Killing the myth that Ireland's wealth has poisoned its values


Past penury and hunger have misled many into blaming our affluence for all our social ills, writes Michael Casey

Recently, from the top of Croagh Patrick, came the assertion that affluence in Ireland has led to materialism and has damaged our value system.

At one level, this view seems to relate to Oscar Wilde's dictum about a cynic knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. It is possible, of course, for a society to lose its sense of itself, following the collapse of organised religion, for example - or the loss of what the post-modernists call the "meta-narratives" or moral guidelines that have traditionally applied. Multiculturalism could contribute to a watering-down of past values and beliefs but this aspect is never discussed. Instead, affluence is blamed for many of our social ills. This is wrong.

There is the notion that unbridled consumption - especially when it is financed by debt - and instant gratification are bad for our moral fibre. And if we flaunt our acquisitions, we are being status-conscious and insensitive to those on lower incomes.

There is also the "greed-is-good" concept which is actually more a Hollywood invention than anything to do with poor, misinterpreted Adam Smith or run-of-the-mill capitalism.

At a more philosophical level, there is the idea wealth alienates us from our true selves, that it leads to commodification and makes us value ourselves and others for what we have, rather than for who we are. And all this - so the argument goes - devalues our humanity.

Much of this is puritanical nonsense. And much of it is plain snobbery, eg the old-money cliques are upset to see the nouveaux riches display their possessions. Much of it comes from our Catholic past and the view that people shouldn't enjoy themselves too much in this vale of tears, but concentrate instead on the hereafter. (Nuala O'Faolain once observed, in this context, that the clergy weren't known for going without a hot meal.)

Much of the fear of affluence comes no doubt from our old friends: colonial past, folk memory of the famine and associated guilt. There is also the fact that, historically, farmers were savers rather than consumers. This was because of the vagaries of farming, the unpredictable weather, sudden shifts in agricultural policy and so on. Farmers had to keep a few pounds for a rainy day and they consumed very little indeed.

Of course, with the coming of affluence, there are things to worry about - people getting into debt; keeping up with the Joneses; buying frivolously on impulse; spending on items such as drink and drugs, cosmetic surgery and designer goods. Much of this questionable expenditure is due to the speed with which we became affluent. (Our real living standards more than doubled over a 10-year period.) It's like the youngster who becomes a star overnight or the person who wins the lottery. Some of us may go mad for a while but most of us will mature into our good fortune and recover our senses.

The assertion that affluence leads to a poorer value system is precisely that - an assertion. What are the mechanisms by which it is supposed to come about? Do people become less considerate because they have more food in the fridge or books on their shelves or a flat-screen TV in the bedroom? It is hard to see any linkage here.

Is it because we are so busy working and making money that we have less time for other people? There may be something in this - hence the desire to find and allocate "quality" time. But people have to work hard to service their mortgages and many women go out to work because they have to. They may have less time for other people through no fault of their own, but it does not follow they have become less considerate. Indeed, the opposite would seem to be true: Ireland is still the largest per capita contributor to charities, both domestic and foreign.

The "greed-is-good" mindset is not much in evidence in Ireland. There may be some people who go in for the tooth-and-claw variety of capitalism but it does not seem to be more widespread than in pre-Celtic Tiger years. Certainly there were some attempts by employers to exploit immigrant workers but most of these problems have been sorted out. Neither is there much evidence of an "I'm- all- right-Jack" attitude becoming more widespread.

Do people who work hard feel "commodified" or alienated? This is a subjective matter but it seems unlikely. The concept of alienation is a Marxist one which applied particularly to old-economy assembly-line production which, from the workers' point of view, was truly mind-numbing. Work today is not at all like that and while many workers no doubt feel time-poor, they tend to appreciate their work. Many find work stimulating and enjoy the social interaction.

Growing affluence gives rise to one huge benefit. For most people (some unfortunately do slip through the cracks), it increases the range of choice and gives them more options.

Money in itself is neutral. It can be spent wisely or foolishly but it provides the choice. Money (or, more properly, purchasing power) doesn't change anybody: it allows people to express their individuality more fully.

Some may fritter it away on frivolous goods and services; others will use it to educate their children, pay for healthcare, make donations to charity, consume "cultural goods" such as concerts, ballet, opera and so on.

Money, therefore, may serve to consolidate one's pre-existing preferences but it is unlikely it will change these preferences or priorities. We all have free will and this is not affected by our bank balances.

There is one seeming exception, caused by the property boom. Some women have no option but to work outside the home - to help pay off the mortgage. The worry and guilty feelings that sometimes arise in this situation can be severe. However, this is a problem which is caused by the property bubble, not by affluence per se. In fact, if the women concerned were more affluent, they could deal more easily with the mortgages and decide to do things according to their own priorities.

Affluence also gives confidence, especially to people who had it hard for years. Confidence is to be welcomed - it is also neutral. It simply enriches our personalities but does not change basic attitudes.

Affluence and confidence allow people to think for themselves, live independent lives and vote with their feet. This is good for democracy, though it may frighten some institutions which like to exercise control, eg the church and the State.

There is no reason to expect affluence to be associated with declining moral values. If it were, our moral values couldn't have been very strongly held in the first place. It is also worth noting that some of the world's richest people are also the greatest philanthropists.

So, if moral values are deteriorating, it is unlikely this is caused by growing affluence. The causes are more likely to reside in societal changes such as the implosion of the church and shoddy politics. What we should worry more about is what might happen to our new-found confidence as the economy moves into recession and the dole queues lengthen.

• Michael Casey is former chief economist of the Central Bank and a member of the board of the International Monetary Fund