LAST Thursday was supposed to be the final clap for NHS staff, a ritual that over the past 10 weeks has expanded to include carers, key workers and others upon whom we’ve realised we are dependent, or of whom we’ve decided that we approve. It’s probably sensible to call a halt to it now, because it would be embarrassing if it were simply to run out of steam, and because in some areas it was becoming awkward, with a few people using it to parade their moral credentials or, worse, shame those they felt were insufficiently enthusiastic.

But while it lasted, it was a nice gesture, by which the nation could express its gratitude for those in essential roles and recognise the value of their contribution. Naturally, quite a few people then asked the obvious question: why, if we value these workers so much, don’t we pay them more money, rather than just applauding them? This is a sentiment echoed by a new paper from the Jimmy Reid Foundation, which argues that the coronavirus has exposed failings in the economy.

Professor Gregor Gall from the foundation declared that the pandemic has revealed that “our economy and society are far too much based on money and markets”, which makes them “fragile” and “lacking in fairness”. The proposals include paying public sector workers (and other jobs, presumably such as supermarket workers, cleaners and cooks) more, a Universal Basic Income, increased spending on public transport, a “more just” tax system, making universities co-operatives – in short, familiar socialist priorities.

This is a popular sentiment. Eighty other organisations, mostly on the Left, described the recovery from the coronavirus as “a rare chance to markedly accelerate the repurposing of government away from economic growth and towards goals of wellbeing and sustainability, ending inequality and environmental destruction”.

It’s interesting that their, and Prof Gall’s, solution to a society based too much on money and growth is to spend money – other people’s money, presumably extracted from private firms and rich individuals. Fair enough. That’s socialism, after all, and the only objection to it is that it has failed and made people poorer, less free and more miserable every single time it has been tried. (This is where we get told that East Germany, Cambodia and Venezuela weren’t “real socialism”.)

What interests me more is that those who think in those terms criticise advocates of the market as being interested only in the bottom line, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, and so on, yet their prescriptions are drawn from a view of the world which sees things primarily in economic terms, and as a clash of class interests that must be regulated by the state. Again, not very surprising, if you start with a book called Capital. This world view does exactly what Marx accused capitalism of doing: reducing people to objects.

Yet that’s the wrong way round. A free market demonstrates that just making money is not most people’s main objective. Indeed, it is when societies are based on markets and growth – a group into which billions of people have moved over the past four or five decades – that individuals have the freedom to enjoy leisure, provide welfare, and choose occupations and lifestyles that they find personally fulfilling.

Most of us will agree that people who work in the care sector do an extremely valuable and demanding job that is not well paid. It’s also not very controversial to think of lots of jobs – directors of quangos, university vice-chancellors, television presenters, middle-managers… take your pick – where far too much is being paid for something that lots of people could easily do. But many people – especially those in the health sector, or in teaching, or in charitable or certain types of political work – go into those fields because they find them rewarding in ways that have nothing to do with money.

To be, for example, a research associate at the University of Glasgow’s School of Social and Political Sciences demands much more in the way of qualifications, and has a higher status attached to it, than being an electrician. But an electrician may very well be better paid. That doesn’t make Prof Gall an idiot for not choosing to become an electrician, nor does it suggest that we should tax electricians more in order to bump up the salaries of university lecturers.

Many people certainly do jobs that they don’t enjoy or – as farmers having trouble finding UK natives prepared to work on the harvest are discovering – won’t do some work because it’s too demanding or unpleasant. But the market solution is either to find people from elsewhere who are prepared to or, where that’s impossible, pay more in order to attract such workers.

Some people do jobs they find dull because they pay well. Others work in poorly paid jobs that they enjoy, or that fit in around their family life (that often involves care, too, of course, particularly of children). Most probably feel that they deserve more pay for the work they put in, unless they’re stinking rich, in which case they tend to express the view that they’re worth every penny.

But, at least in the private sector, the monetary value of a job is a balance between how many people are capable of doing it, and willing to, and its cost to the business. That doesn’t mean that the value of a supermarket shelf-stacker, say, is solely measured in money – and we should all have realised how important it is to the rest of us. It is, however (and I say this as someone who has done that job myself), not especially difficult to find people who can do it, and certainly easier than finding someone who can run the whole of Tesco and keep it in profit, so it’s not at all surprising that there should be a disparity in the wages.

It would be nice if this crisis makes us appreciate some of the workers, often not well paid, upon whom we depend. But to think that esteem is a matter of income alone is to be more reductively materialistic than the most ardent capitalist.

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