Higgins calls for new way to measure society

‘We live in times where economic worth is primarily seen as matter of productive capacity’ - President

President Michael D Higgins  has said much of the work of “maintaining and enhancing human livelihoods takes place outside the market”. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

President Michael D Higgins has said much of the work of “maintaining and enhancing human livelihoods takes place outside the market”. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

President Michael D Higgins has called on political, economic and social institutions to reconsider how they value people rather than focus on economic measurements like Gross Domestic Product.

Speaking at Dublin City University last night, Mr Higgins said he strongly believed that a new approach, not focused on the markets and their values, was needed when looking at how society should be measured.

The President said that, at the end of the day, people were not the “dependent human variables of something we do not understand”.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that we live in times where economic worth is primarily seen as a matter of productive capacity,” he said.

“This is reflected in the use of measures for growth as the principal measure of economic health, even if that growth does not impact on the levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality.”

Mr Higgins said it was important to make sure that “all institutions allow for truly democratic deliberations on economic policy choices, that no particular sector gets preferential treatment in the name of a narrow conception of wealth, and that our media do not foreclose political debate on economic matters.”

During a speech entitled “Toward an Ethical Economy”, Mr Higgins said the developments in the world in the last few years showed that economics should not be regarded as a definite science, but rather a craft.

He criticised auditors who followed the rules and protocols set down for them ahead of the economic collapse as if they were always correct rather than speaking out about the issues they saw that ultimately bankrupted the country.

Mr Higgins said that when he looked across self-regulated professions in society, he saw that the trust placed in them by the people they were supposed to be supporting was “broken”.

“Why was it in the olden days that the auditor was asked to sign the final accounts and it was not assumed that those on board would seem to defend and protect the public interest,” he said.

The President said that so much of the work of “maintaining and enhancing human livelihoods takes place outside the market”.

Speaking to reporters after his address, Mr Higgins said he could “predict in advance now” what the next economic rhetoric would sound like.

“It will be what I call the myth of the pendulum – that is the pendulum swayed too much in the direction of light regulation and we must be careful now lest it swing in the other direction,” he said.

“That is just an example of poor rhetoric and economics which is consciously being used to mask the fact that we are not getting the significant change in assumptions and in work, in terms of economic theory, that we need.”

The President said the best protocols, procedures and codes of conduct were derived from an understanding of the basis of ethics.

In order to better this understanding, he suggested philosophy be taught in schools, as it “could facilitate the fostering of an ethical consciousness in our fellow citizens”.

As Europe faces into elections next year, Mr Higgins said he hoped politicians engaged with issues that are widespread across the continent such as unemployment, inequality and poverty.

He urged leaders to engage with the public in formulating their policies rather than subscribing to the view that the issues at hand were “technical ones that are beyond the ordinary people”

“If you do that you run the risk of losing legitimacy,” he said. “It is not a matter of the public being regarded as some amorphous entity that is waiting for an expert’s suggestion to enable it to either survive or flourish.

“You must be able to draw on all the instruments available to you to construct proposals that are able to address the issues as well as accepting the responsibility of fiscal discipline across the European Union. “

The president was speaking at the Helix in DCU as part of the university’s “Ethics for All” public lecture series.

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