19 DEC 2014

What kind of society would we like to live in?

Last Wednesday I attended a breakfast meeting at Palazzo de Piro as part of a project organised by a Christian-inspired think tank, Converse at Palazzo de Piro. The discussion is based on a document that investigates the vital question, “What kind of society would we like?”, and Wednesday’s conversation grouped together a number of persons from the business sector and persons that are economists by background. My contribution today is not meant to give a summary of what was said at this meeting, but rather to bring out some pointers for further consideration. The first pointer has to be the relevance of the question.

The question is indeed very relevant from both the perspective of the economy and the perspective of society at large. Today we take decisions of an economic nature (such as decisions that lead to a fiscal deficit) which will have an impact on tomorrow’s generations. The public debt that we run up today has to be paid for by the taxes to be collected tomorrow and after tomorrow.Similarly, decisions related to the environment, social welfare and education will impact on the quality of life of the citizens that will be living in our country tomorrow. Before seeking to suggest what kind of society we would like to have in future, we may need to understand better the kind of society we have today. What are the positive and negative points in our society today? A number of aspects immediately come to mind, and one can probably never have an exhaustive list. Such a list would include the great Maltese divide. Whatever we do we tend to be divided into two opposing and mutually-exclusive camps.

Such camps are not necessarily political, as many may think. One may also include in this list the tendency of most people to think in terms of what is in it for me, rather than society. This does not include only those people who receive social benefits undeservedly, or those that evade tax, but also senior executive in companies who expect high remuneration packages that are not based on results and simply with the objective of enriching themselves. It is indeed sad that this parasitic attitude is still prevalent today. On a positive note, one may mention the trust that people have today in the business sector. The business sector enjoys a level of trust among the Maltese population that is higher than that in a number of European countries. This has led to a better level of dialogue among the social partners and a healthier work environment. Another positive note is the importance of the family, in both the social and the econo­mic aspects.

Let us keep in mind that most Maltese businesses today are family businesses. Therefore, what kind of society would we like? Keeping to the economic perspective, I believe that we need to maintain the diversified economy that we have. Our mix of manufacturing, tourism and services activities, with a small (but still important) agricultural sector, seems to be serving us well as our economy has proved itself to be resilient in the face of some very tough challenges. We need to address the tax evasion issue with a sense of urgency and purpose. Tax evasion brought down Greece and caused serious problems in Italy. We cannot allow this to happen to our country. Underpinning the economic dimension is the issue of education. The country has invested greatly in the education infrastructure, and those under the age of 40 have benefited greatly from this. We now need to make investment pay off through an educational policy that significantly reduces the number of early school-leavers (those who leave education at the age of 16), that provides students with a work ethic on which to build a career (qualifications do not build a career but a strong work ethic does), that helps them abhor mediocrity (which is what professionalism is all about), and that instils into their minds the sense of the common good (it is what a strong society is based on). I fear that what the public service is doing in education is creating another bureaucratic monster. So we go back to the question we started off with.

The leadership class in this country (and I do not mean just the political leaders, but also business leaders, trade union leaders, opinion leaders, the academics etc.) needs to think seriously about what society it is bequeathing to tomorrow’s generations, and to address the areas of concern such that tomorrow’s society will be a quantum leap better than that of today.

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