The security of families has been torn away – the value of savings liquidated, the prospect of jobs dashed, the possession of the family home put in jeopardy – all as a result of actions in which people justifiably feel they played no part.
The failure of the systems which people were assured would protect them has aggravated the sense of injustice, and made all the keener because no one has been held accountable. I believe those failures stems from fault lines which lay at a deeper level in a political system that never really embraced the principles of a just society. Despite the rhetoric of political parties who espouse the idea of a Republic, there has never been a clear expression of the rights and duties of citizenship in Ireland. Too often we were willing to allow the EU do our thinking for us, as European decisions pushed out the boundaries of rights and duties. The institutions to protect citizens were never robust enough and were far too ready to succumb to the pressures of sectional interests.
The frailties of bank regulation and the planning systems have been laid bare for all to see. The healthy sceptism of market power which should have imbued regulators was replaced by unquestioning faith. What seemed to be successful was assumed to be right. Activities that yielded speculative profits, high commissions and rich tax flows supplanted genuine enterprise from the creation of goods and services for sustainable markets.
Sectional interests dominated other areas of policy also. The concept of individualisation sought to coral families into striking a certain balance between family and work. It was a balance that met the needs of the economy not that of strong families.
It wasn’t just commercial interests who successfully captured the institutions of the state for their own ends. The same capture occurred within the state itself. Rigid models of top-down provision did not serve the citizen adequately. Its characteristics were more attuned to the needs of the producers of the services than the user – lack of choice, lack of responsiveness, poor standards, no accountability.
After the scale of the disaster that has befallen our country, people will not willingly join in the effort of putting it right unless they are convinced that the Ireland which emerges from this crisis will never again be hi-jacked by special interests. People need to see a more just society taking shape from the wreckage of this crisis.
WHAT IS MEANT BY JUSTICE?
A just society means different things to different people. Typically the media look to the voices of the left to shape the debate. But most on the left offer a narrow approach to justice offering a grey uniformity in pursuit of an egalitarian ideal. It is a perspective too closely aligned with state provision and lazily equates a higher percentage of public spending and tax with a fairer society. The notion that to deliver fair public services requires that they be universal, uniform and free is simply not consistent with the expectations of well informed citizens who want to have more control over their lives and the chance to do the very best for themselves and for their children with whatever resources are at their disposal.
However, a just society is not to be found either in the rabid individualism espoused by those on the right. Their view has been in the ascendant in recent years. It measures progress solely by rising consumer demand for, larger houses, exotic holidays and surround sound entertainment. At its best it offers personal refuge in a well furnished capsule. But too often its narrow pursuit allows the pillars which buttress strong communities crumble away. Solidarity falls between the crevices.
It is time to shape a richer concept of what a just society should look like. Fine Gael has strong credentials in this area which equip us to redefine that debate. What we mean by a just society emerges from our idea of citizenship. This provides the richer context that we now need. The concept of citizenship embraces the person:-
• With potential to fulfil, and with risks that threaten.
• With rights, and with responsibilities within the community.
• Intimately affected by political institutions, and with the capacity to alter them.
These different dimensions – personal, social and political – give a perspective to what a just society should look like. It will remove barriers that impede a person’s progress. It will help a person manage the risks and opportunities through their life. It will consider the person not just as an individual but in the context of wider relationships with their families and with their community. It will balance the needs of today with those of future generations. It will focus on individuals not as passive absorbers of services and income streams but as agents who derive much of their sense of worth from the active part they play in private and public life.
This idea of justice places a far greater emphasis on breaking cycles of disadvantage that have trapped people, on supporting strong families and communities and on giving the individual citizen the opportunity to shape both the politics and the public services which mould their lives. These elements of the just society have been undervalued in Irish politics.
Many of the most intractable problems that we face as a community – be it addiction, disadvantage, obesity, or damage to our planet – can only be successfully confronted if citizens themselves are at the heart of the effort and successfully change the lifestyles that feed them. Many well intentioned initiatives failed because they never bridged that gulf. People were treated as “patients” to whom things are done, not as agents who do it for themselves. When such initiatives fail, it is easier for their authors to blame deeply engrained attitudes than to question the design or implementation of that policy. Often they stop even enquiring whether initiatives are succeeding.
We have not broken cycles of disadvantage, because we have turned a blind eye to failings. An education system – in which close to 20% of the cohort drop out before completion virtually all of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds – is failing. A welfare system – which traps people in idleness and does not either offer or demand participation in opportunities – is failing. A health system – which routinely accepts that those with money in their pocket will get access to care denied to those without – is failing. These systems are perpetuating injustice for too many citizens.
Delivering a Just Society requires an enabling state which plays a more active role in some areas, but can step back from others. It will forge a new and different partnership with the citizen. Too often the state’s response to social problems is reactive, arriving too late when the problem has festered and the possibility of solution is greatly impaired. Instead the state must adopt a more preventative, and a more participative approach. This means listening and responding to what citizens seek for themselves.
APPLYING CLEAR PRINCIPLES
Delivering justice in society is not just a matter of bankrolling big spending programmes. It is about setting proper priorities rooted in our shared citizenship and connecting evidence-based instruments of policy to the delivery of those objectives. It requires robust monitoring and accountability. It requires variety, a willingness to experiment and share the successes. This requires a different culture from that which prevails in the highly centralised public service model that we have become used to.
Delivering a just society means the state adopting a very different relationship with power in all of its forms. It means recognising market failure as a real and present danger in many areas. It means a willingness to challenge the great if they overstep their authority. It means an insistence on holding all power to account. It means holding politics and the public service up to scrutiny against the yardstick of delivery for the citizen.
Delivering a just society demands a more explicit concept of fairness between generations. This will challenge a banking strategy which converts the past mistakes of those who invested in banks into the future obligations of tax payers. It also challenges the way in which the politics of today happily creates obligations for future generations without heeding their ability to support them. When pensions and health are funded on a pay as you go basis, an aging population is shunting the obligations for supporting their lifestyle onto taxpayers who haven’t yet entered the workforce.
We already see the pressure on the sandwich generation – supporting young people who are having to stay on longer in education to achieve the skills that they need, and supporting an older generation who are living longer but with longer periods of dependency.
Delivering a just society will require new funding models that allow people to even out the costs of the expensive phases of their life cycles in an effective way. The funding of higher education based on deferred fees paid back once you qualify is one such initiative. The tapping of personal assets to fund nursing home care is another. However a more sophisticated model is clearly necessary. It must promote co-funding with contributions built up in your active years in a fund which sets aside resources to meet the longer term liability. Such contributions should not be reckoned only from paid employment but also from worthwhile activity in the family and the community. Nor should contributions stop at some arbitrary retirement age. Banking part of your efforts to-day in order to avail of education, health or welfare opportunities in the future is a fair and acceptable basis for developing entitlements. While the state must regulate the accumutation and access to these entitlements, it does not have to provide the services. Indeed centralized provision will play a diminishing part in the delivery over time.
Just as we have become much more conscious of the need to pass on our environment in as good a shape as we found it. We need to think in the same vein about equity between generations as we model the funding of health , pensions and education for the future. It is all the more vital in a small country like Ireland, where it is always an option for the young and mobile to leave if unrealistic expectations are being loaded on their shoulders.
Creating a just society where people can give expression to their potential, reap the rewards of genuine effort, shape the forces that affect their lives, build strong networks for common effort and solidarity – this is the ideal with which we can justifiably appeal to citizens to join us in climbing the long rugged path back to economic independence and prosperity.
I would like to thank people for their very varied comments when I recently raised this on facebook. They have helped shape my thinking.