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At last evening’s packed event to discuss Unjust rewards: exposing greed and inequality in Britain today by Polly Toynbee and David Walker it was clear that most of the audience agreed there are problems with the super rich.

These problems range from the minimal tax many of them pay, to the impact on social norms of highly ostentatious but unmerited wealth, to the disastrous consequences for business and society (ie the credit crunch) of a ‘heads you always win tails you never lose’ bonus culture.

Polly and David propose solutions in their book including closing tax loopholes, increasing taxes on the super rich and putting individual tax returns in the public domain. But despite the various policy options on offer there was also last night dismay that the super rich (especially those who avoid paying tax) don’t themselves feel embarrassed or ashamed by the scale and injustice of their privilege.

Will Hutton argued that we needed a kind of moral awakening among those he described has the ‘have lots of yachts’ (as in ‘the have’s’, ‘the have nots’, ‘the have yachts’, and ‘the have lots of yachts’)

It is interesting how often questions of values and norms are surfacing in debates on social and public policy. Richard Reeves, the new Director of DEMOS, has been talking and writing about character. In this month’s Prospect Edward Skidelsky asks ‘what happened to goodness?’, and earlier this week Independent columnist Deborah Orr, writing about the problems of prosecuting date rapists, argues ‘the truth is human beings really do have to take some responsibility for the moral policing of themselves’.

The underlying sense here is that there has been a decline in people ‘doing the right thing’, whether that is taking moral responsibility or displaying civic virtue.

In this sense, berating the rich for their unjust rewards and ostentatious shows of wealth goes along side David Cameron’s Glasgow speech telling the overweight and unemployed that they must take responsibility for their condition.

This I think begs three question to which I will return in future blogs and on which it would be interesting to have thoughts from my reader (see you at the weekend Mum):

  • Is it really true that there has been an aggregate decline in moral responsibility and civic virtue. The counterfactuals here might include the decline in crime over the last twenty years or the healthy level of volunteering?
    • Why is it that issues of morality, virtue and character have moved from the domain of philosophers and preachers to political and policy debate?
      • What are the main schools of thought about how we might increase the stock of responsibility and virtue in society?
      • All this goes back to core RSA concerns about pro-social behaviour and who we need to be to thrive in the future. The link with an earlier blog this week is that as we seek to align the RSA behind this focus we need also continually to deepen our understanding of the issues and challenges involved.


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