The philosophers with the answers to Ireland’s housing crisis

Unthinkable: Political theorists from past centuries have some advice ahead of a planned referendum on housing

A referendum on housing is currently under consideration – public submissions to the Housing Commission closed last Friday. The body, which has been charged by the Government to come up with proposals on the matter, has been consulting experts in the property industry, economics and law. But what about philosophy? Has it anything to contribute to the deliberations?

“In the history of political thought there aren’t too many famous philosophers who deal directly with the question of housing,” says Joseph Lacey, assistant professor of political theory at the School of Politics in UCD.

“Major philosophers usually earn their reputation by building theories that address big questions about the role of freedom, equality, security or rights in a just society. Specific policy areas like housing are downstream from all of that.”

That’s not to say philosophers are oblivious to Ireland’s hottest political topic. Calls for “housing justice” can typically trace their roots to specific branches of ethics.


One such branch is human rights theory. The right to “adequate” housing is contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, there is some disagreement over whether it, along with other “economic” rights, should be put on a par with political rights (such as the right to freedom of expression, for example).

Another relevant branch of ethics is consequentialism: what are the consequences of particular housing policies?

An article in the “ideas” journal Works in Progress last year made the persuasive case for home-building on a massive scale in order to address, not just short-term accommodation problems, but a range of societal ills including “inequality, climate change, obesity and even falling fertility rates”. Such issues “may seem loosely related, but there is one big thing that makes them all worse. That thing is a shortage of housing,” the authors of The Housing Theory of Everything write.

Another approach within ethics is to look through the prism of fairness. In political theory, this concept is closely associated with the American philosopher John Rawls.

“He was one of the most important political philosophers of the 20th century and focused his thinking on questions concerning how goods within society should be fairly distributed,” Lacey explains.

“For Rawls, inequalities in wealth and income are perfectly compatible with a just society, but only up to a point. The big limitation Rawls puts on inequality is that any given inequality should be to the benefit of the least advantaged in society” – a rule known as the difference principle.

“How exactly to define the least advantaged in society is a contentious issue. But as a crude short-hand in the Irish context, we can think of them as single individuals surviving solely on the minimum wage.

“For example, think of the rental market. Rawls’s difference principle doesn’t reject the inequalities of some having the additional wealth to generate rental income from those who have less. What is a problem is if the rents are too high to make it affordable to the least advantaged, given the other demands on their income that are necessary to be fully participating members of society.”

The traditional response free marketeers give to renters who can no longer afford their homes is to move elsewhere. Getting out of Dublin, for example, could offer more affordability.

This idea “brings us deeper into Rawls’s theory”, says Lacey, “because income and wealth are not the only primary goods on his view. Freedom of movement and equality of opportunity are two others. If these primary goods are to be given their true value, then access to affordable housing across the country is a necessity.”

Lacey has been studying the contribution of other philosophers to the housing question and says, “One I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is John Locke from 17th-century England.

“Much of Locke’s political philosophy is built around the idea of property. By today’s standards in Europe, but perhaps not in some quarters of the United States, Locke would be seen as an extremist in terms of how far he extends the rights of individuals to defend and do what they want with their property.

“But even Locke believed there were restrictions on the right to private property. He went so far as to consider these restrictions ‘laws of nature’. By this he means that there are certain moral limitations to property rights that any person who has a basic sense of what it is to live peacefully with others will recognise.

“These days, the Lockean principle that most stands out to me says that you have a duty to make productive use of whatever property you acquire. If you don’t use it, then you lose the moral right to that property. Because part of what entitles you to private property in the first place is its utility value in helping you to achieve goals in life.”

The principle has direct relevance to vacant sites across Ireland. “When it comes to housing as a specific kind of property, if you are not utilising a housing unit that you own by living in it or renting it, then you are harming others by depriving them of the potential to use it in a way that positively contributes to their life.

“On that basis, we could derive some pretty clear policy prescriptions from Locke’s line of thinking,” Lacey points out.

Locke believed there was another “law of nature” relating to property, which became known as the “Lockean proviso”. This says that with whatever property you acquire there must be “enough, and as good left in common for others”. The idea provides a justification for the acquisition of private property: An individual is free to mix their labour with natural resources, converting common property into private property, but this is justifiable only when it does not make anyone else worse off.

If you think of the “common” as the existing housing stock, the proviso would put an onus on the government to ensure there is a minimum standard of housing available that can meet demand, says Lacey. “When the quantity and quality of the housing stock is falling short of the demands being placed on it, then every extra decent housing unit an individual acquires that is not intended for rental comes at a cost to others who have no access to a decent unit.

“In concrete terms, the Lockean proviso would seem to support the imposition of disincentives on the acquisition of holiday homes or the like in areas of surplus demand, for example.”

Both Locke and Rawls belong to that democratic tradition known as liberalism – a philosophy that emphasises the value of individual freedom. Neither of them was a revolutionary. For that one must look elsewhere.

“Karl Marx and post-Marxists like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have developed a tradition that is often critical of liberalism, especially because of the high priority it tends to place on private property and its related tolerance of what they see as a level of inequality that is often too high,” says Lacey.

“For them, recurrent crises in housing are just a symptom of the wider power imbalances that are entrenched in contemporary capitalism, requiring a more fundamental rethink of how we organise society than incremental policies that would tinker around with the existing housing market.”

So who do you want in your constitution: Marx, Locke or Rawls? Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien says the wording on a referendum on housing may be put to the people as early as next year.