Thursday, 28 May 2015

Equality for All - Really?

David Begg: The high turnout and the active involvement of so many campaigning groups, especially the engagement of young people, in the referendum on gay marriage conveys a strong impression of active citizenship and undoubtedly enhances Ireland’s image as a modern progressive democracy. By coincidence this theme of citizenship and how it measures up to the ideals of 1916 featured at a conference organised by the Wheel, an NGO support organisation, in the week before the referendum.

TASC exists to challenge inequality and to promote the concept of a flourishing society. This is the context in which any discussion of what citizenship is about needs to be located.

According to Edmund Phelps (2014) ‘Flourishing is the heart of prospering – engagement, meeting challenges, self-expression and personal growth’. It is somewhat similar to Amartya Sen’s (1999) emphasis on the development of a person’s capabilities in order to be able to live a full life.

The enabling conditions for a flourishing society must surely be; economic efficiency and sustainability, individual freedom, and social justice. Social justice brings the question of inequality front and centre although increasingly inequality is also seen as a threat both to economic efficiency and sustainability (Piketty, 2014; Atkinson, 2015; Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010).

One of the posters on prominent display during the referendum campaign called for ‘Equality for All’, but is that what it meant? Can I suggest the possibility that the authors had in mind equality in the context of civil and political rights. Important though that is, it is not the full picture. It does not take account of the economic and social rights enshrined in the 1966 UN Convention on Human Rights.

Of course one would not expect campaign slogans to have regard to such subtleties. And it did allow all political parties to coalesce around a limited definition of equality for the purpose of achieving a particular social liberal objective. But if we look deeper into the issues of rights we can discern important differences in political orientation.

For example, those of a market liberal persuasion tend to see equality only in terms of civil and political rights, whereas Social Democrats are also concerned for economic and social rights – the right to a job, healthcare, education, housing etc. The problem for Social Democrats is that vindicating these rights always depends on available resources while civil and political rights cost nothing.

Social Democracy enjoyed a ‘Golden Age’ of social and economic progress after the war but the 1980s neo-liberal counter revolution put that into reverse, a manifestation of which is that labour’s share of national income in the EU reduced by 10 per cent between 1980 and 2015 to the benefit of profits. Much credit for this change in direction is down to Friedrich Hayek (1944) who believed that social justice is
‘a mirage ……. incompatible with a liberal market society’.
Taken to extremes this thinking produces the kind of inequality found in the United States where the Wall Street bonus in 2014 was roughly twice the total annual earnings of all those working full time at the Federal minimum wage. It is an unfortunate reality that Hayekian Philosophy dominates policy making in Europe and Ireland too. Hence a recent submission by the Department of Finance to the new Low Pay Commission arguing that a rise in the minimum wage would damage employment and favouring instead tax cuts for the lower paid. There is no empirical evidence to support this argument.

Moreover, it ignores the fact that it is the lower paid who depend most on the public services paid for by taxation to provide a threshold of decent living without which they can never hope to develop the capabilities spoken of by Sen and can never aspire to participate in a flourishing society. Citizenship means very little without the prospect of being able to participate fully in the social, economic and cultural life of the country.

The great American feminist and labour leader, Rose Schneiderman, put it succinctly in a speech in 1912:
‘What the woman who labours wants is the right to live, not simply exist….. The right to life, and the sun and music and art. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too’. 
A flourishing society is not about having enough to simply survive, but about living to the full: about constant improvement, with pleasures and luxuries otherwise restricted to the wealthiest made accessible to all. It is an aspiration which is as relevant and valid today as it was in 1912.
The Referendum result was undoubtedly a milestone for equality and inclusiveness. By all means celebrate it but let’s not lose the run of ourselves. Full equality in an economic and social sense remains an elusive goal.

David Begg is Director of TASC


  • Atkinson, Anthony B. (2015) ‘Inequality: What Can Be Done?’ Cambridge MA and London. Harvard University Press
  • Hayek, F.A. (2001 [1999]) ‘The Road to Serfdom’. London. Routledge.
  • Phelps, Edmund (2014) ‘Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge and Change’. United States. Princeton University Press.
  • Piketty, Thomas (2014) ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ United States. Harvard University.
  • Sen, Amartya (1999) ‘Development as Freedom’ Oxford. Oxford University Press.
  • Wilkinson, Richard and Pickett, Kate (2010) ‘The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone’. London. Penquin.

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