James Wickham: Quite early in the crisis, Colm McCarthy remarked that ‘anger is not policy’ (Frontline 28 September 2009). As others have commented, this was a highly political comment. Claiming that a particular political position is not political is what old-fashioned Marxists used to call ideology. That itself is an old-fashioned term, but at least it doesn’t imply personal dishonesty or personal immorality, and it’s probably therefore still useful.
There are two problems with the “There’s no point in getting angry” argument. They both say a lot about the relationship between economics and political choices.
Firstly, and most obviously, in the context in which it was made the remark suggested that there was no point in trying to blame someone for the current crisis. Confronted by a disaster such as Ireland now experiences, you would have thought that most adults would want to know how we got here, and furthermore, who if anyone was responsible for it. If we declare such questions irrelevant, then we can’t reflect critically on the policies of the previous decades, we can’t ask questions about the quality of political leadership. Even if we buy the argument that the only solution to the crisis is competitive deflation (slash and burn), it hardly follows that the best people to do this is the same government and the same elite that got us into this mess. Yet ‘not getting angry’ had that implicit and highly political meaning in that particular socio-political context.
Secondly, and more interestingly, the remark raises the relationship between economics and moral values. Like many or probably most conventional economists, McCarthy would like his prescriptions to be taken as ‘value-neutral’ and disinterested. The problem is that ultimately most economic choices have consequences for people. Equally, the range of choices we discuss is itself bounded by moral choices.
One obvious economic solution to our current problems might well be to sell all Irish children as slaves on the global market. After all, there are estimated to be 27 million slaves in the world today and surely we should get a share of this lucrative market? McCarthy might produce a cost-benefit analysis that would conveniently suggest that this wouldn’t really be profitable after all. If we got a few Nobel Prize winners to challenge his calculations, he’d probably shift his ground. He’d end up saying that such a strategy was ‘immoral’. While most of us might well doubt his first economic argument, almost all of us would accept his moral argument.
It seems to me that such moral judgements are necessarily also emotional arguments: we feel that it’s wrong to sell children. And that feeling is valuable. Fortunately we’re not yet considering selling the children, though the government may well make cuts that will shorten some people’s life expectancy. Oddly enough, getting angry might help a more grown up discussion about economic choices.
In the meantime, I would suggest that all ‘objective commentators’ re-read Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal...
James Wickham was Jean Monnet Professor of European Labour Market Studies and Professor in Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. He has published widely on employment, transport and migration in Ireland and Europe; he is the author of Gridlock: Dublin’s Transport Crisis and the Future of the City and co-author of New Mobilities in Europe: Polish Migration to Ireland post-2004. His book Unequal Europe: Social divisions and social cohesion in an old continent analysed the collapse of the European Social Model; his new text book European Societies (Routledge 2020) examines the structures of inequality in contemporary Europe. He is a former director of TASC.