Which philosophy helps us confront the crises that beset us... "Nosotros primero" o "yo primero"?

We live in capitalist economies that deliver great wealth, innovación y dinamismo, pero se tambalean de una crisis sistémica a otra, throw up gigantic inequalities and are careless about nature and the societies of which they are part. It’s obvious that we want more of the former and less of the latter – but how? Never easy, this question is now so bitterly dividing western politics that in the US there is even talk of a second civil war. Post-Brexit Britain is only fractionally less toxic.

There are two increasingly hostile camps living in their intellectual and political silos. Por un lado, there are the “me firsts”, the apostles of salvation through individualism. Capitalism propelled by individuals aggressively pursuing their own self-interest will deliver the goods. It is essentially self-organising, self-propelling and self-dynamic. Don’t worry about booms, busts, monopoly and disastrous social side-effects; we have to put up with them as we do with the weather. They will sort themselves out in time. Any public intervention will bring errors and costs that outweigh the benefits. Allow the tall poppies to grow even taller and wealth will ultimately trickle down; inequality is the price paid for capitalist effectiveness. Capitalism harnesses the base metals of human greed and self-interest to deliver the alchemy of economic dynamism.

Por otro lado, are the “we firsts”. They are equally passionate in their insistence that salvation lies in the group and society and convinced, whether on the climate emergency, hi-tech monopolies, crippling uncertainties about living standards or just the evident truth that we humans are altruists as much as individualists, that to follow the “me firsts” is the road to perdition. What is crucial to us as social beings is the group, society, the commonweal and belonging as equals. Después de todo, it was associating in groups that was fundamental to our evolutionary capacity to hunt and to see off predators. That primeval urge to associate in the group is what underpins happiness and wellbeing. What people want is less the exercise of choice in markets, more to control their lives in the service of what they value – and that is best done collectively and, as far as possible, equitably.

And so the “I’s” and “we’s” confront each other in intense enmity, crystallised in the debates about the proper reaction to the virus. The “I’s” inhabit a world in which we must make our own choices, even over vaccination, and the state must be minimalist. The “we’s” urge mandatory vaccination, early lockdowns and Covid passports. Yet the sustainable policy is to blend the two: to find ways of persuading individuals, by choice and shaming, to get vaccinated and to ensure that Covid passports are employed, but only when it is clear that public health demands it – for NHS and care workers and for any large events. Too much “we” zeal and there is insupportable state intrusion into our lives; too much “I” libertarianism and you are free to infect and maybe kill me. sí, we need the pluralism of different options and individual agency; equally, we need an agile public realm and collective action to serve the group.

The good society (and successful public policy) is one that cleverly uses its institutions to reconcile the “we” with the “I”. It is great institutions, in the private and public sectors, which bind society and mitigate the worst excesses of both group force and individual licence. The problem is that we have too few of them and those we do have are being undermined by the dominance of the “me firsts” who insist anything to do with the “we” is coercive and undermines liberty.

Por lo tanto, despite the “me firsts”, we witness the success of the NHS through this pandemic, plainly dedicated to serve the “we” but never in such a way as to be oppressive. Por lo tanto, también, the amazing vaccines incubated in Oxford’s Jenner Institute, the university itself an example of combining the “we” of a shared academic vocation but with 37 individual, competing colleges. These were then rolled out with the impetus of the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, an institution part tax-funded and part funded from its own commercial activities but one consecrated to promoting the public interest of a strong cell and gene ecology. And all further enabled by an enlightened capitalist enterprise, AstraZeneca, which institutionally recognised its social purpose of promoting health by selling a billion doses at cost.

Another institution that has proved its worth in the pandemic is the BBC, particularly its political and health teams. Laura Kuenssberg and Ros Atkins, por ejemplo, have shown the power of impartiality, while Fergus Walsh and Hugh Pym have been models of rock-solid, informed reporting. It has had a cascade effect on much of the media. In a deadly pandemic, beyond some on the Conservative backbenches and rightwing columnists, there can be no luxuriating in ideology. Everyone wants to get to the other side in the best and safest way they can.

Our democratic institutions have been less secure. The checks and balances vital to political integrity have been found wanting. It should never have been possible for the prime minister to use executive discretion, backed by a parliamentary majority, retrospectively to change the terms of the committee on standards in public life; it should be understood that these institutions, including the Electoral Commission, can be reformed only deliberatively and with cross-party support. They represent the “we”. Public procurement, también, has proved spectacularlyopen to abuse. mientras tanto, the Tory 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 wider lesson is clear. If we want the best of capitalism and less of the worst, we need to build institutions across our economy, society and democracy that covenant through their constitutions, from a company to a university, that they will respect values we hold dear: equality, fairness, universality, transparencia, societal obligation and sustainability. En efecto, in the face of 21st-century challenges – AI, the drive to net zero, levelling up – great institutions are more important than ever. They will not emerge spontaneously from markets and the operation of capitalism. They have to be created and sustained, the progressive project of the decades ahead.

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