The 16 words that will haunt Boris Johnson

Categorical blunder: Steve Bell’s cartoon for The Guardian, accusing Johnson of cronyism. © Steve Bell

Are capitalism and altruism compatible? Boris Johnson let slip that he thinks greed is the key to Britain’s successful vaccination programme. A shocking thought – but could it be true?

The mood at Boris Johnson’s press conference on Tuesday had been solemn, as the Prime Minister reviewed Britain’s year-long experience of the pandemic. But in the Cabinet Room afterwards, he was in a less guarded mood as he addressed members of the 1922 committee via Zoom. “The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism,” he declared: “because of greed, my friends.”

Almost as soon as he had pronounced the words, he regretted them. “Remove that comment from your collective memory,” he told the MPs – but in vain. Someone in the audience leaked his declaration to the press.

Afterwards, there were attempts at damage limitation. One MP claimed that the greed reference was a joke aimed at the chief whip, Mark Spencer, who was sitting beside Johnson guzzling a cheese and pickle sandwich.

But whatever his intentions, the incident reignites a long-standing debate. Is capitalism beneficial to humanity, or does it simply advance the selfish interests of individuals?

The classic statement of capitalism is considered to be a book by the Scottish economist Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Published in 1776, it recommended leaving economic decisions to market forces, which – Smith argued – would regulate themselves.

A few years later the French Revolution swept away the remnants of feudalism, allowing capitalism to become the world’s dominant system. The Industrial Revolution accelerated the change and highlighted both the benefits and drawbacks of capitalism. While factory owners made vast fortunes, their employees earned a pittance working in miserable conditions.

In response, a group of thinkers called “Utopian socialists” emerged. Robert Owen, a Welsh businessman, set up a factory with shorter working hours and provided education and housing for his employees. In France, Charles Fourier promoted the idea of communities in which everyone had a decent minimum income and unpleasant jobs were particularly well paid. He did not, however, object to some people being richer than others.

Karl Marx went much further in his 1848 pamphlet The Communist Manifesto and his book Das Kapital. For him, capitalism was an unalloyed evil in which working people were shamelessly exploited by the ruling class. The only way that the poor could improve their lot was through revolution – something he considered inevitable.

In the 20th Century the misery of life in countries like the USSR, and the eventual collapse of Communism in Europe, convinced most that Marx was wrong. But out-and-out capitalism was also discredited by crises such as the Great Depression.

As a result, a compromise emerged in the form of the welfare state. But whether governments should follow the socialist model of taxing the rich heavily to support the poor or the capitalist model of taxing them lightly to encourage enterprise, is a question that continues to divide people.

Are capitalism and altruism compatible?

Creed of greed?

Some say, no. Capitalism is driven by the desire for profit, which depends on producing goods as cheaply as you can and selling them as expensively as you can. It will always spell misery for those at the bottom of society, because it is in their employers’ interest to pay them badly. Globalisation has made the situation worse, since companies now go wherever they can find the cheapest labour.

Others argue that a system that generates as much money as possible is in everybody’s interest. Just look at Bill Gates: having made a vast fortune, he is now giving billions of dollars away to help people. Charities and institutions such as universities rely heavily on donations from the wealthy. Capitalism creates jobs for those who would otherwise be unemployed.

You Decide

  1. Should someone who works in the sewers be paid better than someone who runs a factory?
  2. Is a minimum income the answer to eliminating poverty?

Activities

  1. Utopian socialists such as Charles Fourier advocated setting up communes, often in far-flung parts of the world. Design a brochure encouraging people to join such a commune.
  2. Imagine that you are Karl Marx and have been brought back to life in modern America. Write a diary entry listing your first impressions.

Some People Say...

“The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake… Service to others is the only justification of his existence.”

Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982), Russian-American writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that capitalism existed long before Adam Smith expounded the theory of it. From the 16th Century, Protestantism celebrated hard work and presented wealth as the reward of the virtuous. It also emphasised frugality, encouraging successful businessmen to reinvest their money rather than spend it on ostentatious luxury. Meanwhile, the development of sophisticated legal systems and regularised currencies made business dealings less risky.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether capitalism can survive in its present form. Some environmentalists argue that a system which emphasises growth and consumerism is incompatible with attempts to lower carbon emissions and create a sustainable economy. But others, such as President Biden, believe that the development of green technology can create jobs, and that capitalists can provide many of the new initiatives in that area.

Word Watch

1922 committee
A committee consisting of backbench Conservative MPs. It was actually formed in 1923.
Vaccine success
Johnson was much criticised for putting a venture capitalist, Kate Bingham, in charge of Britain’s vaccination programme, but events have vindicated his choice.
Greed
It has also been claimed that Johnson was making a light-hearted reference to the film Wall Street, in which the main character gives a speech arguing that “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
Feudalism
A social system established in Europe in medieval times, through which vassals held land from a lord in return for homage and military service.
Pittance
A tiny amount of money. The word comes from the Latin for pity.
Utopian
In 1515 Thomas More published a book called Utopia (Greek for “good place”) in which he imagined a perfect society.
Karl Marx
A German thinker (1818 – 83) who spent most of his life in exile because of his radical views.
Das Kapital
The first volume was published in 1867, but the remaining two volumes did not appear until after Marx’s death.
Great Depression
An international economic slump triggered by a US stock-market crash in 1929.
Welfare state
A country where the government has a duty to provide a level of basic support for its citizens, such as healthcare and social security.

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