Earlier this year American economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton published their book on Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. They signal that life expectancy in the United States – which is the wealthiest country in the world – is falling for the first time in decades. This is mainly due to the rise of suicides, alcohol poisoning and drugs overdoses among white, working age, middle class men and women. These men and women are unable to keep up in the contemporary American economy.
Europe is different from the United States, many would rightly say. We have better healthcare arrangements, social securities and safety nets. However, the Covid crisis has made clear that many European countries are also on the brink of an age of uncertainty. Private debts, unemployment numbers and income insecurities are shooting up fast. And we have most likely not seen the end of the crisis yet. Expectations are that the worst economic shock is still to come.
Ages of uncertainty are no natural phenomena. Both Isabelle Ferreras and Josh Ryan-Collins, our guests in the dialogue tonight, have pointed out how important institutions, from governments to international corporations and banks have been drivers of today’s growing inequalities and insecurities. In my opinion, the problem of uncertainty is not only a problem of institutions, but also a problem of underlying worldview and ideals.
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Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing (2017)
The American philosopher Michael Sandel has recently written about the tyranny of merit. For many decades, the dominant idea in Western societies has been that the well-being of all individuals would aggregate to the success of the collective. “Work hard and educate yourself so you will thrive” is the dominant mantra. For some this has proven to be true: they are the winners of globalisation, the haves and the cans. Many others have been unable to live up to this ideal: they are the losers, the have-nots and the can-nots.
Individuals have won
Our complete worldview, and with it most policies and collective arrangements, is aimed at the strengthening of individual well-being. And with great effect. Our free and democratic Western-European societies offer enormous possibilities for individuals. Many of these freedoms are to be cherished. The freedom to express yourself, to choose your education, to travel where you want and work where you like.
But it seems that we have come to a point where our ideals are wreaking havoc. We are not dealing with a democratic deficit or a lack of freedom, but with the problem that democracy and freedom do not work for us all. Individuals have won, but collectively we have lost. Liberal democracies in the West therefore face an important question again: how do we combine individual freedoms with collective securities? The security of a steady and meaningful job and a decent home to live in for instance.
In an already famous editorial the Financial Times stated in April of this year: “radical reforms will need to be put on the table – reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades”. I agree. The leaders of our institutions – the public and private elite – will have to step up, to prove that democracy, freedom and wealth can work for all. They will have to take responsibility to lay the groundworks for a new social market economy. Maybe it’s even time for unorthodox policy measures, like basic incomes, grand social housing plans and stronger labour laws. The only question is: where and when will new coalitions stand up, of those that are willing to take painful but necessary decisions?
Because from the current age of uncertainty we seem to be able to go two ways: into despair for many, or towards security for most. I hope we will choose wisely.