President Michael D Higgins gave a speech on economics at Dublin City University last week. Among many other things, he posed questions about the discipline in the post-crisis age and sought to "explore the contemporary possibilities for developing ethical arts of economic government".
While the Constitution gives him no role in economic government, it is perfectly appropriate for a largely figurehead, non-executive president to raise such matters, including discussing “possibilities” – note the plural – around ethics and economic governance. Providing thought leadership is exactly what such a president should do.
But that is not what President Higgins did last week. Instead, his speech was highly ideological and one-sided. It exclusively extolled left-of-centre thinkers, including some quite extreme figures. All non-leftists mentioned were implicitly traduced. Worst of all, it excluded the majority who occupy the middle ground and who carry little or no ideological baggage.
Before critiquing what the President said in detail, let me say that I gave President Higgins my first preference vote when he ran for the State’s highest office. I did so because, of the contenders in with a chance of election, he was the least bad of the bunch. He is a cerebral man and, as a lifelong politician, he might have been expected to understand the limitations of the role and, more specifically, not to use it as a platform to advance a political agenda.
Unfortunately, he has dashed that hope. His interventions have become increasingly political and partisan. Last week’s speech illustrated this in a number of ways.
The company one keeps says a lot about a person. That is as true in intellectual life as it is in social life. President Higgins keeps only one kind of intellectual company. Those mentioned approvingly at DCU included Ernst Bloch, Jean-Paul Fitoussi, Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, David Harvey, Ruth Levitas, Philip Mirowski, Jamie Peck, William Morris, R H Tawney and Edmond Villey. The only Irish person quoted (other than himself) was Kathleen Lynch, an equality studies academic in UCD. All are very firmly on the left of the political spectrum.
As if the political hue of all those cited approvingly in the speech was not enough to demonstrate bias, President Higgins resorted to the tiresome name-calling of the reactionary left. Their favourite term of abuse is "neoliberal", a label slapped on those whose views on the relative roles of market and state differ from theirs.
Because nobody anywhere defines himself/herself as “neoliberal”, this makes dialogue impossible and the making of conspiracy myths all too easy, as the President illustrated well in his speech.
"Neoliberalism has, from the first meetings of Ludwig Von Mises, Hayek and Milton Friedman, been a conscious ideological project" he said, adding that it "does make assumptions about human nature and the good society. Yet these are rarely stated". Given that nobody claims to be a "neoliberal" it is hardly surprising that they are rarely stated.
The setting up of an us-versus-neoliberals contest is not only divisive, it is grossly reductionist. Most people support both competitive markets and state-organised redistribution. The choice is not binary. To the chagrin of hardline ideologues on both the left and free market right, Ireland and peer countries have a mix of market and state in economic life.
Among the most pernicious comments in the speech was this: "we must endeavour to restore the commitment to reducing poverty and economic inequality as a project that is at the very heart of public action" (my emphasis).
This a thinly veiled and highly political accusation that previous governments and/or society generally once shared that commitment, but have since moved away from it. The claim is as nonsensical as it is unsubstantiated. All the evidence contradicts it. By far the single biggest item of public expenditure is the welfare system. Much of the rest goes on publicly providing health and education services.
Further, most of the public expenditure growth in the half-decade to 2008 that was funded by the property bubble has been maintained since. Now it is funded by new taxes and future taxes (in the form of borrowing).
The comment is an insult to the much reduced numbers at work who have sacrificed a lot more of their incomes (in taxation) to support the increased number of those who are not working.
The President is moving into dangerous territory with his increasingly politicised and partisan interventions. He should think carefully about where the path he appears intent on taking will lead his presidency.