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Oxford professor: Urbanites are self-centered and haven't earned their privileges

Interview — »Financially, urbanites will need to contribute more, if Western democracy is to avoid falling victim to populists on the right and on the left,« says professor of economics and public policy Paul Collier.

»The most successful and talented people – who also happen to be some of the best educated – have had a tendency to forget their shared identity with their less successful fellow citizens,« says Paul Collier.

»They’ve created a self-centred urbanite culture for the highly educated that is built on a type of meritocracy in which they pursue their own goals in life without any sense of obligation to others in the community.«


A political system in which economic goods and/or political power are vested in individual people on the basis of talent, effort, and achievement, rather than wealth or social class.

Advancement in such a system is based on performance, as measured through examination or demonstrated achievement.

Sociologists such as David Bell who have studied meritocracy link it to the rise of the post-industrial society, in which experts and technocrats form a new elite.

Source: Wikipedia and Gyldendals store ordbog

As the above quote shows, Collier, a professor of economics and public policy at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, whose mission is to inspire and support better government and public policy around the world, doesn’t pull any punches when he describes a situation he believes the highly educated are responsible for creating. Nor is he shy when it comes to talking about how he thinks it can be fixed. His ideas are based on observations of the situation in the UK, but it is a diagnosis that could be applied to other Western societies.

»I’ve come to understand that our society needs an equality of dignity, and that is because we have – over the course of many years – developed a tendency to replace mutual esteem and respect for people with less education living in the provinces with a certain measure of disdain. That is a trend I find reprehensible,« Collier says.

His most recent book, The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties, makes the argument that the highly educated, who have become enormously privileged as a result of economic and historical developments, have an obligation to those with less education.

An unwanted development

Collier’s hope is that the book can serve as a tool for the less educated and their advocates as they seek to attract the attention of the highly educated in an effort to mitigate the negative effects of a development that took hold around 1980 and is associated with the emergence of populism (or populisms).

What sort of social development did Collier see begin the in 1980s that led to the current situation? And what’s the problem with it? Why is meritocracy such a bad thing? And just what is it people have against people with degrees?

»Today’s culture of meritocracy amongst the highly educated is unhealthy and unethical, but a change for the better won’t happen on its own.«

Paul Collier

»Meritocracy, as a term, was introduced in 1958 to describe a future that society was potentially heading towards,« Collier says. »At that time, people understood that a meritocracy would lead to a dystopian future, because the most successful individuals would feel that their privileges were something they had earned, and, as a result, would see themselves as superior. The consequence of that would be the development of hierarchical social structures. That’s something we can already see happening today.«

From Bill Gates’ top 5

This spring, Bill Gates recommended The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties as one of the five books people should have on their summer reading list.

One example of the impact that the emerging hierarchical structures are having on British society, Collier says, is a survey that, for the past 25 years, has asked people throughout the country the same question: Do you feel that you have enough influence at work?

»Twenty-five years ago, most people answered ‘yes’. Today, most people answer ‘no’, thanks to a 40% decline in job satisfaction,« Collier says. »Unlike 25 years ago, workers feel as if their employers are pushing them around and keeping them under surveilance.«

The power of agglomeration

Collier’s review of the available studies finds that the gains the highly educated have made over the past 40 years are less a result of their own hard work than they are a consequence of their tendency to cluster in national capitals and other metropolises.

Collier terms the trend agglomeration, and it follows a similar development that has seen firms gathering in the same areas. Doing so provides an advantage in the form of access to things like infrastructure, which is important if they wish to remain competitive. This has led to a boom in the number of jobs for highly educated urbanites, thanks to the ease of access to transport and communication infrastructure compared with other areas.

At the same time, the less educated have seen their wages decline and, with the cost of living in urban areas on the rise, they have been forced to relocate elsewhere, according to Collier.

The trend may be a part of the explanation for the rise of populism that began in the 1980s. The stronger the trend towards agglomeration, he finds, the more we see the emergence of an urban elite and a rural population that finds itself falling further behind, and whose dissatisfaction with the situation fuels the growth of populism.

Unhealthy and unethical

All this, Collier emphases, adds up to a situation in which one group’s gains have come not because they’ve worked hard but because economic trends have been on their side. It is a situation, he warns, that is anything but good.

Changing things, he suggests, will require an acceptance amongst the highly educated that they need to share some of their privileges for the good of society as a whole.

More about agglomeration

In 2018, Collier, together with Oxford University economics professor Anthony J Venables, published a paper in the Journal of Economic Geography looking into how agglomeration benefits the highly educated.

»Today’s culture of meritocracy amongst the highly educated is unhealthy and unethical,« Collier says, »but a change for the better won’t happen on its own. The highly educated will need to shoulder a larger share of the burden. Financially, urbanites will need to contribute more, but they also need to accept that they have a moral responsibility to be a part of the solution and help improve the situation if Western democracy is to avoid falling victim to populists on the right and on the left.«

Reversing trend of polarisation, he believes, can be achieved through active political intervention.

»Even though segregation along educational lines is an economic issue, we can still improve the lives of people living outside cities. But it will require that lawmakers actively choose to address inequality,« Collier says.

Save Britannia

In an article titled »How to save Britain from London«, published in 2018 in the high-brow British publication Prospect Magazine, Collier wrote:

»Economists in their ivory towers scratch their head about a ‘productivity puzzle’, while – back in the real world – workers endure the longest squeeze on wages since the Napoleonic Wars (1804-1815, ed).«

»These problems,« Collier says, »have been apparent in England for a decade, but no-one has any idea for how we can solve them. Meanwhile, Great Britain’s economic dysfunction is having an effect on the entire population.«

Part of the problem, according to Collier, is that in many rural areas, there is little in the way of economic activity. Statistics published last month show that progress in life expectancy in Britain had stopped. In some areas it is even going backwards.

Place gives meaning

While the Prospect article provides insight into how Collier thinks, a better place to start if you want to understand what he is driving at is The Future of Capitalism. Whereas the magazine article is Collier in concentrated form, his book takes time to explain the concepts he uses.

That said, Collier does perhaps a better job of explaining one of his key points – what human nature really is – in the article than the book. His read is that economists are either ignorant of the value of human nature or they choose to ignore it.

»An identity of being ‘on the left’ has become a lazy way of feeling morally superior; an identity of being ‘on the right’ has become a lazy way of feeling ‘realistic’.«

The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties, page 22


»More fundamentally, people gain meaning from being attached to a place. They cannot, as economic orthodoxy imagines, just ‘pack up and go’ – individual attachment, family obligations and friendship networks mean they are too rooted for that. Economists might struggle to grasp this reality, but most citizens don’t,« Collier wrote.

Common post-war identity

To illustrate his point, Collier points to the changes that have taken place in British society since 1945 and the end of the Second World War.

»Until about 40 years ago,« he says, »Britain had managed to build up a democratic society made up of a kind of tightly woven network that included the educational system, the pension system, the health service and all sorts of other things that made the average Briton’s life better. But things have been falling apart since 1980.

»After the Second World War, people accepted it as natural that we shared a common identity, and that we had an obligation to each other. That was what Britain’s transformation from democracy to social democracy was built on. There was a real feeling that there was an ‘us’, but that was gradually undermined as people living in the big cities began to believe that their privileges made them something special – something better and different than people from rural areas who often had a lower level of education than they did.«

Fixing what they broke

Highly educated urbanites have been oblivious to what has happened, Collier believes. They’ve done well for themselves, sure, but they haven’t noticed that not everyone has ridden on the same wave, and it is their lack of insight that unleashed first anger and uncertainty amongst the lower classes. Most recently, we’ve seen this escalate to revolt. This is something we’re already seeing the consequences of, according to Collier.

Sir Paul Collier

Sir Paul Collier is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government

His recent books include: The Bottom Billion (2007), The Plundered Planet: How to Reconcile Prosperity with Nature (2010) and Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World (2013).

His research covers the causes and consequences of civil war, the effects of aid and the problems of democracy in low-income and natural resources rich societies, urbanisation in low-income countries, private investment in African infrastructure and changing organisational cultures.

Read more about Paul Collier here.

»This was why we got Brexit and Donald Trump – not to mention the growth of the radical right and an increase in populism on the far left,« he says.

But if the highly educated bear responsibility for the situation, they can also repair it, according to Collier.

»Academics should study what went wrong and what they can do to fix things. My book is an attempt to heal the wounds and show how people without degrees can get back in the game,« he says.

An utter political failure

Thanks to technology, production of goods and services grows at about two percent annually. That growth, though, hasn’t translated into a higher standard of living for the masses. Worse, young people today may end up with a lower standard of living than their parents. The situation is one Collier considers »terrible«.

»That’s an affront to less educated people living in the provinces, and it is an utter political failure that we should be discussing publicly,« he says.

People, no matter who they are, need to feel like they can contribute to society, Collier believes. But, in order to do that, they need to be in a position that allows them to be productive.

»The most important political initiative I propose in my book deals not with how we can raise consumption levels amongst people with low educational levels, but how we can increase their  productivity compared with the highly educated. People with low educational levels typically perform some sort of manual labour, and their productivity has fallen over the past 40 years, and that is something we need to address,« Collier says.