Champagne Lifestyles: The Changing Notion of Greed
The Institute of Ideas - Battle of Ideas 2009
Prime Minister Gordon Brown responded to the economic crisis by calling in March for "a return to the values of the good society." A true son-of-the-manse, he invoked a time when "hard work and effort was valued along with enterprise, honesty and integrity." Certainly, there is a consensus across British politics that our values are in crisis as well as our economy.The Joseph Rowntree Trust's Contemporary Social Evils report declares Britain is beset by problems like drink and drug abuse, family breakdown and rampant individualism. Similar concerns about "Broken Britain" led Tory shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley to suggest the recession might be "good for us," because "people tend to smoke less, drink less alcohol...and spend time at home with their families." The predominant critiques suggest today's crisis is a symptom of our addiction to consumption, and a good society should focus on well-being and happiness instead.The global crisis is regularly presented as "payback time" for human greed. The Labour-left group Compass notes approvingly that the recession is working as a corrective against "individualistic and materialistic attitudes." Others argue for a "new corporate ethics," with financial risk-taking and rampant capitalism indicted by events. But is the recession really a problem of ethics or morality? Is there a danger the new anti-capitalist ethic amounts to little more than risk-aversion and paralyzing regulation? What about innovation and experimentation? If we demonize the aspiration to wealth as "greed," how will society reward success and encourage ambition, and the competitive spirit that so often drives social progress?We are told to reject "me, me, me" individualism, but must we choose between selfishness and altruistic sacrifice, or might we form bonds of solidarity around collective self-interest? And is a bit of individualism really so bad anyway? Debating what we mean by the Good Society allows us to imagine how society could be rather than accepting the status quo. But as we search for a new kind of politics, will we rekindle idealism or instead adopt "post-recession virtues" that - far from allowing us to move society forward - will reconcile us to less ambition, less freedom and less capacity to shape society?