David Kent

Greed, envy, inequality – forces for good or evil?

illustration - Michelle Baginsky

In November 2013, Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, poster-boy for popular Toryism and potential leader of the Conservative Party in Britain, delivered the annual Margaret Thatcher lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think tank.

Although his speech attracted comments from left-leaning critics, there has been a stunning silence from his own side of politics in both the United Kingdom and Australia. It is easy to see why. Boris let the cat out of the bag when he announced that modern society needed ‘inequality’, ‘envy’ and ‘greed’. Although these are the sentiments of conservative politicians in most western countries, they are usually excised from the political vocabulary by watchful spin-doctors.

They are the words that cannot be spoken, even when the reality they represent is encouraged by political policies and actions.

According to Boris, “some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy … that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity”. What does this actually mean? It is self evident that absolute equality, in any context, is unachievable, but it is a very different thing to argue that “inequality is essential” for economic and social ends. A modern, civilised society – so politicians of all persuasions (including Boris) assure us with familiar platitudes – strives to remove the barriers to equality of opportunity and care for those who cannot care for themselves.

However, while one side of politics is inclined to use social engineering to move in that direction, the conservative instinct is to covertly engineer the reverse. In Australia, State and Federal Coalition governmental support for the needy is steadily reduced in the name of economy and good governance, with the result that inequality is entrenched more deeply than ever. One needs to look no further than post-election decisions on Gonski, the NDIS, Medicare Local and various welfare benefits to see this happening, and the gulf between institutionalised advantage and disadvantage growing wider and deeper.

Must we accept such as a consequence of the free market?

Is envy a spur to economic activity? If it is the wish to be in employment, rather than the alternative, it is an admirable sentiment. That wish is not likely to be realised, however, when conservative economic ideology demands that job-creation is the function of the private sector and while governments oversee the loss of jobs and skills formerly sustained by manufacturing.

Try telling Holden workers that their unemployment is actually an exciting new opportunity or that the nation will be better off without their skills.

We already see whole suburbs in our cities where the majority of young people are either unemployed on benefits or underemployed on wages below realistic subsistence levels, and some locales where there is inter-generational unemployment.

This situation will only get worse. It is not envy that will change the lives of these unfortunates, for they have no hope of keeping up with the Joneses, which Boris sees as the beneficial consequence of what is actually a socially-corrosive sentiment. (Recent studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion show quite clearly that materialism diminishes well-being.) That large section of society already disadvantaged by inequality cannot create the level of consumption that would make its envy a genuine driver of economic activity. The appeal of the idea that envy prompts individuals to take control of their destiny is that it sustains one of the pillars of conservative economic theory and gives its inherent destructiveness a cloak of respectability.

The greed Boris lauded was that of the ultra rich whose wealth, one imagines, we are supposed to envy and strive to emulate. He suggested such people should be feted and decorated for their achievements because they paid the taxes that helped to sustain the rest of society. The thin ice of this argument, or perhaps a recognition of its fraudulent character, came with his pious hope that the rich would be “conspicuous not just for their greed … as for what they give and do for the rest of the population”.

Goodbye to the Gordon Geckos and hello to the charitably-minded philanthropists.

The problem, however, is that charity alone will not solve the problems of modern society. Although spectacular philanthropic gestures make the news and nourish the “greed can be good” mythology, the reality, as Paul Piff a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley has noted, is that “the rich are way more likely to prioritise their own self-interest above the interest of other people“. In 2010 the poorest 20 percent of the British population gave about 3.2 percent of their income to charity while the top 20 percent gave less than 1 percent, and in Australia philanthropy by the ultra rich has a sorry history.

So, whither Australia in 2014, should we expect to see ‘inequality’, ‘envy’ and ‘greed’ wrapped in the weasel words of prudence, caution and economic responsibility or will there perhaps be a debate about the kind of society we could and should create?

David Kent

Professor David Kent taught history at the University of New England for over thirty years. Although 'officially' retired, he continues, as an adjunct appointment, to supervise research students in his field of eighteenth and nineteenth-century British social history.

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One Comment;

  1. Joshua Woodbury said:

    Great thought provoking argument. Thank you for this

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