'The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed, my friends.' So Boris Johnson is reported as saying this week. Well, the vaccines were actually developed in publicly funded universities, and administered by a publicly funded NHS, within a law-abiding society, bound by a broadly accepted (if fragmenting) social contract.
More fundamentally, I would stake my life that the creativity, innovation and hard work was done by people motivated by a desire to serve their fellow citizens, and to learn and get better at what they do, in an environment where they were trusted not to act in narrow self-interest.
A ten-minute RSA lecture by Dan Pink (watch here if you’re interested) cites research showing how poor greed is at driving performance. Far from being a rule of nature that we’re motivated by greed, it is a lie that has worked its way into the foundations of our economic, and increasingly our social, systems.
Clearly greed can play a part in motivating, but effective management requires more than financial rewards; from picking strawberries to writing software, appealing to self-interest invariably leads to poor, short-term decisions, divisions and misery. An enlightened manager seeks to reward fairly, and then tap into the deeper, more powerful desires for shared purpose, mastery and autonomy.
So, why are you getting politics from your greengrocer? The illegitimate faith in greed shown by our PM’s comments will lead us over the cliff, destroying all that so many of us love about our country, and ultimately our planet. This week, I was going to write about Riverford’s plans to reach net zero by 2030 – but the more I come to understand the environmental plans of our government and other institutions, the more I realise they are repeating the same mistakes that got us into this mess: they are substituting CO2 for pounds in their usual patterns of thinking, treating each tonne of carbon saved or sequestered as a commodity, and assuming that greed and the marketplace will find the solutions.
But any market where the quoted price for the same commodity (those tonnes of CO2) varies by a factor of over 100 lacks credibility. We desperately need well-considered policies and courageous leadership, not the further abdication of human responsibilities to dysfunctional markets. If we acknowledge and harness our nobler motivations, so much more is possible.