President Michael D Higgins has condemned the “obsession” with achieving economic growth in a speech on Friday that was implicitly critical of the economic policies pursued by successive governments.
In a reception at Áras an Uachtaráin for Tasc, a think tank dedicated to social change, the President delivered a typically wide-ranging speech that featured a strong critique of economic policy that seeks to prioritise growth, a condemnation of “neoliberalism” and an evaluation of the shortcomings of the teaching of economics at universities.
He also urged those present to “envisage our future utopia”, suggesting the Ireland must “rebalance economy, ecology and ethics”.
And he insisted that the current exchequer surplus was not just the product of corporation tax receipts from multinationals, but “has been made possible by an educated and hard-working population”.
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The President’s views on one of the constants of Irish Government policy – the promotion of economic growth – may raise eyebrows in Government.
“Many economists remain stuck in an inexorable growth narrative, or at best a ‘green growth’ narrative,” he said. “A fixation on a narrowly defined efficiency, productivity, perpetual growth has resulted in a discipline that has become blinkered to the ecological challenge – the ecological catastrophe – we now face.
“That narrow focus constitutes an empty economics which has lost touch with everything meaningful, a social science which no longer is connected, or even attempts to be connected, with the social issues and objectives for which it was developed over centuries. It is incapable of offering solutions to glaring inadequacies of provision as to public needs, devoid of vision.”
Later he added: “Our obsession with inexorable economic expansion expresses, perhaps, a desire to transcend our material limits and rise above the state of nature. Yet this growth fixation paradoxically increases the potency of those very limits.
“A deadly cocktail of exploding inequalities, massive deregulation and a globalisation defined solely by trade densities has precipitated this ecological crisis.”
Mr Higgins also fretted about the “fragile, even empty, quality of democracy”, but said that while “we are living under great shadows that cast so much doubt and anxiety, I wish to offer a positive contribution to the debate, and I must attempt to avoid the temptation to fall into any Adornoesque sense of despondency.”
Senior Government figures declined to make any substantive comment on the President’s views, even off the record. For a long time the general rule in successive governments has been not to tangle with the President, as he is more popular than any politician.
Mr Higgins returned to a theme he has previously spoken on – the teaching of economics.
He said he had “called for many years now on third-level institutions” to expand their teaching of economics to include the “emancipatory potential for a new, recovered political economy”.
“The question of how economics is taught and encountered... is a matter of utmost importance,” he said, adding that a failure “to facilitate a pluralism of approaches in teaching economics is a deprivation of basic students’ rights, indeed citizen rights”.
Mr Higgins also set out clear political challenges. “Do we want to bequeath to our children an Ireland where everybody will have access to nutritious food, clean water, adequate housing, good healthcare, childcare and education, irrespective of their ability to pay for those basic social goods? Or do we wish to pursue a means-tested, two- or even three-tiered system of access to services with all its exclusionary and inequitable outcomes?”
Some welfare payments, such as the disability allowance, are currently means-tested.
“The challenge for all of us here today,” Mr Higgins continued, “is, therefore, to find a way of building, with all our distinctive contributions, an alternative to that hegemonic discourse that casts competitiveness, productivity, efficiency, as the ultimate purpose of economic activity, and inexorable growth in output and trade as an end in itself.
“I suggest that all of the prevailing ruling concepts in our present economic discourse – flexibility, globalisation, productivity, efficiency, innovation, indeed economic growth itself – are capable of being redefined within an active citizen participative state context, given a shared moral resonance, reimagined sustainably within the context of the new ecological-social model.”