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Day to day interactions underpin our national mind set. We need to take 'the economy of regard' seriously, argues Matthew Taylor.

A subplot of Ali Smith’s powerful post-Brexit novel 'Autumn' concerns the narrator’s frustrating experience of trying to renew her passport at the Post Office in the face of a variety of increasingly ridiculous bureaucratic hurdles. Smith subtly invites us to make a connection between the officious and hostile way the state sometimes treats people and the disenchantment with authority that fuelled many referendum votes.   

In his vivid and humane book ‘The Ordinary Virtues’, historian and public intellectual Michael Ignatieff reflects on discussions around the world – from Rio to Fukushima - with civic activists and people living in poor communities. Ignatieff notes the irrelevance of either human rights or global ethics discourses to the lives of people trying to survive and get on with each other in diverse, deprived communities. In extolling the importance of ordinary virtues like honesty, trust, and mutual respect he writes; ‘only when citizens feel they are treated with minimum decency by their own public institutions can they be expected to treat strangers with equal decency’. 

Both Smith and Ignatieff encourage us to understand what is right and wrong about our world, not through ideologies or conceptual frameworks, but through the eyes of people, especially those whose lives are toughest, going about their day to day business relying, in part, on strangers to survive or prosper.

There is quantitative data to support the view that day to day interaction underpin our national mind set. The World Values Survey finds those countries with the lowest levels of interpersonal trust are also those most hostile to outsiders.

But if our capacity to treat strangers decently, preferably kindly, is a national asset who is doing the accounting? The sad truth is that the strongest processes at play in our world are systematically degrading this asset.

In public services the combination of austerity, regulation and fear of blame means too often citizens are treated with what feels like indifference or hostility. What parent or child thinks they are as important to a school as OFSTED? How can social carers - many on the minimum wage, some forced to pose as ‘self-employed’ - allocated fifteen minute time slots with patients be expected to do more than the bare minimum? From benefits claimants to taxpayers to drivers it often feels that state officials are incentivised not to help us but to catch us out before punishing us summarily.

As consumers of commercial services we are motivated very often by the bottom line, something exacerbated by the ease of internet price comparison. One consequence is that businesses try to make their profits by minimising customer care and maximising the scope for hidden add-ons. Large parts of the retail financial service sector has become a disorganised conspiracy against the consumer. Time and again – broadband providers and delivery services being among the worst offenders – customer ‘help’ services seem to have been designed to encourage people to give up seeking help or even the truth.

And now to add to conventional media outlets with a business model based on maximising human contempt for others, we have the world of social media. A world in which immediacy and anonymity fuel disinhibited nastiness. As Michel Ignatieff said in his RSA event, in fifty thousand or so face to face meetings with the public as a politician he faced rudeness on only a handful of occasions while the responses he got on social media were so vile his wife tried to stop him reading them.

At home and abroad, most obviously in the US, a political class which in a different universe might be trying to pour oil on these troubled waters is instead cranking up the wave machine. Wider political discourse feels ever more like a massive exercise in grievance mongering. Established institutions – like the church or the BBC – seem too busy fighting a rearguard action against their own reputational crises to name what is happening, let alone fight back.  

Twenty years ago the economic historian Avner Offer coined the phrase ‘the economy of regard’ to describe the ways in which institutions and norms embed reciprocity and mutual respect in our societies. Today this economy is in deficit, beset by asset strippers, possibly heading for bankruptcy.

Look back if you like, but my posts aren’t usually like this. I’m not normally shrill and negative. I may sound like a grumpy old man damning the world because he was put on hold by a call centre. But what Ali Smith and Michael Ignatieff have brought home to me in their very different, but equally eloquent, ways is that this small stuff – the way we treat each other every day – adds up to the big stuff.

We need to take the economy of regard seriously. We need to reach out to people who recognise the same problem even if they name different causes and have different remedies. And we need a starting point.

In my Employment Review I offered five reasons for a national commitment to good work; redefining the social contract, promoting health and wellbeing, boosting productivity, encouraging active citizenship and responding to technological change. Here is a sixth – valuing the ordinary virtues. If there is no decency or respect in the way a person is employed or managed and if there is no scope or encouragement for the worker themselves to show kindness in their job, then this is a job which saps the economy of regard. And that is something we simply can’t afford. 

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