings. The natural thing to do is to look to protect your cash by withdrawing it as soon as possible. But if everyone follows suit, the bank will definitely fail, causing even greater damage to the country’s economy and losing many more people their money. Do you seek your own interests or do you lay that aside for the greater good?
Should you cancel that holiday you booked in northern Africa because you’re scared of terrorism, or should you press on and take the risk, knowing that without tourism, hundreds of thousands of innocent Tunisians will lose their jobs?
Perhaps the answer is that the state should step in where people’s self-interest conflicts with society’s greater needs and take these decisions out of our hands. That’s certainly what happened in Greece where cash withdrawals were strictly limited. And that’s what the government are considering with tube strikes, by imposing strict new thresholds when unions vote on whether to strike.
But I’m not sure we can legislate our way through regulation and state intervention to a better society. One potential way forward might be to recognise that sometimes obeying our instinct to better ourselves isn’t right when it comes at a cost to others.
I don’t pretend to know exactly what the answer is about tube strikes or how to stabilise the Greek economy. But I am sure that we could all do with considering how to build an economy that looks after the marginalised rather than deeming them collateral damage in the battle to constantly enrich ourselves.
Company bosses should pay their staff a Living Wage, even if it hurts the bottom line and annoys the shareholders. Consumers should choose to buy clothes not made in sweatshops, even if they are more expensive. And hopefully, bit by bit, these small decisions will begin to reshape our economy, and then, our society.
The Archbishop of Canterbury summed it up well in a speech he gave earlier this year. He praised the market as the best mechanism humans have come up with to allocate resources and inspire creativity. But “at the same time the market cannot create or sustain the shared morality needed to ensure that it works carefully and lovingly at every level”.
He argues, and I think I agree, that we should make decisions based on whether they are good rather than whether they make money, because the heart of the gospel is not a balanced equation of costs and returns, but a reckless and undeserved gift: “The gift of the life of Jesus Christ, and the salvation that is offered, is not on the basis of merit or exchange … but on the basis of love freely poured out that overwhelms us with generosity.”
It is certainly not easy to make economic decisions in this radical new way, but it has to be worth aiming for. Because how wonderful would it be to see our economy begin to mirror the selfless love of God.