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How did we get here? From income stagnation to inequality and social dislocation: there are plenty of culprits for the increase in populism across the developed world. But for economists Paul Collier and John Kay, there is a deeper cause: the rise of an extreme individualism at the expense of community, of which narcissistic politicians such as Donald Trump are simply the “apotheosis”.

In Greed Is Dead, a brief but dense polemic, Collier and Kay contend that this individualist ethos is “no longer intellectually tenable”. They have two broad targets in their sights.

The first is Economic Man — described as the “repellent” invention of market fundamentalists who believe people act only to maximise their self-interest and must be monitored or bribed with bonus payments to serve the interests of their organisation.

This is not how most people behave in reality, whether in public service or in business — a successful business, the authors contend, is not an “eat what you kill” free-for-all but a successful community where people draw on collective knowledge and work towards a common goal.

Their second target is the self-righteous activist who loudly asserts an ever-expanding set of individual entitlements and legal rights — whether to intellectual property, housing, tertiary education or gender determination.

This kind of stridency, argue Collier and Kay, makes it harder to seek a political compromise through reasoned argument. Moreover, the expansion of rights that could only conceivably be met by the state makes it all but inevitable that governments will fail to meet expectations and lose the trust of voters.

The authors are democratic in their criticism: they are as scathing about the moral superiority of know-it-all academics or public sector workers (distinguished only by their better pensions) as they are about social media influencers, financially clueless Occupy protesters, or the modern day equivalents of Charles Dickens’s Mrs Jellyby — forever petitioning for the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, while doing nothing to address the social problems on their doorstep.

They are also refreshingly apolitical. The rejection of Economic Man is not a rejection of the market or of business — Titus Salt, the 19th-century textile magnate who spent his fortune on housing his workers, is held up as a model of what business can achieve in a community.

A criticism of Labour’s failed programme of nationalisations blames not the fact of state ownership, but the attendant problems of over-centralisation, over-ambitious scale and officials’ fear of owning failure.

Collier and Kay argue that this kind of heavy-handed, top-down management — whether in the public or private sector — compounds the ills caused by individualism.

Their remedy is clear. They believe the stable, centrist politics of the postwar period was based on a “communitarian consensus”, with the left invoking solidarity and the right nationhood. Since then, individualism has eroded community-based organisations — from trade unions to building societies.

Now, they want power to be returned to communities. This means giving city regions political autonomy and the tax raising powers to go with it.

It means spreading good jobs and prosperity around the country, partly by developing a network of regional banks committed to the fortunes of their local area. In some cases, it means the state doing less and community organisations more: an over-centralised state monolith may not be the best way to deliver healthcare, let alone social care.

The Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize

Now in its eighth year, the FT and The Bodley Head, one of Britain’s leading publishers of non-fiction, team up to find the best young essay-writing talent from around the world. The competition has been the springboard for many writers; entries can be submitted at ft.com/bodley2020. It is open to anyone between 18 and 35 years of age.

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.

The book was completed at the start of the coronavirus lockdown, which has placed new strains on both central government and communities.

As the authors note, Athenian democracy buckled and never recovered from the plague that hit the Greek city in the 5th century.

They conclude: “Soon, we will either be celebrating the value of community, or contemplating the awful consequences of its loss.”

Greed Is Dead: Politics After Individualism, by Paul Collier and John Kay, Allen Lane, RRP£16.99, 208 pages

Delphine Strauss is the FT’s economics correspondent

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