With the sad news of TK Whitaker’s passing, we look back at an article he penned for Business & Finance in 1980 regarding social order.
Towards a new social order, by TK Whitaker
I make no pretence of having a blueprint for a new social order. All I can do, after inadequate reflection and with limited understanding, is to review some weaknesses in the management of our affairs at present and, not being one who sees any merit in a destructive revolution, to offer some tentative suggestions for reform.
A good democratic social order pre-supposes sufficient community of interest amongst the citizens for them to be content most of the time to live and work together under a duly-elected government that will protect the law-abiding and conduct the business of the nation in a just and progressive manner.
Majority rule is accepted on this premise and on the basis that unsatisfactory governments may be changed, and reasonable consensus restored, by a swing of popular opinion and of parliamentary representation before any minority suffers unfairly for long.
Amongst the marks of a well-ordered society are: respect for lawful authority; freedom of expression; care for the under-privileged; pursuit of civilised procedures for resolution of disputes; and a recognised role, subordinate to Government and Parliament, for organised interest groups.
In Ireland, as in other democracies, the reality differs markedly from the ideal of government of the people by the people for the people. It differs so much indeed as to raise the question: who governs? Is it little more than a fiction that Parliament and Government are sovereign?
Does the State’s power rest precariously on day-by-day tolerance of its authority by powerful sectoral interests representing farmers, trade unions, employers, professions?
Are Governments nowadays to be compared to the totally deaf Beethoven in his later years, just being allowed to go through the motions of conducting the orchestra while the real control is being exercised elsewhere? Has a Government’s main role been reduced to that of crisis-avoidance, backing away from confrontation by temporising and yielding along lines of least resistance?
In such circumstances is economic planning feasible, or is a continuation of inflation and social tension to be expected in the absence of a coherent and sustainable policy for ordered progress?
SOLIDARITY AND INDEPENDENCE
No one will deny the relevance of these questions having regard to the muscle nowadays exerted by organised interest groups for political as well as sectoral ends. The most unfortunate example in recent years was the general strike in Northern Ireland which was allowed to overthrow the post-Sunningdale power-sharing administration.
But we have had enough instances of our own to justify anxiety as to whether such groups are not exceeding their legitimate functions in a democracy. Are they being tempted to use their undoubted power to harm the public in order to force the democratic government to do their will?
Are Governments nowadays to be compared to the totally deaf Beethoven in his later years, just being allowed to go through the motions of conducting the orchestra while the real control is being exercised elsewhere?
Is this bad example being followed increasingly by smaller and less representative groups, including unofficial strikers and even individuals, who see themselves as having significant disruptive power either by the nature of their occupation of the protection afforded them by law or custom?
Democracy, one would think, is under enough threat from organised interests, with some claim to representative status, as well as from the imperfections of bureaucracy, with its being menaced also by a return to anarchy – by evaporation of that sense of solidarity and interdependence on which the whole concept of the nation state, and of democratic rule, rests.
My first concern therefore, would be to try to strengthen the framework of the democratic system by reforms of both a positive and a negative nature. On the positive side, one could seek more effective procedures to help Parliament and Government grapple with serious issues.
One could expect greater attention on the part of Government and Opposition to the need for upholding the dignity and authority of both Houses of the Oireachtas. Governments should realise that authority unexercised or let slip is authority abandoned.
The statute book should not contain laws which are not intended to be enforced. Explanation, admonition and exhortation are a necessary lead-up to policy decisions but the taking of such decisions and their implementation are the prime and inalienable responsibility of Government.
A case in point is the rectification of excessive Exchequer borrowing for current purposes.
On the negative side, it is essential that Governments should promise no more than they can perform, as well as performing what they promise.
I have previously suggested that Governments entertain and foster exaggerated notions of their economic management capacity. In recent years top-of-the-scale targets have been set which could be achieved only under ideal conditions. Public expectations, at all times difficult to contain, are thus encouraged to run even further ahead of resources.
The inevitable disappointment breeds social discontent and disrespect for the political process. The original view was that the consultative process preceding decisions on a medium term plan offered a means not only of generating a commitment to the efforts and disciplines necessary to achieve progress, but also of reaching broad agreement on how the gains should be shared.
These were seen to be inter-dependent conditions of the success of any development plan.
Excessive promises also seem to be considered necessary to secure political office. Inordinate expectations are promoted not only by the competitive nature of politics but by that of the trade union system as well. Competition for members induces out-bidding in pay and other demands.
A shop stewards’ movement sets out to do better than the official union by accepting what is officially negotiated and then having it topped up through various forms of industrial action.
A non-Congress union can undertake to its members to secure £x a week more than the terms of a National Agreement, without having to submit to any of the restraints. Unconscionable pressure is thus exerted on moderately minded and responsible unions for, unless they inflate their own demands, they risk losing members to the more aggressive.
Because of the extent of the economic disruption which sectoral groups can now bring about if they are so minded, society should be very slow indeed to add to their power.
With great regret, because I believe in the merits of planning and of the antecedent consultations, I am becoming increasingly doubtful whether economic planning is possible at all in present circumstances
It is right to uphold their influence and discipline as representative institutions and to bring them fully into the consultative process, but one may doubt whether it is necessary or wise, for instance, to extend the outmoded and over-generous protection afforded by the Trade Disputes Act of 1906.
With great regret, because I believe in the merits of planning and of the antecedent consultations, I am becoming increasingly doubtful whether economic planning is possible at all in present circumstances.
From the outset it was emphasised that unruly forces could pull a plan apart, that targets were aims not promises, and that even a “concerted and comprehensive programme … could only be successful if the individual members of the community were realistic and patriotic enough to accept the standard of living produced by their own exertions here, even if it should continue some time to be lower than the standard available abroad” (Economic Development, 1958).
The Second Programme (1963) reiterated these warnings, adding that “it is one of the aims of programming to lay the basis for the necessary understanding and concern for promoting both national and individual progress on which good sense and co-operation in economic relations must be built.”
Not only the various Programmes but the National Industrial Economic Council (followed by the National Economic and Social Council), the Employer/Labour Conference, the cycle of Green and White Papers since 1977, and the National Understandings of 1979 and 1980 are to be seen as part of the search for a consensus on which steady national progress could rest.
Regrettably, a wide, reasonable and stable consensus was achieved only in the earlier years and medium-term planning seems latterly to have been ousted by more short-lived, short-sighted and unrealistic arrangements.
A GREATER ZEAL
The framework of democracy would be strengthened by inserting as many stabilising pegs as possible in order to keep disruptive forces under some control. The exchange rate can be one such disciplinary peg; our problem in the European Monetary System is that 70% of our transactions are in currencies outside the system and our domestic costs are rising faster than the external prices for a high proportion of our products.
Reasonably exercised, control of the money supply could be another stabilising influence but, as I have remarked recently, fiscal and incomes policies must be aligned with monetary policy of the discipline is to be tolerable and effective.
The reintroduction of competitive market forces would be salutary in areas where monopolies have been giving unsatisfactory results.
There are laws which prevent or regulate private sector mergers and monopolies. The State’s industrial relations and losses experience should make it hesitant to create any new public sector monopolies and willing to break up some existing ones.
There should be a periodic questioning of the continued validity of arguments concerning public interest and social need. Both these arguments are less compelling than they once were in relation, for instance, to public transport facilities. Even where there is a strong social case for a public service, we should refuse to accept the notion that the loss incurred, whatever it may be, measures the community benefit.
We are at present very conscious of our infrastructural deficiencies and at the same time of the personal indignity, social waste, and heavy financial outlay for no return, associated with large-scale unemployment
The drive for improved social status centres on money income increases. Productivity, however, lags in differing degrees behind the rewards insisted upon and varying intensities of cost inflation and the balance of payments trouble are thus generated in different countries.
Our experience has been unfavourable and it is becoming increasingly urgent, if our inflation rate is to be lowered enough to improve our competitiveness and rate of job creation, that ways be found of bringing about a convergence in the rates of increase in monetary reward and personal output.
Having noted the greater zeal and interest displayed by small independent groups, such as land improvement contractors, than by those working for large public enterprises, I have already suggested that “it would seem well worth while trying to simulate in industrial conditions a contract system in which small autonomous groups became responsible for particular intermediate products in terms of quality, quantity and delivery at an agreed price and had themselves the opportunity through their own efficiency, of gaining and sharing a premium profit.”
We are at present very conscious of our infrastructural deficiencies and at the same time of the personal indignity, social waste, and heavy financial outlay for no return, associated with large-scale unemployment. This seems to be the right time for more experimentation in the organisation of work.
Would it be possible for some public sector work like road making, cable or pipe laying and afforestation, to be divided into units to be contracted for by private firms of workers’ co-operatives with leased equipment?
Our infrastructural needs call for such vast borrowings that we must try to find more efficient and less expensive ways of supplying them.
DISINTEGRATION OF SOCIETY
The current bias towards abrupt reactions and violence rather than negotiation and compromise is in danger of undermining the conditions of civilised living.
I fear the effect on our young people, who, as I have said in a black mood, “are given little example of devotion to duty or of concern for the common good but see all round them a work-to-rule mentality, a preoccupation with selfishness, envy and greed, and an irresponsible disregard for the progress and welfare of the nation”.
We must hope that concern for others and democratic commitment can be built up by the educational process and, perhaps, a spiritual renewal
An aspect of this – not of course to be exaggerated – is the incidence of “dropping-out”, of drug-addition and of anti-social conduct.
There seems to be a correlation between the tendency towards disintegration of society and the decline in religious belief and observance. It seems to me that, irrespective of faith or denomination, one piece of perennial human wisdom deserves more notice in the schools and outside – the truth inherent in the phrase “the door to happiness opens outwards”.
If this were more widely understood from an early age there might be less of a self-centred search of happiness and a more compassionate and rewarding concern with the welfare not only of one’s own community but of the unfortunate peoples of the Third World.
Indeed, there was much wisdom in the first and third parts of the Irish triad we learned in school, expressing the philosophy of the Fianna, “glaine inár gcroí, neart inár láimh, agus beart de réir ár mbriathar”.
These words in Irish lead to a final thought. We must hope that concern for others and democratic commitment can be built up by the educational process and, perhaps, a spiritual renewal.
I would like to see also an extension of interest in the Irish language and other features of our continuous history as a people.
I believe that our sense of community would be strengthened by a deeper knowledge of and respect for the distinctive and varied cultural heritage we share on this island.