Much of this comes across as a prescription of common sense. The authors call on a roster of economists and philosophers to support their thesis, but they speak from practical experience: Collier, a former World Bank official, has decades of experience in African economies, while Kay, former director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (and an FT contributor), advised the UK government on ways to address the short-termist behaviour of investors. They are largely convincing — although many of their policy proposals are familiar, and do not depend on the intellectual framing they are given here.
Paul Collier and John Kay, two of the most thoughtful economists writing today, argue that our problem runs deeper than hubris and complacency. The cause of our current malaise is, as they see it, a ‘half-century of extreme individualism’ – a long and damaging departure from the communitarian norms that ought to shape human societies.
It is unclear how far they think the disease of individualism has spread. They write that ‘we live in societies saturated in selfishness’, which indicates a widespread infection. But in general they suggest that ‘elite individualism’ is the main problem. Their book is in fact enlivened by many inspiring examples of communities taking action and providing practical and emotional help to thousands of needy families, from the formation of Teach for America to the establishment of London’s Little Village, run by a 400-strong team of volunteers.
The authors are confident that both leaders of the two main parties in the UK are pragmatists and that this offers the opportunity for real change. They say that the leaders we need listen to a wide range of views and are prepared to say when they are wrong. The book went to press before the UK reached the highest death toll in Europe for coronavirus and its prime minister insisted that his government had taken “the right decisions at the right time”. It’s not clear whether the authors would stick to those view now.
Still, their breezy, no-nonsense guide is packed with excellent advice — a plea for expertise rather than feeling, for pragmatism rather than ideology and for listening rather than shouting.
All the same, Kay and Collier have more than enough to get going with. Their analysis is pitiless and compelling. This is a fine, incisive polemic. No punches are pulled and they are ecumenical in their criticism: Jeremy Corbyn, John Rawls, Instagram influencers, Tea Party Republicans, Occupy Wall Street protesters, trans rights activists, and NHS administrators all rouse their ire. But if Kay and Collier are declaring a plague on both your houses, they are also commendably forthright about what they stand for. “We are communitarians and economists,” they write, “and the central argument of this book is to reconcile our communities and our economies.”