What philosophy helps us face the crises that beset us … “us first” or “me first”? | Will hutton
WWe live in capitalist economies rich in wealth, innovation and dynamism, but which teeter from systemic crisis to crisis, create gigantic inequalities and neglect nature and the societies of which they are a part. Obviously we want more of the former and less of the latter – but how? Never easy, this question now divides Western politics so bitterly that in the United States there is even talk of a second civil war. Post-Brexit Britain is only slightly less toxic.
Two increasingly hostile camps live in their intellectual and political silos. On the one hand, there are the “first selves”, the apostles of salvation through individualism. Capitalism propelled by individuals aggressively pursuing their own interests will deliver the goods. It is essentially self-organized, self-propelled and self-dynamic. Don’t worry about booms, recessions, monopolies and dire social side effects; we have to endure them as we do over time. They will get better over time. Any public intervention will lead to errors and costs that outweigh the benefits. Let the big poppies grow even more and the wealth will eventually flow; inequality is the price paid for capitalist efficiency. Capitalism exploits the base metals of human greed and self-interest to provide the alchemy of economic dynamism.
On the other hand, are “us first”. They are also passionate in their insistence that salvation lies with the group and society and convinced, whether it is the climate emergency, high-tech monopolies, crippling uncertainties over living standards or simply from the obvious truth that we humans are as altruistic as individualists, that following “me first” is the path to perdition. What is crucial for us as social beings is the group, the society, the common good and belonging on an equal footing. After all, it was the association into groups that was fundamental to our evolutionary ability to hunt and repel predators. This primordial desire to associate in the group is what underlies happiness and well-being. What people want is less exercise of choice in markets, more control over their lives in the service of what they value – and this is best done collectively and, where possible, fairly.
This is how ‘I’ and ‘we’ clash in intense enmity, crystallized in debates about the right reaction to the virus. The “selves” inhabit a world in which we have to make our own choices, even when it comes to immunization, and the state has to be minimalist. The “us” are asking for compulsory vaccination, early closures and Covid passports. Yet the sustainable policy is to mix the two: finding ways to persuade individuals, by choice and shame, to get vaccinated and to ensure that Covid passports are used, but only when it is clear that the public health demands it – for the NHS and care workers and for all major events. Too zealous “us” and there is an unbearable state intrusion into our lives; too much libertarian “I” and you are free to infect me and maybe kill me. Yes, we need the pluralism of the different options and the individual agency; we also need an agile public space and collective action in the service of the group.
Good society (and successful public policies) is a society that intelligently uses its institutions to reconcile the ‘we’ with the ‘I’. It is the large institutions, in the private and public sectors, that bind society together and mitigate the worst excesses of collective strength and individual license. The problem is, we have too little of it and those we have are undermined by the dominance of ‘me first’ who insist that anything to do with ‘us’ is coercive and undermines freedom. .
So despite being ‘me first’, we are witnessing the success of the NHS through this pandemic, clearly dedicated to serving ‘us’ but never in a way that is oppressive. So, too, the amazing vaccines incubated at the Jenner Institute in Oxford, the university itself an example of combining “we” with a shared academic vocation but with 37 individual and competing colleges. These were then deployed at the instigation of Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, an institution funded partly by taxes and partly by its own commercial activities, but devoted to promoting the public interest of a cellular ecology. and strong gene. And all this again enabled by an enlightened capitalist enterprise, AstraZeneca, which has institutionally recognized its social goal of promoting health by selling a billion doses at cost price.
Another institution that has proven itself in the pandemic is the BBC, in particular its political and health teams. Laura Kuenssberg and Ros Atkins, for example, have shown the power of fairness, while Fergus Walsh and Hugh Pym have been role models in solid and informed reporting. It has had a cascading effect on much of the media. In a deadly pandemic, beyond some on the benches of the conservative backbench and right-wing columnists, there can be no lust in ideology. Everyone wants to get to the other side in the best and safest way possible.
Our democratic institutions have been less secure. The checks and balances essential to political integrity were considered insufficient. It should never have been possible for the Prime Minister to use the discretionary power of the executive, supported by a parliamentary majority, to retrospectively change the terms of the Committee on Public Life Standards; It should be understood that these institutions, including the Electoral Commission, can only be reformed deliberately and with the support of all parties. They represent “us”. Public procurement has also shown itself to be spectacularly subject to abuse. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party has demonstrated its institutional weakness, becoming hostage to its ultra-libertarian wing and arriving at public health policies erratically and often too late.
The larger lesson is clear. If we want the best of capitalism and less of the worst, we must build institutions through our economy, our society and our democracy that are committed through their constitutions, from a company to a university, that they will respect the values that are dear to us: equality, fairness, universality, transparency, social responsibility and sustainability. Indeed, in the face of the challenges of the 21st century – AI, the trend towards net zero, upgrading – large institutions are more important than ever. They will not emerge spontaneously from the markets and the functioning of capitalism. They must be created and perpetuated, the progressive project for decades to come.