Monday, December 02, 2013

The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate

I suspect that a large part of Boris's appeal is entirely independent of the views of left-wing commentators - in fact, given the gallons of vitriol ineffectively poured over him in 2008 by the left, it may actually be reinforced by their disapproval. Even so, the reactions to Boris's speech to the CPS have been more than disappointing - they've been deeply depressing.

Here's Andrew Rawnsley:
The speech was highly illuminating – not about what really makes society tick, but about what goes on inside the whirling head of mayor Johnson. It is his contention that "greed" and "the spirit of envy" are not vices to be regretted, but virtues to be lauded because they are "a valuable spur to economic activity".  
And Jenni Russell:
Greed is good. Inequality is essential. Envy is a valuable spur to economic activity. On Tuesday evening Boris Johnson laid out his political beliefs, in a speech in memory of Margaret Thatcher — and what a cold, hard, brutal vision it was... He thinks attempts to redress inequality are futile. He says some people are born stupid — “16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85” — and that in a globalised world they will inevitably suffer as a result. He had nothing more to say about them or their lives.
John McTernan (who, for a Labour apparatchik, I have always rated fairly highly) called it "the most disturbing speech I've heard in years". So, what was the terrible thing that Boris said? Well, there are apparently two terrible things: the first that greed is good, a virtue to be lauded; and the second that the poor are poor because they are stupid, and any effort to alleviate this is pointless - "The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate: He made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate." There's a third accusation too - that Boris is a simpleton, who doesn't understand basic mathematics.

So, greed first. Here's what Boris said:
I hope that in many ways it is NOT like the 1980s all over again... But I also hope that there is no return to that spirit of Loadsamoney heartlessness – figuratively riffling banknotes under the noses of the homeless; and I hope that this time the Gordon Gekkos of London are conspicuous not just for their greed – valid motivator though greed may be for economic progress – as for what they give and do for the rest of the population, many of whom have experienced real falls in their incomes over the last five years.
This really doesn't read to me like a full-throated defence of the virtues of greed. It is, instead, another riff on the virtues of philanthropism - something Boris has repeatedly called for during his time as Mayor. In his article, Andrew Rawnsley cites Warren Buffett as a counter-example - of greed not being a motive for, um great accumulation of wealth.
His great wealth, a lot of which he has given away, is a marker of his status as the world's shrewdest investor, not a desire for material goods.
I'd note not only that this sort of philanthropy is exactly what Boris is asking for, but also that it's far from impossible that Buffett's aim really is the accumulation of great wealth - that it is the accumulation that is the aim, and not the wealth itself. And that is as 'greedy' a motive as any. Anyway, if I was hoping for a great champion of my values, I'd expect a bit more of a defence than that they were 'valid'.

As to the Keith Joseph-esque comments on inequality, here is what Boris said:
Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130.

In other words, variation in innate ability are relevant in a discussion about economic inequality. I'm not sure that this point is refuted by the fact that IQ is a fixed scale - there will always be 16% below 85, and 2% above 130. Equally, the rest of the speech really would seem to refute the charge that Boris sees this inequality as divinely ordained and a jolly good thing:
 After five years of recession people are feeling this inequality –much greater, after all, than it was in the 1980s – and rightly or wrongly they care about it. 
It seems to me therefore that though it would be wrong to persecute the rich, and madness to try and stifle wealth creation, and futile to try to stamp out inequality, that we should only tolerate this wealth gap on two conditions: one, that we help those who genuinely cannot compete; and, two, that we provide opportunity for those who can.
He then goes on to discuss education, and housing, and infrastructure, and Europe and so on and so on. All the coverage of the speech, naturally, has been focused on the two sentences above: that greed is a "valid motivator" for economic progress (or, to put it another way, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest"); and that complete equality is made complicated by mankind's innate inequalities, which is about as uncontroversial a restatement of basic conservative belief as you are likely to see. Apply the old test of controversy and reverse the sentiment: it is entirely irrelevant to any question of equality that some people have much higher IQs than others. This may even be true, but it's a lot more controversial a statement.

Christ, politics is depressing at the moment.


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