Can the Irish left get beyond ‘eating the rich’?

In the Irish Times, Vincent Browne is in as trenchant a mood as he was on TV 3 last night with Senator Dan Boyle… Browne is unequivocal: the government has failed, but the solution is obvious:

Produce a clear plan that requires the rich to bear the burden of the adjustments required and protect the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the vulnerable and children, with the members of the Government leading the way by taking the first and deepest hit.

Or as Gerard would have it: Eat the Rich!:

Such leftest populism (or ‘politics of envy’ as others might choose to put it) is one of the reasons the Irish Left has been left in the ha’penny place for so long. To be successful, the next generation of Irish political leadership will need to be broad enough to tackle the huge range of challenges coming at it.

More soberly, David Stevens and Alex Evans note in a new article for Renewal Magazine that:

Tip O’Neill famously observed that ‘all politics is local’, but today, the drivers of political success and failure are predominantly global. In a world as complex and interdependent as ours, risks multiply. Their impact, meanwhile, is unevenly distributed. While one group of people reap the benefits of an action, others feel the pain, as conflict, economic turbulence, disease or resource shortages disrupt their lives. Failure can also cascade from one system to another, a prospect that has become increasingly likely in a ‘just-in-time’ world.

In response, we need to get serious about how to make global, national and local systems more resilient. This is an imposing challenge. A new politics will be needed, one that is internationalist by default, but also hard-headed about the perils of globalisation. Governance systems will have to take on arduous new functions and slough off some old ones. Renewed attention must also be paid to subsidiarity, the tricky task of determining which function should be discharged where.

Interestingly they trick out the two ends of an argument that is raging in troubled economies all over the west:

Liberals have long argued for the diffusion of power. As Hayek argued, centralised control is not possible over systems ‘which no brain has designed but which [have] grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals’ (Hayek, 19 74). He, after all, was awarded a Nobel prize over thirty years ago for his ‘penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena’. Classical liberalism, however, has consistently been troubled by government attempts to create public goods. The result is an instinctive opposition to regulation, which leaves little room for attempts to
manage unstable global systems.

Social democrats, finally, understand the importance of public goods and are prepared to act forcefully to protect the vulnerable. They are also willing to act boldly to manage global instability. However, they have the weakness of being instinctive meddlers, crowding out the initiative of other actors and risking over-centralisation in the face of distributed risks.

No one else in Irish politics is advocating the positive use of public goods to help bring the economy through this global crisis (that’s not obfuscating, it is an abundant reality Vincent). But this temptation towards meddling, is the bigger problem for the Irish left with an opportunity to present itself as a credible candidate for leading the next government.

Indeed, Labour, the largest and most politically serious of the left (or progressive) parties, has not only this problem, but the inheritance of Fianna Fail’s highly solipsistic and corrosive social partnership system. As Evans and Stevens note:

This is a time when states will be under pressure to take on new, and onerous, responsibilities, such as taking responsibility for regulating carbon and other scarce resources. Unprecedented institutional innovation will be needed if these responsibilities are to be discharged without imposing unsustainable levels of cost. It is surely therefore time to put the ‘nanny state’ out of her misery, while we search for a more sustainable relationship between government and state.

Lastly, the challenge:

In the end, resilience is about a politics that is ‘progressive’ in a pure sense. Rather than following the ideological imprint of a bygone age, we need to be prepared to take a broad view of the systems that we depend on – and re-order our priorities to ensure that every action we take helps strengthen and defend them.

That takes courage, and a farsighted vision of the future. The question is not ‘what risks do we want to avoid?’ but ‘what do we want to be resilient for?’

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