A final call to arms


CURRENT AFFAIRS BOOK REVIEW: Ill Fares the Land: A Treatise on our Present Discontentsby Tony Judt, Allen Lane, 237pp, £20, reviewed by FRANK BARRY

Tony Judt’s spirited message that social democracy is vital now to the survival of democracy itself has much relevance for modern Ireland

“When I first encountered gated communities in the US . . . they brought to mind the walled cities of medieval Europe, built to defend against the marauding hordes. I could not have imagined that they would soon come to embody ‘the art of gracious living’ in boom-era, high-inequality Ireland” – Frank Barry

NOEL BROWNE was probably the most left-wing politician ever to hold ministerial office in Ireland. His conflict with the Catholic church and the medical establishment, over universal versus means-tested access to his “mother and child scheme”, brought down the government in 1951. Historians have tended to view his resistance to means testing as almost a personal eccentricity, born of the impoverished childhood of which he would write so powerfully in later life.

Universal access and means testing are not just very different philosophies however. As Tony Judt, the US-based British historian and Pulitzer prize nominee, explains in Ill Fares The Land, they also have different long-term consequences. Universal access to the benefits of the welfare state – as in the Nordic countries – binds in the loyalty and support of the middle classes. Otherwise the welfare state is just seen as charity, and a burden. It is not clear how well Noel Browne might have understood this, but it goes some way to explaining why there has been so little appetite for social democracy here.

Judt’s book argues that social democracy is vital now to the survival of democracy itself. The book arose out of the interest generated by a lecture of his which was published in the New York Review of Books. By the time the article was written, Judt had been struck down by a rapidly progressing motor neuron disease which has left him largely paralysed and unable to breathe unaided. He dictated the book in eight weeks flat, and it comes with the sense of a last call to arms.

Ireland does not loom large of course. We are mentioned only as an aside, as a follower of the Anglo-American model of unfettered markets. Irish unions, who portrayed social partnership as an essential ingredient of the Irish model, might disagree. I return to this below.

The welfare state, in Judt’s analysis, was a response to the recognition that Depression-era insecurities born of unfettered markets proved a fertile breeding ground for fascism and other authoritarian movements. Current insecurities, magnified now by globalisation, may replicate these circumstances. There is already evidence of this along the borders of western Europe. “The social democracy of the future”, as of the past, “is the social democracy of fear”.

The US too, from FDR’s New Deal to LBJ’s Great Society, participated in the social democratic experiment. “It succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its founders. What was idealistic in the mid-19th century and a radical challenge 50 years later had become everyday politics in many liberal states”. It was about “social security” in the raw rather than just the financial meaning of the term. It was the answer to the question posed by US political philosopher John Rawls: what kind of society would a person choose if they did not know in advance the economic circumstances into which they would be born?

The 1960s generation put paid to all of this. They had not experienced the economic insecurities of their parents’ generation. They saw the welfare state – with its high levels of government intervention and regulation – only as a constraint, and as a drain on their taxes. The New Left, he argues, by focusing on individual freedoms, was the birthparent of the New Right. Ethnic minorities, gays, and – above all – women, the main beneficiaries of the identity politics of the 1960s and beyond, might not be so critical. It is, however, a spirited argument. We know from the work of Belgian economist André Sapir that the Nordic model is as efficient at creating jobs as the Anglo-American one, and associated with much more equitable outcomes. The recent highly-acclaimed The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, provides compelling evidence that all of society, and not just the poor, benefit from reduced inequality.

The metaphor of the gated community recurs. When I first encountered these in the US in the early 1980s, they brought to mind the walled cities of medieval Europe, built to defend against the marauding hordes. I could not have imagined that they would soon come to embody “the art of gracious living” in boom-era, high-inequality Ireland.

Barry Eichengreen, a leading economic historian, has advanced a hypothesis not too distant from Judt’s in analysing the spectacular growth performance of post-war continental Europe. He notes that the prevailing social contract offered wage moderation in exchange for the construction of a welfare state, with the associated tax requirements accepted as part of the package.

THE SOCIAL PARTNERSHIP DEALS of the Celtic Tiger era were different. Wage moderation was offered in exchange for tax cuts. Can it be that the Irish people simply do not – or cannot – trust the State to be able to deliver efficiently?

Our State seems to malfunction on so many levels. Can we expect to recover even a red cent from the recently revealed mistakes of the Moriarty Tribunal legal team, many of whom have been on a rate of €2,500 a day for many years? Or from the consultants on whom Brian Lenihan has relied for the last two years for analysis of the health of the banks’ balance sheets, and who seem to have got it wrong at every turn? The public sector unions who bristle at the “threat” that workers might be docked pay for failing to do their jobs seem merely to represent the other side of the coin.

Inequality damages economic growth. Political battles become focused on how to share the cake rather than how to expand it. Have inequality and the associated erosion of trust advanced so far now that our prospects for building a decent society are impaired? Certainly the challenge is greater than it might have been. Tony Judt’s call to arms stimulates us to ask such questions.

Frank Barry is professor of international business and economic development at Trinity College Dublin