Wealth and education have made Ireland a better place

Wealth can corrupt, and often does. But it can also sustain our capacity for compassion

In 1981 philosopher James Flynn had a hunch. Realising that over many decades IQ testers had been regularly, and always upwardly, resetting the number of correct answers required to maintain the average test score at 100, Flynn guessed that this must be due to increasing levels of IQ. After observing the same bracket creep in the IQ datasets from 35 economically developed countries (including Ireland) he proved this to be a widespread phenomenon.

Increasing wealth and better education, it seemed, was making us smarter. It still is. But what is especially significant about this so-called “Flynn Effect” are the marked increases in our levels of abstract reasoning, as distinct from factual recall and arithmetic deduction. Our capacity to think beyond our own immediate needs and desires – to empathise with others – is apparently expanding.

Really? I hear you scoff. And certainly the world is not short of examples of absent empathy – from global leaders behaving as ruthless tyrants or narcissistic nincompoops (or both), to the common-or-garden selfishnesses of tax dodging, bigotry and road rage.

But overall, it is now well documented that levels of violence, cruelty and meanness experienced worldwide today are significantly less than they were a century (or even half a century) ago. According to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, there is an important correlation between our levels of rationalised, empathetic intelligence and how well we treat each other. An enhanced ability to reason, he argues, enables greater self-control because violence tends to be abstracted “as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won”. Thereby we incline toward making better moral choices, which is why Pinker dubs this the “moral Flynn effect”.


What intrigues me about this optimistically progressive analysis is the role that wealth plays in promoting people’s respect for others as well as themselves, and it is one of the reasons why I have spent the last 10 years investigating the strange bedfellows relationship between global finance and human rights.

In terms of respect for others and oneself, wealth certainly has its problems. Its possession seldom satisfies our desires (how much is enough?), it can separate us from others (as, often, is the intention) and inure us to their plight (out of sight, out of mind). The myopic pursuit of wealth also deflects us from tending to other, more important aspects of life, such as our relationships with family, friends, colleagues and communities. And, of course, the allocation and distribution of wealth are perpetually fraught affairs, despite (or perhaps because of) our apparently blithe subscription to “trickle down” economics as an adequate theory of social justice.

The Irish have had their ups and downs with wealth. From abject poverty and periodic famines to a Celtic Tiger economy fuelled by property mania and profligate banks, Ireland’s financial fortunes make colourful reading (just try explaining Ireland’s rejection of the €13billion that the EU says Apple owes the country in back taxes to anyone even vaguely familiar with Irish history). Of recent experiences, Tommy Tiernan may be right when he quips that “we found out when times were good that money doesn’t suit Irish people”, before adding, “but we gave it a go!”

When personal security and community confidence combine they can deliver social emancipation

And a fair go it has been. For the argument can be made that in many respects the Republic of Ireland’s recent history is a model of what wealth can do. Among western nations Ireland is one of the most impressive climbers up the league of the UN’s Human Development Index (a composite measure of wealth, health and education across 188 nations). Between 1990 and 2015, Ireland’s human development value rose 21.1 per cent and the country now ranks eighth on the list – ahead of both the UK and the US, while behind Norway and Australia. In 1990 Ireland was ranked 17th, alongside Greece and the Czech Republic, both of which it has now left far behind (today they sit at 29 and 28 respectively). Individual wealth in Ireland (measured as Gross National Income per capita) is nearly $44,000 per annum (ahead of Australia) and life expectancy is 81 years (on par with Norway).

However, it is in education that Ireland has really excelled. From a position in 1990 when the expected years of schooling (pre-primary through to tertiary) were 12.1 per child, that figure is now 18.6. There may be fewer saints these days, but the country is awash with scholars. And what are we getting for all this education?

Well – and despite Oscar Wilde telling us that nothing worth knowing can be taught – quite a lot, actually. Higher levels of education have been an essential component in the virtuous circle that comprises greater wealth, better health and – crucially – more responsible government. Together, these are the ingredients of the good life, or at least something approaching it.

When personal security and community confidence combine they can deliver social emancipation, as Ireland’s recent referendums and law reforms on divorce, same-sex marriage and abortion (on top of a strikingly diverse political leadership of late) amply illustrate. It is a veritable loosing of the conservative shackles of church, class and culture that has catapulted Ireland to the forefront of Millennial-style liberalism.

The assault on obdurate conservatism is, of course, far from complete – on either side of the Border (though the North’s overwhelming Remain vote in the Brexit referendum, alongside the reformatory reaction of some of its citizenry to the South’s abortion poll, offer some grounds for optimism even there). Everyday examples of pig-headed selfishness persist, but they are now countered by genuinely grand instances of collective empathy.

Wealth, both individual and societal, is malleable. It can corrupt many and does so often. But equally it can sustain our capacity for compassion – borne of what Adam Smith called the “reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct” that stimulates our care for others. And while Smith is always hailed as a champion of free market economics, he was, above all, an Enlightenment philosopher, committed to finding ways to make individual endeavour and wealth work for the betterment of society as a whole. Ireland today, it seems, agrees.