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Three big ideas to transform Ireland

Posted on April 26, 2019 by Tom Healy

Tom Dec 2014

Ideas drive behaviour. In societies the dominant ideas reflect many competing interests and value systems.  What values guide economic activity and public policy in Ireland today?  In An Ireland Worth Working For – Towards a new democratic programme, I propose three ‘big ideas’ to guide policy: democracy, equality and sustainability. These are not new ideas. Rather, they draw on principles which most people would say they support. However, in practice, these ideas are not honoured.

The terms ‘democracy’ and ‘equality’ are frequently used in public discourse in a narrow legal or institutional sense. So, for example, democracy is understood to apply mainly to a process of deliberation every few years in which citizens with the right to vote can do so based on a competition for votes by political parties. Those elected to govern are said to have a mandate to make decisions, enact new laws and authorise policies and actions over a number of years. Likewise, the term ‘equality’ is used to refer to the formal equality of persons before the law and the conferring of rights to citizenship and to vote. At most, consideration is given to equality of opportunity but rarely is equality of access to power, to wealth and to media considered extensively. Even less consideration is given to equality of access, to love, care and solidarity – matters that impact on all groups in society including migrants, sexual minorities or vulnerable children and the elderly.

Sustainability is often associated with recycling, switching energy providers and being generally kinder to the environment. But sustainability is much more than this: it is about rethinking and revisiting our inter-generational covenant. We do not inherit the earth from our parents, but borrow it from our children. Political economy has a vital role to play in helping shape such a vision. Fundamental to economic and social progress, as correctly understood by those who framed the Democratic Programme a century ago, is the role of ownership and control of resources, decision-making institutions and the values shaping these.

Human well-being should be conceived as the freedom and capacity to achieve the ‘good life’ consistent with our values and ideals. As a summary index of such freedom measures of health, education and income are a very proximate indicator of human well-being (as reflected in the thinking and construction of the UN Human Development Index). A vital addition to income, education and health is the freedom to participate in, and contribute to, decision-making in one’s society. In other words, equality of opportunity and high levels of education and health do not guarantee democratic choice or freedom if we are denied the freedom to express our views and work with others to bring about change.

Consumption of economic goods and political and civil liberties are secondary to the capacity of exercising choice based on knowledge, health and access to material resources. Well-being ought to be defined more by the freedom to achieve according to one’s goals than the fact of the achievement itself. Any measure based on income is limited because it tells us nothing about the quality of life, the opportunities open to people and the sustainability of consumption and production.

In addressing the problem of environmental degradation, it is not possible for nation-states to achieve the necessary quantum leap on their own – yet inter-governmental gatherings and agreed statements are not sufficient either. There is, now, a once-off opportunity for the European Union to prove that a strong federal or supra-national body based on principles of solidarity and subsidiarity (that is, with delegation of powers to the national level where possible and agreed) can lead the way in tackling global warming. It has the potential of political economic and diplomatic power to do so. In next week’s blog, I consider the question of whether and how the European Union can be reformed so as to make it ‘fit for purpose’.

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