I choose to walk away from Omelas — will you join me?
The short story “The ones who walk away from Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin describes summer time in a utopia where everyone has everything they need materially, they are happy, and there is stability.
Omelas’ stability and prosperity comes at a price — a single child must be kept in misery and darkness, without any kindness. Every citizen of Omelas, upon reaching adolescence is told about the child and brought to see it. After the initial shock and disgust, most ultimately come to terms with the injustice as the price to pay for their perfect society. However, a small few — the ones who walk away — decide to challenge the consensus and leave the city. For years, this story seemed to me like an interesting philosophical thought-experiment.
Almost every night of canvassing for the election, I end up sitting in a living room hugging a parent who has broken down into tears describing their past few years. On Monday, I met a single mother who managed to get out of an abusive relationship and raise 8 lovely kids. They have managed to scrape by — a family of nine in a three bedroom house, one of the daughters sleeping on the floor of the dining room. The abusive relationship has left deep psychological scars on the mother and the eldest children. Some of the kids are very sick and require regular hospital visits — research would suggest the most likely reason they are sick is because they are poor. A few months ago, the youngest boy lost part of two fingers in an accident.
After all this, they now face homelessness in 4 weeks — their landlord has had to sell the house and they will have nowhere to go. They are at the top of the council housing list but, due to a lack on investment in social housing at the same time taxes are being cut, there is no house available. Omelas is not a thought experiment — it is the present reality of a deeply unequal Ireland where this mother, her eight kids and the other 135,000 children who live in poverty (a figure which has doubled under this government) pay the price of stability and prosperity.
In this election, we are being presented with a clear option of social models — a US model advocated by Fine Gael and the Nordic model advocated by the Social Democrats.
It is true that taxes in the US are lower than in Ireland. While the wealthy do very well from this in the US, the cost of living is high for middle-class US families who need to compensate from the lack of public services — for example, health insurance costs $4,500 per family on average and private high-school costs $13,000 per child per year. Low-income families live in miserable conditions — there are huge levels of homelessness, crime & imprisonment, non-existent public healthcare, poor education standards and no maternity leave.
The alternative is the Nordic model — taking inspiration from the Scandinavian countries who invest competently in their public services, run government in an open transparent way, and have modern open economies where it is easy to set up a successful business. Before we rush into deep tax cuts that will mostly benefit the wealthy, let’s keep the tax rates as they are until we can fix our broken public services. Let’s build a public health service that we can be proud of, let’s support young families with decent childcare, and let’s ensure every family in Ireland has a roof over it’s head.
This is not only the right thing to do socially, but it is also the right thing to do economically. There are lots of opportunities to improve the quality of our health service at the same or lower cost. For every €1 we spend on high-quality childcare, the state will get a return of €7. There is increasing evidence that providing decent social housing reduces the overall cost to the state from healthcare, crime, and social services. Such a model would also reduce the cost of living for middle-class families as the cost of private health insurance and childcare lowers, and the cost of housing decreases.
This is the kind of social and economic model I want to see for Ireland. I choose to walk away from Omelas. Will you join me?