Economic debate has not included idea of citizenship


OPINION:Efforts to deal with the economic crisis lack contextualisation – we need to talk about what sort of society we wish to create, writes MICHAEL D HIGGINS

READING THE columns of the newspapers during the summer, including the columns of The Irish Times and the letters page which contain such concerns as impelled the correspondents to take pen to paper, one is left with an overwhelming sense of what is being evaded rather than what is being discussed.

The word “crisis” and the pronoun “we” are thrown around as pieces of language in the manner of snuff at a 19th-century wake. One article after another, whether one begins with the shortfall in the Government’s estimates of receipts necessary to meet current expenditure, the non-availability of liquidity to keep firms in the real economy in business, the excessive rate being paid by the Irish Government for international borrowings as a result of the immense damage of a reputational kind visited in Ireland as a result of a small clique of speculative gamblers who called themselves bankers, the assumption is the same – we have moved into a crisis and we, the Irish public, must regard ourselves as some form of collective “we”, one that is responsible for what has come to pass.

The greatest social disaster of our times is the fact that we face 600,000 people unemployed before the year is out yet this rarely makes it to the front pages and never stays as a topic for very long.

The fact that this summer’s concentration has largely been on the attempts at survival of property speculators and their banks – at the same time as issues such as unemployment, poverty, inequality, injustice and all of the despair that flows from disappointed expectations – tells us much.

There is neither the space nor the capacity for an adequate debate on our immediate future; on how we would hope to emerge from the “crisis” to which so many refer.

The media obsession with a single report, the McCarthy report, just one of a number of key publications that have appeared, or will appear before the end of the summer – the Nama legislation, the Report on

Higher Level Pay, the Report on the Commission on Taxation – reveals an approach that is singular in its inadequacy in a policy sense.

The proposals in the McCarthy report are just that – simply proposals for reductions in expenditure without discussion or evaluation as to policy options, social implications, and, above all else, unemployment consequences.

As a former minister I can see how similar they are to those opening lists one received from the Department of Finance at the beginning of talks prior to the Estimates.

Indeed, the public seems to have missed the significance of those who constituted the membership of the McCarthy group, which was, of course, co-chaired by a second secretary at the Department of Finance.

All of this can be discussed in detail on the resumption of the Dáil. Much more serious, however, is the nature of the debate so far.

There is no evidence of a public or scholar capacity to mount a sufficient debate on how we have come to our present position, the validity of the assumptions on which that strategy was based, the failure of financial governance and our regulatory institutions.

The public is also entitled to ask any of us elected politicians as to what our precise project is in terms of recovery.

There are many in the Dáil who speak of getting back to a point before the collapse of our property boom. This is to leave the logic of the property boom in place.

Again, there are many who suggest that our social expenditure should be justified solely in terms of what revenue is extracted from whatever type of economic activity that enjoys tax-driven preference of the day. I believe that the majority of those elected probably hold such a view. I do not share it.

Missing from the debate so far is any concept of citizenship. Indeed, former taoiseach Bertie Ahern reduced the debate on citizenship to a debate on volunteering, important but not the same thing. This is quite extraordinary in a republic. It is regarded as radical and unacceptable by the conservatives who cheered on the property rackets to speak of social security, of a floor below which citizens would not be allowed to fall. After all, the most extensive interview given on our public service broadcaster by the leading banker/gambler who did the most damage to Ireland’s financial reputation called for cuts in social welfare. Yet citizenship is what we should now be discussing. The more socially-concerned elements of the public surely do not want a return of more of the same.

Just think of what a debate we would have had if we had begun with the citizenship floor, with a debate on universal provision, and the progressive extension and realisation of it?

Surely now it is time to also ask if we are not merely in the grip of not just a great self-deception as to language. Perhaps it is that we have such a deep anti-intellectualism in the general culture that prevents us from examining the assumptions of the economic models we have used, one that has not only failed at home, but has failed at global level.

On his recent visit here Nobel economist Amartya Sen spoke of a recovery of a sense of justice in economics. He announced that his next project of writing would be a new preface to Adam Smith’s Towards a Theory of Moral Sentiments, which preceded Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

The concept of “reason” – Amartya Sen sees as derived from the Greeks – in the work of Smith became in the recent century a very narrow, distorted version of rational choice, upon which in time a fictional version of a perfect market was constructed. That myth has now collapsed. Indeed, all that is left of it are the ramblings of the members of what one might call the Cult of the Invisible Hand.

The connection between philosophy, ethics, economics and social theory that was possible in Smith’s time, even by way of speculation, is allowed little space now. There is no discourse that has it as its centre. One is forced to conclude that not just language, but scholarship itself, that has failed the public. At a time when new models are needed, even suggested by events such as the ecological challenge and enduring global poverty, even the questions do no rise to the challenge.

If Amartya Sen’s project is to have the effect of his previous seminal works he must face the circumstance of a scholarship of his times, in his own area of economic theory, where no consideration of goodness, of the good person, of the good society, of inter-generational justice, is given space.

The other great confidence trick being perpetrated on the Irish public is the suggestion that we all created this crisis which now envelopes us; that nobody warned of its social consequences. For the record, Paul Daly in his fairly recent book Creating Ireland on page 210 quotes from a Dáil speech of my own given on April 21st, 1988:

“Let it be said, there is a consensus in this country, a consensus now in favour of individualism, greed, the financial institutions, cowardly politics, people with no conception whatsoever of what it means to live in a republic.

“We are unique in another respect – a Republic without a concept of equality... We are creating two tiers of citizenship in relation to access to health, education and social provision.”

It is simply not true to say that there was a consensus that supported the unfounded speculative version of the economy that is in ruins following the collapse of the property bubble. What is true to say is that it is very difficult to get acknowledgement for the fact that the opposition to it came from those on the Left in Irish politics. Evasive terms like “the politicians” or “the political class” are as evasive as they are safe for those who use them, but in reality constitute a form of intellectual cowardice.

It is time for a real debate with an appropriate discourse on the forms of the economy that might serve a genuine citizenship, with inter-generational justice, and an inclusive society.

We are far from it.

Michael D Higgins is Labour TD for Galway West and honorary adjunct professor at the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUIG.

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