The Citizen: Issue 3
Author: Paula Clancy
A fully formed democracy rests on three interrelated pillars: equality, dissent, and information, all of which are crucial to democratic participation and public engagement. At its most developed and participative, democracy is both a generator and a function of well-being, whether socio-economic, physical, or cultural. Our definitions of well-being are continuously evolving, but we do know that certain minimum levels of economic and social well-being, as well as of health and educational attainment, are vital to enable individuals to participate in the democratic life of society. Such participation involves far more than casting a ballot on certain pre-ordained dates. The effective exercise of social and political rights requires equal access to all forums where both power and influence (two very discrete concepts) are wielded. Equality, in turn, depends heavily on the ability to obtain information and voice dissent.
In seeking to grow Irish democracy to incorporate the tenets of equality and participation, we are reflecting values deeply rooted in our society. TASC, the Think Tank for Action on Social Change, regularly monitors public opinion, and we have found high levels of awareness of and concern at economic inequality, in particular, coupled with a belief that the government should take active steps to reduce income inequality.1 That conviction is allied to the overwhelming support we have found for legal enforcement of social and employment-related rights.2
In this regard, Irish citizens are well ahead of their elected government and in tune with a growing body of evidence that a more equal society and increased well-being go hand in hand. That evidence was most recently collated and articulated in The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, which reported on a study of twenty-three of the richest countries, including Ireland, with varying degrees of income inequality. The authors’ key finding is that income inequality causes social dysfunction across a wide range of outcomes. Critically, these outcomes are not confined to those living in poverty; instead, Wilkinson and Pickett find that inequality has an adverse effect on the vast majority of a country’s population. Conversely, greater equality brings substantial gains to all classes, including those at the top of the socio-economic pyramid.
The significance of The Spirit Level is that it provides us with the first evidence-based analysis of the impact of inequality itself, as opposed to a lack of resources. The authors draw on internationally comparative data that has only recently become available. It now seems to be self-evident that any democracy worth the name must focus on achieving economic equality. The World Bank argues that the way to ‘break the power and inequality vicious circle’ is to recognise that ‘societies prosperous today are so because they have developed more egalitarian distributions of political power, while poor societies often suffer from unbalanced distributions.’3
Power inequalities go hand in hand with economic inequality, since access to the forums of power and influence referred to earlier is largely, albeit not exclusively, a function of economic status. A reductionist anti-poverty agenda, while it may set vital floors (e.g. the ‘at risk of poverty’ measure of sixty per cent of median income), does little to address economic gaps between individuals and groups, and it is precisely those gaps that are so destructive of social well-being and cohesion.
Despite the growing acceptance during recent decades of the need to make combating poverty a central plank of public policy and of the associated need to establish an economic floor below which no resident of the state should be allowed to fall, there remains an acceptance that economic inequality (at its most tangible, the gap between rich and poor) is inevitable and, indeed, may act as a spur for economic activity. That theory was most memorably articulated by former Progressive Democrat leader Michael McDowell, who claimed in an interview with the Economist magazine that inequality is an inevitable by-product of economic growth.
The assumption articulated by McDowell, and tacitly espoused by others, is that inequality is the price we pay for progress. Yet, as Wilkinson and Pickett have demonstrated, inequality is, in fact, an obstacle to progress. And if we accept that premise, Ireland’s future progress may be impeded by economic inequality that remains stark. According to the most recent figures available, the richest 10 per cent of our fellow citizens have a disposable income 11.4 times that of the poorest 10 per cent. Disparities in asset wealth are even more glaring: according to Wealth of the Nation, published by Bank of Ireland Private Banking in 2007, the top one per cent of the Irish population enjoys around €100 billion worth of assets and owns 20 per cent of the nation’s wealth.
But the economic equality debate is about more than cash in the bank: it is at the root of both opportunity and outcomes. The impact of economic equality (or its absence) starts in early childhood, with the health and education investment choices made by the state in our name: choices that directly affect our future economic well-being.
For too long the economic equality debate, where it has featured at all, has been driven by the mantra of upward mobility, which is premised on a simple assumption: Provided that certain basics are in place, such as equal access to education, all can succeed if they only work hard enough.
This is the bootstrap theory of mobility, with the state providing the education strap and the individual providing the work strap. There are, of course, a number of inherent problems with this theory. The most obvious is that the notion of (upward) mobility, by definition, constitutes an acceptance of inequality: as some succeed in leaving poverty behind, others are left behind in poverty. Thus, upward mobility does little to combat inequality – it simply moves human pieces around on the inequality chessboard. And all too often, policies designed to foster upward mobility fail even in that limited and limiting aim.
A recent UK Government report, Unleashing Aspiration, has demonstrated that in the UK upward mobility (in this case, defined as access to the professions) actually declined during recent decades.4 The report found that a typical professional born in 1958 came from a family that earned seventeen per cent more than the average family income; but by 1970, the family income gap between those who went on to pursue a professional career and the average family had risen to twenty-seven per cent. Switching the focus to today, the report concluded that the typical doctor or lawyer of the future will be growing up in a family better off than five out of six of all families in the UK.
It is, of course, unlikely that if such a study were to be replicated in Ireland a similarly stark divide would be found: on the contrary, it is probable that social mobility here did increase during the past four decades as a result of the introduction of free second-level education in 1967. Nevertheless, some of the UK findings are probably paralleled in Ireland, especially with regard to the function of fee-paying schools as conduits into lucrative and high-status professions. As in the UK, we would probably find that upward mobility is largely illusory. Instead of continuing to pursue a mobility course, the time has surely come to chart an equality course.
Public responses to successive TASC surveys indicate a consensus that increased equality is a public good. The next challenge facing us is to transform that instinctive desire for equality into political reality and concrete and measurable change. As of yet, no political party has whole-heartedly embraced the economic equality agenda. This is, perhaps, not surprising: up to relatively recently, there was limited acceptance of the connection between democracy and economic and social rights. By the same token, few would have argued ten or fifteen years ago that such rights should be subject to legal or constitutional guarantees.
Notwithstanding the fact that Ireland has signed up to various international human rights instruments that insist that all human rights (civil, political, economic, social, and cultural) are ‘indivisible,’ the suggestion that socio-economic rights should be justiciable has, in the past, attracted vehement opposition from a significant number of government and public servants. Their argument was that such measures would be ‘undemocratic’ (by which they meant that they would bypass the normal political processes), as well as unaffordable. As Donncha O’Connell has cogently argued, this stance ignores the fact that individual citizens or NGOs generally seek legal redress as a last resort following an inadequate response on the part of the state and its institutions to major social problems.5
In this environment – an environment where rights are viewed with suspicion rather than respect – equality becomes a platitude instead of a policy. Yet, all the evidence shows that achieving greater equality in all spheres must become the focus of public policy if we are all to achieve social and economic progress.
The second pillar of democracy is dissent. The opportunity for citizens to engage in collective reflection and dissent, together with a collective capacity for self-renewal, is as crucial to a fully formed democracy as equality. For such critical and collective reflection to occur, we need access to the evidence and propositions that support an alternative (and better) vision of Irish society. Such arguments must become common currency in public discourse, since public endorsement of an argument presupposes familiarity.
Prior to our current economic crisis, successive Irish governments were able to avoid making hard choices thanks to a combination of substantial revenues and the consensus-driven nature of the social partnership process. In addition, the catch-all ideology of the main political parties helped foster a political culture of acquiescence.
As a consequence, with the exception of a few bloggers and online media outlets and a small number of broadcasters and commentators, little heed was paid to the signs foretelling economic trouble ahead. As recently as 2007, a General Election was fought on the premise that all would be well if we just held our nerve. An editorial in the Irish Independent of 12 September 2007 encapsulates the pre-recession consensus:
Perhaps those who would ‘talk down’ the economy, dream of being remembered as the boy who first spotted the wolf. There is no wolf in sight, and groundless prophecies could conceivably become self-fulfilling. The economy is healthy and robust and even the most persuasive doom merchant should not succeed in talking us into a recession.
Just a month later, it became apparent that the Exchequer would be running a deficit by the end of 2007. While economic pessimists were being derided by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern as ‘knowing nothing about nothing,’ those who pointed out the fundamental problems of inequality and sustainability that went hand in hand with the deceptive measures of general prosperity were accused of being part of ‘the poverty industry.’ The pattern is clear: dissent is labelled (‘poverty industry,’ ‘doom merchants,’ ‘know nothing’) in order to facilitate its marginalisation.
And the pattern continues. Even now, in the wake of the economic devastation wrought by the policies of the 1990s and the early part of this decade, advocates of an alternative economic model, one based on equality, sustainability, and justice, are dismissed. What one writer on the TASC economics blog, Progressive-Economy, has termed ‘the Dublin Consensus’ (in reference to the Washington Consensus, an expression coined back in the 1980s) still holds sway, and its opponents are dismissed as they were during the boom years.6
The Dublin Consensus advocates, inter alia, wage cuts in the private and especially the public sectors; cuts in public spending; taxing low-income groups; and cutting back on the public sector. Unless this consensus is challenged and dissent facilitated, we may find ourselves facing the most potentially deflationary fiscal stance since the 1950s, accompanied by a further erosion of our already inadequate public infrastructure and social supports.7
The hegemonic presentation of a particular ideological position is not necessarily caused by a conscious intent to limit public access to the range of perspectives and analyses on current economic developments. It does, however, reflect the absence of diversity in the Irish media-diversity that is crucial to a healthy democracy, which depends on competition between ideas and narratives.
Extensive research conducted in the UK has confirmed what has been widely suspected for some time: print and broadcast media have curtailed their investment in investigative journalism in pursuit of the bottom line, leaving journalists over reliant on the publicity and propaganda output of public relations professionals seeking to manage and manipulate public perceptions, opinion, and policy. Research conducted by Cardiff University found that just twelve per cent of stories in Britain’s quality newspapers during the period examined showed evidence of thorough checking, while fifty-four per cent of stories were wholly or mainly constructed from PR material.8
Mark Twain reportedly coined the statement: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’ Coupled with a lack of investigation is an increasing willingness by commentators to either selectively use facts to make an argument or, even more worryingly, to use hypotheses dressed up as fact. Earlier this year, for example, the (since discredited) thesis was advanced that Ireland enjoyed the most generous social welfare payments in the EU. In fact, at that time, Irish social welfare benefits were twenty-nine per cent below the EU average.9
During the two months between this thesis being advanced and then retracted, it gained currency amongst both politicians and commentators, and it has since been used to bolster the argument that social welfare payments should be cut. When we consider that this type of ‘information’ is used to shape public opinion regarding the fundamental economic and investment choices facing us– choices that will determine the shape of Irish society for decades to come– the scale of the assault on democracy becomes apparent.
The shrinking space allocated to investigative journalism, combined with an increased propensity to distort, has been compounded by a residual culture of secrecy within government. Our current processes render the operation of public bodies and public functions opaque and impenetrable not only to citizens but also to the advocacy and civil society organisations operating on their behalf. Indeed, even public officials charged with oversight can find it difficult to obtain information.
At the most basic level, lack of information on the actual number, status, and function of public bodies, together with issues relating to inconsistency, exclusions, and lack of clarity in the application of accountability legislation to such bodies, is bad for democracy. This has been compounded by the absence of an independent system of public appointments.
The culture of secrecy often takes refuge behind pretexts of ‘commercial sensitivity’: thus NAMA is not subject to Freedom of Information legislation. Ensuring that accountability legislation is applied fully to all bodies responsible for public functions and that any exclusions are only granted with clear criteria agreed in an open and accountable manner would go a long way towards countering this residual culture of secrecy. Indeed, such measures are essential if the principle of accountability is to become meaningful rather than notional.
A culture of secrecy, coupled with an active attempt to eliminate dissent, does immeasurable harm to democracy, fostering cynicism, disillusion and, ultimately, public disengagement. The state currently provides around 60 per cent of total funding for the non-profit sector, and there is evidence that the government is using its economic muscle to eliminate dissent. In some cases, the elimination of dissent may occur directly by issuing instructions to state agencies to cease funding activities such as ‘networking’ or ‘advocacy’, or by reducing the budgets of agencies whose sole aim is to address inequalities. In other cases, dissent may be indirectly eliminated – there is compelling anecdotal evidence to suggest that community groups and NGOs that are dependent on state funding censor themselves to avoid putting their funding at risk.
Back in 2005, TASC found that three-quarters of the population wanted to have a say in how their country is run. However, fewer people believed that efforts to influence political decision-making were likely to be successful, while a smaller proportion still agreed that political activism was worthwhile. Unsurprisingly, we found that confidence in the ability of politics to change things and in the ability of the individual to influence politics is partly a function of social class and educational attainment. Unless we actively pursue an equality agenda, allied with a concerted effort to facilitate dissent and expand public access to information, our democracy will continue to be stunted.
Paula Clancy is Director of TASC, The Think Tank for Action on Social Change.