finance

Greed is good, but not good enough


I’m developing a habit of disagreeing with Boris Johnson, and it’s comforting to know that I’m not alone. The latest person to disagree with the prime minister is . . . the prime minister himself.

He told fellow Tory MPs this week that “the reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed”. Then he changed course with the nimbleness of a container ship in the Suez Canal. According to his aides, he “very insistently” told MPs to forget what he’d just said.

Saying that greed produced the vaccine is a statement of the obvious for a Conservative politician. It’s bizarre he regretted making it. Maybe he’s so used to correcting himself that he did it out of habit. Boris, it’s OK: backing capitalism does not break any manifesto pledges; the only capital you don’t like is London, the metropolitan hellhole where you’ve chosen to spend your entire career.

But this is Johnson’s genius. You can choose either one of two contradictory positions, and find that he’s on your side.

You can admire greed, or reject it, and he’s with you all the way. He’s a liberal guy, who’s passing a restrictive policing bill. He’s a low tax guy, who’s raising taxes. He promised there would be no checks in the Irish Sea, no cuts to army numbers, and an imminent plan for social care. Now he’s clarified that he meant the exact opposite.

As a leader, he’s less of a Heineken and more of an Alexa, claiming to respond to what you said and not taking any responsibility for misunderstanding. You asked Alexa for an immediate lockdown, but instead Boris played a recent episode of Countdown.

Is this a problem? Not for him. His appeal is that at least his instincts are right. Yes, he burnt down your kitchen, but he was only trying to make your favourite brownies.

More profoundly, Johnson captures our ambivalence. British voters want a European-style welfare state and US-style tax levels. They want to be a global power without fighting any wars. They want to export to the world without compromising sovereignty. English voters want to feel proud of the UK, without making any sacrifices to keep it together. He offers it all.

So it is on capitalism. In recent years, polls have found that capitalism is no more popular than socialism in the UK (and in Germany, and among younger Americans). Of course, this is a silly choice, like asking people whether they would prefer to go to Morrisons or Mars. But it highlights how the film Wall Street doesn’t resonate as an instruction manual.

Our thinking is better summed up not by Gordon Gekko, but by the actor who played him, Michael Douglas, who, after ending up in drug and alcohol rehab, declared: “Everything is a question of moderation.”

For young people in particular, capitalism is hooked on unequal pay and environmental destruction, and in need of a detox. Greed keeps goods flowing, but almost too well. Just ask delivery service Deliveroo, whose initial public offering has been hit by investors put off by its treatment of workers.

Greed also gave us the cladding crisis. Arguably it even gave us the outsized container vessels, such as the one now stuck in the Suez Canal.

Thanking greed for the vaccines is a bit like attributing a successful summer barbecue to humans’ discovery of fire. It misses the point. A barbecue is controlled fire; a vaccine is controlled greed.

But even controlled greed isn’t how most of us want to remember the pandemic.

We want to think of Captain Tom Moore and the clap for carers. When we obeyed lockdown rules and waited in line for vaccines, we felt the opposite of greedy.

Greed may be good, but it isn’t good enough. Johnson’s ambivalence reflects the national mood. Look, I’m developing a habit of agreeing with him.

henry.mance@ft.com



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