Thursday 23 January 2020

Mirror on the wall tells us we are the fairest of them all

An opinion poll on fairness and equality puts Ireland ahead of European peers. This augurs well for society and politics writes Dan O'Brien

On a wide range of issues, Irish respondents were more positive than those of any other countries. Stock Image
On a wide range of issues, Irish respondents were more positive than those of any other countries. Stock Image
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

When it comes to how incomes are spread between the richest and poorest, Ireland is almost identical to Sweden, a famously egalitarian country. That is what new figures from the European Union's statistics agency showed last week.

The richest fifth in Ireland took home 4.4 times more money than the poorest fifth in 2016. Incomes were considerably less equal on average across the bloc's 28 members. Ireland was much closer to the most equal country - the Czech Republic, where the richest made 3.5 times more than the poorest - than it was to the least equal country. Rich Bulgarians make eight times more than poor Bulgarians.

The tax and welfare system is one of the main reasons why income distribution in Ireland is unusually equal compared to the rest of the world (Europe is the most equal continent by a distance).

Last week the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development published its annual tome on 'Taxing wages'. It analyses not only the impact of taxes on different income levels across more than 30 countries, it factors in welfare payments too.

It highlighted - yet again - how the state in Ireland redistributes more money than in most other countries. The big roles played by relatively high taxes on those on higher incomes, along with a generous welfare system, have been important in keeping income equality levels stable over time.

In some rich countries, there has been a much talked about increase in inequality in recent decades. In Ireland, by contrast, all measures of income quality have been remarkably stable over decades. This is all the more remarkable given the near continuous roller coaster of the Irish economy.

But the most interesting of a raft of new studies and reports on equality-related issues last week was a massive Europe-wide opinion poll. Late last year a thousand people in each of the 28 countries which are members of the EU were surveyed on their views on equality, fairness and other related matters. Many of the findings were little short of astounding from an Irish perspective.

On a wide range of issues, Irish respondents were more positive than those of any other countries. An eye-widening 97pc reported being generally happy, well above the 83pc average across the union. On physical well-being, Ireland again topped the poll, with 92pc reporting good health. The EU average was 78pc.

When asked if 'most of the things that happen in my life are fair', 78pc of Irish respondents agreed, the highest of any country and a full 25 percentage points above the average.

These really are extraordinary findings. They are particularly important in what they say about Irish meritocracy.

If Ireland does better than average when it comes to equality of outcomes (ie incomes) as discussed above, it does even better on equality of opportunity. A full 80pc of people surveyed agreed that they had 'equal opportunities to get ahead in life, like everyone else'. Only Swedes and Danes were (very marginally) more likely to believe that to be the case in their countries.

On average across the bloc, 58pc of people believed this. Southern and eastern European countries fared worst. In Greece, where fewest people believed they had the same life chances as their compatriots, a big majority responded in the negative.

Importantly, the poll also quizzed people on how they believed fairness had changed over time. On this, Irish respondents were the most positive bar none.

Asked whether opportunities for getting ahead in life and becoming more equal had improved compared to 30 years ago, almost three-quarters of Irish people agreed that they had. Only one in 12 disagreed. In no other country did such a large majority agree that such progress had been achieved. Nowhere else did such a small minority disagree.

That so many people living in Ireland believe that they have high levels of opportunity equality is extremely important in many respects, and is more important than income equality. That is because different incomes exist for many good reasons as well as bad ones. Somebody, for instance, who needs extra cash and puts in a few hours of overtime each week will not have an income equal to his colleague who works less. That is not only how it should be, it would be unfair if it were otherwise.

Consider also someone who creates a new app or starts a business. If successful, that person could become very rich, causing an increase in income inequality in society, all other things being equal. Few would argue that such an outcome would be bad - new companies bring many benefits for others, such as additional employment and the creation of more wealth that can be redistributed.

While greater income inequality can happen for good reasons, it is hard to find examples of greater inequality of opportunity being caused by anything positive. It is for that reason that equal opportunity is more important than equal outcomes.

That Irish people believe their country to be unusually fair could go some way to explaining why no political movement has emerged in recent times that seeks a return to a supposedly better past.

Looking at the countries where more people disagreed than agreed with the statement that equality of opportunity had improved over the past 30 years, many have seen big increases in support for populist parties. A shared characteristic of such parties is to hark back to a supposedly better time.

The poll points to another reason why the centre has held in Irish politics more successfully than in many other countries. Those surveyed were asked if political decisions were applied equally to all citizens. Of 28 countries, Ireland had the fifth highest proportion agreeing.

There can be little doubt that there is a connection between perceptions of the fairness of state actions on the one hand and the legitimacy of the political system on the other.

The positivity of Irish respondents to so many questions discussed above could also be related to our generally sunny disposition. To be the most upbeat country on such a wide range of issues suggests that we might have something of a bias towards optimism. But it surely can't all be down to bias. A more likely explanation is that Ireland is, in fact, a pretty good place to live.

Sunday Independent

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