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Opinion: 'What standard of living do people want? What is required to deliver this?'

Now is the perfect opportunity to develop a new and radical social contract for Ireland’s second century, writes Dr Seán Healy.

Dr Seán Healy Director, Social Justice Ireland

OUR SOCIAL CONTRACT is broken and now is the perfect opportunity to develop a new and radical social contract for Ireland’s second century.

The social contract is how the standard of living that everyone expects and agrees on is implemented and delivered. Put simply, the key questions are: what standard of living do people want and expect, and what infrastructure, services and resources are required to deliver this?

Expectations and responsibilities

So the social contract sets out the expectations, the rights and the responsibilities of all parts of society – individuals, institutions and government.

It means that everyone contributes to the common good – economically, socially or culturally – on the assumption that the State will provide a minimum standard of living, essential social services and infrastructure, and the protection of basic rights.

There is a balance of rights and responsibilities between citizens, communities, institutions and government.

A key part of the social contract is solidarity between generations

At different points in our lives, all of us will either be net beneficiaries from, or net contributors to society. This differs, depending on whether we are children, adults of working age or pensioners.

It depends on whether we are in full-time education, engaged in caring work, in paid employment or volunteering in the community. At all times we are contributing to and benefiting from the social contract in different ways.

Why is the social contract broken? The legitimate expectations of citizens are not being met. This is most obvious in areas such as housing and homelessness, a two-tier healthcare system and an ongoing failure to provide rural broadband.

People expect a well-run economy, good governance, a State that acts in the interests of its people and they expect to have a say on the issues that affect them.

As part of the social contract in a modern democratic society, citizens may reasonably expect:

  • access to meaningful work
  • protection from poverty at times where paid employment is not accessible
  • a minimum floor in times of old age, disability or infirmity
  • an education system that is relevant, accessible and high in quality
  • a guarantee that their needs will be met at times of ill-health
  • the regulation and protection of the environment for the good of all citizens and
  • ensured participation in civic life and in shaping the decisions that affect them.

All democracies are founded on a social contract

The strength of a democracy is defined by the strength of its social contract and the quality of life and wellbeing of its citizens. A new and progressive social contract is where government works in the best interest of all, where the economy is nurtured for the benefit of society, where people have access the decent services and infrastructure.

A progressive social contract would mean that the benefits from things like technological development, economic growth and societal advancement are shared.

A new social contract must deliver

  • a vibrant economy which works for the benefit of society
  • decent services and infrastructure which are accessible to all
  • a fair taxation system to support our social and economic infrastructure
  • good governance which facilitates everyone having a say in decisions that affect them
  • sustainability – meaning that development is balanced across the regions and progress is measured in terms of social cohesion and the common good.

To come to a consensus on the standard of living that people want and agree on, and, how this is to be delivered requires dialogue, with input from all sectors of society.

Choices must be made and agreement reached on how the social contract is to be delivered. A real republic will stand for social justice and for equality.

Social Justice Ireland calls on leadership from all sectors of Irish society to become part of a debate on a new social contract for a new century.

Dr Seán Healy is Director of Social Justice Ireland.

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About the author:

Dr Seán Healy  / Director, Social Justice Ireland

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