The terms “fairness” and “equity” appear regularly in Irish political debate. This does not mean, of course, that they actually mean what most people think they mean, because in Ireland, most political decisions that matter involve money and both phrases are code for “I want stuff and someone else should pay for it.” For example, when some union leaders say they want a property tax that is fair and equitable, can anyone imagine any situation where they will support their members paying any tax amount higher than a nominal amount? It’s the same with Sinn Fein and the United Left.
Yet here’s the problem: most Irish people have an overhyped expectation of what they should be getting from government, usually a collection of payments and services that exceed the amount they contribute in taxes. Those same people take to the streets when any politician attempts to levy extra taxes to fund that spending. We can’t go on like this.
Is it time to consider a formal Social Contract between the state and the individual Irish citizen? What am I talking about? I mean a legally binding document outlining, in actual cash terms, possibly renewed each year, what every citizen can expect to get as a right from the state. How much dole per week they can get, how much will be spent on their healthcare and how much their state pension will be and when they will get it.
It should also outline their responsibilities. How much tax they have to pay for these services, and whether they are actually paying it or not, and where they stand in terms of taxpayer contributions. The compact could be individualised to each individual citizen, and for many people, it will be the first time they are ever told this information. It will also be the first time many citizens will realise that they are not taxed as highly as they think they are, and that they get more than they put in.
We are emerging from a post-consumer era where many believe they are entitled to more than they contribute, be they bankers or others. What we need now is an era of responsibility, where citizens have to be made realise that rights and responsibilities are inseparable. It’s the only way anything is going to work.