A Christmas Carol is a morality tale about how the single-minded pursuit of money and power de-sensitises us against the needs of others less fortunate. The greater the distance between the haves and the have-nots, the weaker the ties of our common humanity. In his story, Dickens makes the case for caring capitalism along with the therapeutic effects of sharing and community.
This is a world away from the view expressed by Boris Johnston who identified greed as the essential element in driving successful economies. The ‘selfish gene’, that some claim drives evolution, is co-opted as the force behind success in business and the prime ingredient for achieving competitive edge. In this world view the haves hold their lofty position because of inherent intelligence and the have-nots lose out because they are simply not smart enough.
Despite an initial wince in reaction to the speech there are some very seductive, if contorted, arguments being made that are not easy to dismiss. Winners tend to be created by doing better than others; if we don’t motivate ourselves to do better then we will not achieve progress; competitiveness is an important element of any business culture; people have different levels of intelligence; dependency is not a desired state for anyone; and we cannot completely eradicate greed so we have to deal with it somehow as a necessary evil (presumably by being more greedy than others).
Notwithstanding these points, generally the ‘greed is good’ argument is total codswallop and, as it appeals to our baser instincts, also dangerous codswallop.
To believe that creating or accommodating very rich people motivated by greed is in some way good for the economy is bogus. On the contrary, a strong case has been made that large equality gaps are actually detrimental to economic growth. For economies to work fluently manufacturers and providers need sufficient consumers to buy their products or services. You don’t create a healthy market of consumers by increasing poverty and reducing spending power.
Also, there is absolutely no proof of the trickle-down effect (where wealth flows from rich down to poor to everyone’s advantage). Overwhelming avarice creates periods of boom and bust, not stable growing economies; the recent world financial crisis was created by unfettered greed on a monumental scale.
Poor people are no less intelligent, or more indolent, than rich people. Your chances of a prosperous life are fashioned by a whole range of complex factors such as to being born into (or not) wealth and influence; your educational opportunities; your health prospects; and sometimes, pure luck. Failure in your chosen profession is not always a drawback to increased wealth; as the recent pay offs to the architects of the financial meltdown have proven, to our cost.
Surely there is a potent case to argue that economic success is achieved as much by collaboration as it is by competitiveness; that altruism is far more important than avarice; and that wealth inequality is corrosive to, rather than a necessary feature of, growth?
There is a key ideological battle taking place with the long term social and economic well-being of this country at stake. So, we should all be involved in the debate as it will affect all our lives.
On one side are the pre-visitation Ebenezer Scrooges who believe that wealth has to be accumulated for its own benefit; that greed is acceptable if not desirable; and that the immediate plight of the poor (many who are the victims of their own idleness or low intelligence) is of much less importance than achieving growth in one shape or another (even if this takes the form of an over-heated housing market).
On the opposite side are the enlightened Ebenezer Scrooges who believe that the purpose and manifestation of good economic policy is to bring prosperity to the many with proportionate and reasonable rewards for effort and expertise. A process that gives equal access to opportunity for all rather than a select privileged few, and protection for those who are genuinely in need. A value system that rewards and celebrates contributions to general, rather than individual, well-being and prosperity.
Who is winning this argument? Sadly it really is becoming a bleak midwinter as our average standard of living plummets; more cases of poverty are recorded; far more households in work claim benefits than those out of work; the rich are getting richer in relation to everybody else; food banks proliferate; and personal borrowing escalates, initiating another spiral of unsustainable debt.
When Dickens wrote his short novel in the 1840s the consequences of poverty was very much different than today. There was no welfare state so, if philanthropic acts such as Scrooge’s could not be relied upon, the fate of so many people was desperate and wretched. At least, as part of being in a civilised society, we have a safety net against want today and that cannot be removed, or can it?
Bolton at Home