It was politically wrong for Sean Fleming, the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, to tell people this week to shop around to combat the cost of living crisis, but that doesn't mean he wasn't right.
It is a blatant and banal truism that switching suppliers for energy, insurance and groceries will save you money and that fact holds true regardless of the universal trajectory of prices.
Fleming's comments on RTÉ Radio drove some people mad and they didn't waste any time in telling him the Government is "out of touch". Many more may have sighed at the political naiveté of a well-paid Minister telling frazzled people to get out there and take action, but still will have accepted the core truth of what he was saying: the Government cannot save us from the inflation that is wreaking havoc internationally. It doesn't have the power.
We’ve got to do some work to lessen its impact ourselves, and even then it can’t be avoided.
If ignoring the essential truth of a statement to rage about it instead is how you stay in touch, then many of us long to lose our grip. The political-fast-food furore after Fleming’s misstep is an example of a growing aspect of debates around society and the economy: people and, increasingly, some businesses believe the Government can solve all problems. The nation is addicted to the State.
This has always happened to some degree and it tends to suit the State, led by the Government. Political leaders almost always seek to expand their influence.
There is a bias inherent in every institution that is designed by humans that drives it to seek increasing relevancy, and governments are no different. The people who make up governments want to be players on the pitch.
The pandemic has accelerated and condensed the pre-existing trend towards more online shopping and traditional retailers on main streets across the country feel the sharp end of the impact
The virus-ravaged experiences of recent years help to explain why people and businesses now increasingly look to the Government for solutions. Until weeks ago, Ministers were guiding or instructing people and businesses on the minutiae of everyday life.
There can be no market solution to a virus pandemic. Only governments had the resources and, crucially, the mandate and authority to take the wheel of civil society and steer people through the crisis as best as we could muddle through.
But increasingly for several years now, the thrust of discussion around almost every economic and social problem has centred on what the Government can do to fix it. Sometimes it will make things worse, often it can help, and occasionally it can fix. But it does nothing to aid people and businesses to always indulge the flawed thought that they don’t also have some power of their own. That isn’t callous or naive or some quaint Reaganistic impulse that belongs in another era. It is common sense.
For example, the hospitality industry has a massive problem attracting and retaining labour. This issue always rears its head in times of consumer exuberance. The industry wants action from the Government. The State agency Fáilte Ireland this week launched a strategy to fix the issue. But it must be obvious that the bulk of the solution lies within the gift of the industry itself: invest more in training, give better wages and employment conditions, and focus on making businesses more competitive so they can generate the resources to pay for them. Some don't want to hear this, but it is true.
Epochal change is under way in the retail sector. The pandemic has accelerated and condensed the pre-existing trend towards more online shopping and traditional retailers on main streets across the country feel the sharp end of the impact.
Industry groups and trade unions want the Government to lead on devising a strategy to protect retailers, and it is correct that the State is the only body with the broad remit to address the complex problem of urban footfall at a high level. But there is also plenty that individual retailers can do to save their own skins: restructure the organisation to divert resources where the trade is and invest in technology and innovation to allow them follow their customers online.
The media industry increasingly looks to politicians to save it with financial interventions and – with greater justification – to level the legal playing field with the titans of Silicon Valley who have dodged the responsibilities and costs of traditional publishers while soaking up their revenue base with oligopolistic behaviour.
Journalists, including this one, are well versed in such wailing. But the Government cannot save media no more than it can save any other industry, not without eroding media independence. The route to survival for media organisations goes through the pass of technological innovation and adapting how the product is delivered to consumers, who will abandon it if it doesn’t change.
The defining issue of our era, the housing crisis, does require massive intervention by government to, for example, directly build more social housing and incentivise the construction of more cost rental properties. The current mess is a classic case of market (and political) failure and there is not much that individuals can do but sit tight and wait for it to ease.
But the cost of living crisis is, mostly, out of the Government's hands. Ignore the siren calls from some quarters for price caps. No government has ever capped its way out of inflation. A €504 million package of State relief measures might help to soothe some of the pain, but only monetary decisions made in Frankfurt at the European Central Bank will curb the problem in any sustainable way. And that won't be pain-free either, if borrowers end up watching as their increasing repayments chew up buying power.
The Government makes a rod for its own back when it pretends it can solve everything. By stepping in as the saviour on every issue it sets itself up for blame when, invariably and inevitably, it fails to meet expectations because it won’t admit the limitations of its ability to control every outcome.
Politicians must focus their efforts and our resources on helping those who need it most and have nowhere else to turn. Thankfully the majority don’t fall into that category. Sometimes we just have to get on with things and do what we can, and not get so enraged when someone states the bleeding obvious.