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Deadly sin that has sullied the public service


The love of money is, as Ireland now knows, the root of all evil

The love of money is, as Ireland now knows, the root of all evil

Barry Batchelor

The love of money is, as Ireland now knows, the root of all evil

Someone recently published a list of common misquotations from the Bible. The one that struck me was the very common phrase: “Money is the root of all evil.”

That, it seems, is incorrect. It should be: “The love of money is the root of all evil.”

Those extra little words give an entirely different meaning — and a far more sensible one. It seems particularly apt in a week which saw more startling evidence of the contempt with which many senior officials now treat public money.

It appears, for instance, that the going rate for giving any kind of advice to an Irish government agency is more than €1,000 a day. Expenses and other perquisites — as we know — are delivered pro rata.

What has caused this corruption in values, in a public service once famous, not for extravagance, but parsimony?

I use the word ‘corruption’ in its Biblical sense, where it means something other than taking bribes or acting dishonestly. It is that wider meaning — to make impure, to destroy value — which has infected the top echelons of the Irish public sector. Why has what once was gold become tawdry brass?

The love of money, obviously. But, as the Bible points out, we are nearly all guilty of that particular vice. It may be that our forebears were somewhat less driven by avarice than is the norm today. They were, after all, rather more God-fearing. I think it more likely, though, that they saw the dangers more clearly. Nowhere is that change in attitude more startling than in the banks.

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They once rivalled the Department of Finance in their aversion to debt and conspicuous consumption. It could be a sacking offence for a bank official to have an unauthorised overdraft. Nothing could better illustrate the corruption of values in banking than the fact that great banks thought it was perfectly okay for senior officials to be property speculators on the side, with money borrowed from the bank.

When bank bosses began paying themselves extraordinary sums, for no particular extraordinary performances, it may have excited a certain envy in their compatriots in the civil service proper. In any event, we got the body on remuneration in the higher public service. The decision to establish it may have been one of the worst taken by an Irish government in recent times. The principle of comparing top public and private earnings is flawed in theory, and the practical results were even worse than might have been expected.

As long ago as the 1960s, the economist JK Galbraith argued that the fact that managers of large companies no longer owned them made them prone to take bigger slices of shareholders' funds for their own benefit. The problem has got a lot worse since then.

Public servants can never own the money they disburse — sums that dwarf even those of big companies. For them, there must be a cultural imperative that public funds are precious. Comparing them in any sense to the titans of what Galbraith shrewdly called the “corporate state” was a recipe for trouble.

We are not alone in making these comparisons, but in Ireland, for some reason, the top public salaries ended up as some of the highest in the world. Alongside that, the expenses regimen has begun to emulate that of the nastier kind of African state.

Never waste a good crisis, they say, and the fiscal crisis presents an opportunity to go back and start again on how we reward and treat senior public officials.

One accepts that it is not practical to apply a completely new salary regime to existing incumbents. But there seems no reason why new entrants to the grades covered by the remuneration body — as well as to all state agency boards, advisory committees, executive positions and service providers — should not be offered salaries and fees that are a fraction of what they have been. Most of this will make little difference to the budget deficit, because the number of people involved is small. That is the beauty of it from the beneficiaries' point of view.

But such a radical change would help persuade the masses on lower earnings to accept the heavy losses they will have to bear. There is not much sign that such an opportunity will be grasped.