A civilised society takes care of citizens


The difference between decency and indecency is luck. In a decent society, you don’t have to be lucky. In an indecent one, luck is all you’ve got.

One way of seeing the Irish story of the last five years is through the prism of luck. Or rather Irish stories, for there are two starkly different narratives. One is the tale of those who pushed their luck, the reckless high-rollers at the roulette tables of casino capitalism.

They won and won and won – until they lost. It was every gambler’s familiar story. Except that, just as they were slinking away from the casino with sore heads and empty pockets, the management came running after them to say that, after all, it was only a game and they could have all their money back. In fact, for them, the rules of luck had been cancelled – there was no longer such a thing as bad fortune. No bondholder would be left behind.

But there’s another story about luck and it’s the story of civilisation. Civilisation is, at heart, an attitude to luck. For most of human history, the dominant attitude was that all luck is tough luck. If you’re unlucky to be born dirt poor, or female or disabled; if you get sick or your house burns down or the floods wash away your crops – that’s tough. It’s God’s will, perhaps even God’s punishment for some unworthiness on your part. All you can do is endure the suffering and hope for better luck in the next life.

Civilisation is a gradual process of refusing to accept the results of the lotteries of birth or health or chance. It replaces luck with morality. Why, it asks, should the accident of birth entitle one child to a golden future and another to nothing at all? Why should we be mere prisoners of biology so that bad health or bodily or mental ailments condemn people to poverty and misery?

At the heart of a civilised society is the idea that bad luck needs a good state – one whose policies and institutions do everything possible to ensure that the cost of bad luck is reduced. This idea is now under attack as never before in the history of the State.

The cut in the respite grant for carers is uncivilised in exactly this sense. It’s about leaving people with the consequences of sheer bloody misfortune. If you have the bad luck to have a child with autism or a parent with dementia, it’s no longer the will of God. But it is the will of an even more implacable set of deities: the markets, the troika, the crisis.

The State is moving rapidly away from the belief that it has a duty to balance out fate. Unlucky people are left increasingly to make the best of their unhappy destinies.

Now, the unwritten law is that good citizens have a duty to be lucky. Don’t have the bad taste to be born to poor or inadequate parents; don’t be born with cerebral palsy; don’t get an expensive disease such as cancer; don’t have a child with autism; don’t get Parkinson’s or MS; don’t have a doubly incontinent parent with dementia. If you’re foolish enough to be unlucky in any of these ways, do expect to be repeatedly in line for cuts and don’t expect to be heard when you complain.

This assault on the key idea of a civilised society is outrageous in itself. What makes it unbearable is that, over on the other side of the room, the exact opposite is happening. On the one side, luck is fate – it’s what you’re stuck with. But on the other, luck has been abolished. If you gambled on the Irish banks, every number on the roulette wheel came up with a payout. Take a wild gamble and you can’t lose. Get dealt a bad hand by fate and you can’t win.

Within these parallel universes, entirely different rules apply. The amount of money to be saved by making life miserable for carers is €26 million. What does that kind of money get you in the other universe? Well, in March the Government wanted to save face on the payment of the promissory notes for Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide.

It concocted a complicated arrangement with Bank of Ireland so that it could claim not to have paid the money, even though, in effect, it did.

This elaborate PR exercise cost us an additional €90 million – 3½ times the savings in respite grants for carers. In the world where luck has been abolished, there are infinite amounts of money. In the one in which luck is destiny, there are “hard choices”.

This faces citizens with a hard choice of our own. We can cross our fingers, touch wood, stock up on four-leaf clovers, nail horseshoes to the door, light penny candles and hope against hope that we and our loved ones stay on the lucky side of the street where words such as “respite grant” are in a foreign language. Or we can demand a society where citizens don’t have to be lucky but chancers do.

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