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PISA2018 – 5.3 Value Creation, Merit Selection and a Moral Society

Neal Lawson of the Compass Group in the UK pointed to the National Health System and social care system starved of resources stretched beyond breaking point and that minimum pay and conditions policies had increased insecurity: trusted news reporting like the BBC, police and armed forces as well as the economy need public investment. Both top-down state emergency action and bottom-up capacity and resilience building are important. “… the war against Covid-19, must be the pivotal moment when the primacy of the public is re-asserted. … To be clear, this is not simply a battle of left versus right, but public versus private.”

Mariana Mazzucato, professor of economics at University College London and author of The Value of Everything, called for the crisis to be an opportunity to do capitalism differently. She pointed out “the prominent role of business in public life has also led to a loss of confidence in what the government can achieve alone – leading in turn to the many problematic public-private partnerships, which prioritise the interests of business over the public good”. It requires a rethink of what governments are for, that they should move toward actively shaping and creating markets that deliver sustainable and inclusive growth. They should also ensure that partnerships with business involving government funds are driven by public interest, not profit.

National governments, Mazzucato said, “have a huge responsibility in shaping the markets by steering innovation to solve public goals, in the same way that has been done by ambitious public organisations”. They “must invest in and in some cases create, institutions that help prevent crises… Covid-19 is a major event that exposes the lack of preparedness and resilience of the increasingly globalised and interconnected economy, and it certainly won’t be the last. But we can use this moment to bring a stakeholder approach to the centre of capitalism. Let’s not let this crisis go to waste.”


In an address to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce on 10 December 2018, Michael Sandel, Professor of Government Theory at Harvard University, summarised ideas from his book, “What money can’t buy” published in 2012 which examines the impact of neoclassical economics. He says, “The most fateful change that unfolded in the last three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.”

John Lanchester in The Guardian of 17 May 2012 described Sandel’s thesis as “in its calm way, an all-out assault on the influential doctrine that the economic approach to “utility maximisation” explains all human behaviour.. That which is supposed to be a communal good is being marketised and turned into cash. This has two consequences that often recur and are stressed by Sandel: one is that the process is unfair, and the other is that it is corrupting or degrading to the thing being marketised.”

Mainstream parties have failed to understand the real changes involved. The upheavals are a consequence of globalisation. The benefits have been shared unequally, those more advantaged gaining most of the wealth. Social mobility has diminished and the less advantaged feel ignored.

The now select few have developed a perception of entitlement, that they have got there by virtue of their superior merit, intelligence or hard work. Merit is now determined by the market.

Those who have not gained are considered to have not made the effort: therefore not deserving of success. The new elite look down on those below: the less advantaged are very conscious of that and have developed a feeling of inferiority.

Mainstream political parties have failed to recognise these changes as being about more than wages and jobs. In other words the outcome has been not just economic, not just about wages and jobs, it has been moral and cultural.

Public discourse has been hollowed out.

The rise in autocracy has been accompanied by xenophobia, seen especially in attitudes to migrants.

Sandel notes that the young people in his classes at Harvard mostly come from the more advantaged sections of society, as at other universities and colleges such as Stanford, despite subsidies intended to encourage a broader enrolment. Those young people however bear the scars of the journey so far, the constant and unrelenting demands for more coaching, higher marks, greater effort.