Thursday, 17 March 2011

The poverty of aspiration

It would be an over-simplification to present part of the last century as a battle between collectivism and individualism, but it seems to me that there was certainly an element of that in the Labour v Tory decades.  The immediate post-war years saw a significant swing towards collectivism, even if implemented through a centralised state, and the Tories under the likes of Macmillan and Eden – and even Heath, although it didn’t feel that way at the time - largely accepted the new status quo which had been created.
But the 1980s saw a pretty decisive break with that post-war consensus, and took us to a new status quo – sadly one in which the leaders of Labour throughout the subsequent years largely acquiesced.  For Thatcher, and those who followed her, individualism was king, and ‘freeing’ individuals, in the economic sense, became the mantra for economic growth and wellbeing.
It would be wrong to say that it happened all at once, but over a period, excessive personal greed went from being something which was frowned upon to something which was openly encouraged, and through ever more effective targeting of fewer and fewer voters, the electoral contest increasingly concentrated on the ‘aspirational classes’, whose aspirations were not for society as a whole, but for the individual and his or her immediate circle.
So, when Sir Terry Matthews says that we need people to be a bit more greedy and to want to become wealthy, he is only expressing what has become the accepted norm.  And when politicians and parties try to tailor their policies to appeal to the ‘aspirational classes’, they are merely following the attitudinal changes which have occurred.
There’s a problem though.  For such an approach to be the basis of a sound economy, one has to believe that the cake can always be made ever bigger.  And that is no small problem.
In a world of growing population, and with finite limits on the available resources, one man’s greed is another man’s poverty.  For everyone who accumulates more than his or her share of resources and assets, there has to be someone else who gets less than his or her share.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t need innovators and entrepreneurs, nor that we shouldn’t hold them in high regard; but it does mean that personal greed is not sustainable as a driver.  And in political terms, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aspire towards building a better and fairer society; but it does mean that appealing to voters on the basis of promising them continued improvement in their own personal wealth is ultimately a dishonest and unsustainable approach.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with you John, but what I notice about entrepreneurs is that they actually want money and are motivated by it, whilst I'm not.

I'm certainly not saying I'm better than them, or that they are bad people. In fact, I think if you don't want to start a business to make a lot of money then I guess your business won't succeed because you're not always looking to make things better and more efficiently. You have to live the business.

If you're not that way inclined, then, to some extent you'll never succeed in business. There are examples of 'cultural' businesses and the people who run these may not be so money motivated. But they tend to be self-empoloyed. For businesses which employ more people then the money motivation has to be a factor.

What I'm saying is that greed can be bad for business. But I believe unless there's an element of 'greed' (motivation) then why would people go to the bother and risk of starting a business if they're only earning a very average salary which they could earn in the public sector with none of the hassle and stress?

In short, it has to be that the private sector pays better than the public sector otherwise a large percentage of people won't take the risk or bother with the hassle, stress, laws, long hours that running a business entails.