Category Archives: World Politics

The ‘Myth’ of Taxpayers’ Rights

In April, US Representative Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) had a tough town hall.   Upset about the Trump legislative agenda, constituents called Mullin to task as a public employee.  His unscripted response was to complain about their questions and to argue that the idea that taxpayers pay his salary was ‘bullcrap’.   He went on: “I pay for myself…I pay enough taxes where before [sic] I ever got there, and continue to for [sic] my company and pay my own salary.” Mullin further claimed that his job as a public servant was an ‘honor’ and that his wealth and position as a business leader gave him a special freedom and independence from government.  This independence from financial ties, in turn, bolsters his credibility as a critic of government encroachment.

Is Public Service a Contract?

His argument opens an intriguing window on the way that public service (and, by extension, government) is being recast.   While there is a striking & stark contradiction between claiming to both represent taxpayers and to be free from accountability to them, Mullin kind of had a point—–Do ‘taxpayers’ (as a group, and aside from ‘citizens’) actually have rights? Is public service a kind of contract of service, in which representatives agree to provide a necessary ‘good’ in exchange for a fee (salary paid by taxpayers)?

I want to say no, that is not the essence of public service. Public service should not be reduced to little more than a commercial exchange or contractual relationship, it is also a relationship of trust.  Logically, then, to some extent I (gulp) agree with Mullin that it is a service and a privilege.  This is not to say that there is no contractual dimension to public service, however.  Ever since Rousseau wrote about the Social Contract in the 18th century, governments and citizens have expected a relationship of mutual accountability.  For Rousseau, however, the social contract was a metaphor for the larger relationship of mutual obligation that government rested upon; in particular the obligation of the state to its citizens. Therefore, the relationship between the public and public servants does have a contractual dimension. So, if it is not only a contract, what else is it?

The Origins of Taxpayers’ Rights

Prior to the widespread institution of income taxes as a primary revenue source for modern administrative governments, most governments gained the vast majority of their revenue from taxes on trade.  The famous Boston Tea Party protest was against the unfair tax rate on a commodity (tea) and the legitimacy of the Crown’s right to tax commerce without accountability to traders.   Eventually, of  ourse, taxes became imposed on other dimensions of economic activity, include labour and capital gains.  What drove governments to reach beyond trade to enrich their treasuries was war. War required governments to raise funds to field military forces at a competitive level to other states.  War also brought conscription, wherein the sons of the poor were required to invest their lives in the security of the state.  Conscription without representation was just as untenable as taxation without representation, however. With new demands from the state, the state also had to provide new opportunities for returning veterans, which in turn necessitated higher taxes to provide housing, care, education and a safety net.  In truth, the extension of the tax base to all income earners relieved business of the bulk of the tax burden, and business benefited from the security provided by the state.  Security provided great opportunity for economies to grow and globalize.

Paying taxes does and should produce a set of obligations on the part of the government to respect the public interest

Asking the people to expend blood and treasure on war meant that there was an implied responsibility on the part of the state to provide social services to the people.  Taxpayers could expect that public servants would expend public treasure for the public good, not for the interests of business alone.  Underlying the arrangement was a semi-contractual kind of language: taxpayers could expect to be able to exercise their democratic rights to ‘check’ irresponsible governments; and governments could expect citizens to be devoted to the support of the state in war, and in peace.

Clearly, this calculus has changed.  The reasons for this are numerous, not least that conscription has been eliminated and war is fought very differently, but it is still undeniably the case today that paying taxes does and should produce a set of obligations on the part of the government to respect the public interest.

Taxpayer Rights Versus Taxpayer Interests

Paying taxes does not only create a contractual relationship, it also binds taxpayers to their community, giving them a stake in a common future and ensuring thier engagement in public life.

This is not, however, the same as saying that taxpayers per se have rights, over and above their interests as members of the public.   A ‘right’ implies a claim to greater respect and recognition over and above the interests of other groups.  A ‘right’ is a trump card that all other interests, and government, must respect.   Taxpayers as a group are entitled to a voice and to express their interest as a group.  An ‘interest’ implies a competition in the marketplace of ideas in which any one group’s desires may reasonably and fairly be considered over and above others, within the framework of laws that otherwise encourage respect for fundamental rights. Taxpayers, like retirees, patients, business owners, students, workers, and other groups, have interests, but not rights. Ethnic minorities, religious minorities, the disabled, the press, and the public, on the other hand, have rights that may override taxpayers’ interests, and that may necessitate that government prioritize these considerations over others.

The Recasting of Government in the New Agenda

What the new agenda overlooks is that paying taxes does not only create a contractual relationship, it also binds taxpayers to their community, giving them a stake in a common future and ensuring thier engagement in public life. This is what makes Mullin’s position so problematic. Mullin is not making his defence from the standpoint of a citizen with a common stake in the public good, nor even as a servant (despite his calming words about ‘service’ and ‘honor’). His defence is one of a taxpayer, and more particularly, as a business owner.  Ultimately the whole conversation ends up being an argument between taxpayers, not citizens.  Arguing that taxpayers have unique contractual rights essentially gives them permission to disengage from the social contract as a whole, especially those parts of it that don’t directly serve their interests.  In turn, and by extension, governments are then relieved of their obligations to the public, including the provision of security and welfare.  While taxpayers have the democratic right to defend their interests, they do not have the right to disrupt the social contract to this degree. When The Fraser Institute and the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation argue that taxpayers either work for themselves or for the govenment, they feed in to the idea that taxpayers have special rights.

When citizens at the Town Hall demand that governments should respect taxpayers, then decision makers should listen. However, taxpayers should not have a louder voice than citizens.  Taxpayers ‘rights’ should not be extended to the degree they disrupt the larger social contract.  If they do, then the democracy is at risk of eliminating itself by undermining the contract of service and trust, and, incidentally, by bankrupting the state.  There is some evidence that the US has already begun to do this.  Since the language of taxpayers’ rights essentially marginalizes any public interest from the conversation, it is incapable of constructing a new social contract.  The language of taxpayers’ rights then becomes essentially self-destructive, since taxpayers will end up undermining, in the end, their own claims to the rights and benefits of citizenship.

About Turn: Canada and Climate Change Policy (Talk)

Hear about the history of Canada’s efforts to address this crucial global problem of climate change and explore the challenges ahead. Canada is struggling to balance an economy highly dependent on natural resources with the increasingly urgent need to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

6 Questions for the Social Academic Disciplines after the US Election

Its been a tough time for practitioners of what I’ll call the Social Arts & Sciences, and for analysts  of political affairs. For example, reputable pollsters were totally wrong in predicting the election of 2016, pretty much destroying any confidence in the utility of analytical methods like survey research. Of course, most consumers of polling data can’t be expected to know the difference between the use and interpretation of quantitative data for research, and the kinds of reckless extrapolation that posed as expert and authoritative analysis leading up to the election.  So, it seems that social scientists have some tasks to do. As a community of thinkers and teachers about social affairs, the Social Arts & Sciences have a unique set of tools for understanding world events that can shed light on important questions. Like any tool, the value of analytical methods is only as good as the use they are put to.

Illuminating who we are as social beings, and why we do what we do, can bring improvements to our shared experience by enabling changes in social behaviour through learning, but only if done carefully and deliberately, and with a great deal of humility and caution.  I’d suggest these following lines of inquiry, but what I can’t do is help sounding like a stuffy, elitist, out of touch intellectal to some.  This is an occupational hazard, but one I’ll have to live with. Sorry about that. Here are some lines of inquiry suggested by recent events:

1. Political Science

Ok this one’s mine.  Please, political scientists, explain clearly the difference between democracy and liberal democracy.  Liberal democracy is a paradox, since the rule of law and constitutional protection of human rights necessarily limits democratic rule. Another way to think about it is that minority protections make democracy possible by ensuring that the people do not abuse their power, and in the process, potentially vote themselves out of power.  Law needs democracy and democracy needs law. They are inextricably bound together.  The rights of minorities are integral to the maintenance of democracy, not an add-on that can be jettisoned in the name of the majority or for the sake of convenience. Protecting minority rights is what enables democracy to function, and to sustain itself. Compromising minority rights inevitably compromises democracy itself.  Protecting minority rights protects everyone.

While we’re at it, please explain what polls actually measure, what they don’t measure, and what their limitations are (and I don’t mean margin of error). Everyone: (yes that means you)…I’m sorry, but you have to take statistics.  We all did it, so you have to too. There.

I’m throwing questions about the Electoral College to the historians.  It makes no sense.

A bonus suggestion for Philosophy:  help everyone understand paradoxes better.

2. Gender and Womens’ Studies

I would like to understand better the dynamics of ‘alpha male’ social behaviour.  I don’t even know if that’s a thing, but it kind of looks like what we’ve been observing. If I’m wrong, can you please school me in another way of understanding why so many thinking, otherwise respectful people (men and women both) willfully compromise themselves and their values when faced with powerful but flawed male figures?  An extra job for sociologists: help us truly understand the centrality of identity to pretty much everything.

3. Psychology

Following the 2008 economic crisis, a new subfield of Economic Psychology flourished to help explain why otherwise rational actors made irrational decisions, even against their own interest, and under what circumstances.  I think we need more of that.  Can psychology help us understand  more about the dynamics of voter decision making,  the processes of skapegoating, and the emergence of in-group and out-group division?  What is the role of emotion as a motivation for decision making?   We know that strong emotion can interfere with rational decision making,  but how might this dynamic work at a community level?

4. History

Please keep telling analogous stories from the past to help give context to the problems of the day.  Each generation still generates its own version of problems and solutions, but if people saw their issues as common and not unique, they might be better able to think creatively about how to apply the wisdom of the past to the present.  Also, please focus as well on the peaceful, constructive periods of history where nothing much happened.   The boring bits are what we can learn from.   As well, can you please help us understand better what happens during times of accelerating and rapid change so societies can learn to be more adaptive?  I have a feeling we’re going to need that.

5. Communications

Ok so you’ve got lots of work ahead…..propaganda has gone viral, driven not by large organizations but by individual users.  Consumers are now transmitters.  Conversations are immediate and global.  Has the speed of communication outpaced democracy?   Please talk to the psychologists about the effects of this on thinking, can we know more about how our social lives and worlds create our  reality?

6. Artists and Writers

Please keep reminding us what it’s like to be someone else.  Touch our hearts with stories of people and places different from our own experiences, so that we can develop empathy and awareness, even for a minute.  Teach the teachers how to convey this effectively. Educate all of the social scientists about the importance of empathy to learning and growing and advancing knowledge about the world and ourselves.  Ultimately, this is the only way humans truly learn.

When States Fail Humanity: Distance, Strangers, and The Home Analogy

Middle East

The hearbreaking image of a drowned toddler on the shores of Europe reminded us all of the responsibilities towards others on this planet.  Human ties towards distant ‘others’, however, have historically been loose and fickle. Only rarely do people feel closely committed to the needs and troubles of others beyond their immediate family. Distance usually decreases empathy.  One of the reasons that states appeared was to deliberately overcome this innate human tendency to prioritize close relatives over strangers.  If human settlements were going to work, large communal groupings required closer ties among people who did not interact daily on a face-to-face basis.  To accomplish this, national groupings took on the trappings of families (the ‘motherland’, ‘fatherland’, ‘homeland’) and encouraged people to imagine the state as their proxy family writ large.

However, creating states to bond national groups together had a counter-effect, it created a new category of humans: outsiders and ‘others’ who were encountered only when travel (either by explorers sent out from the homeland or migrants coming in) brought them together.  Today, states have created an elaborate edifice of laws, institutions, informal rules and practices to help them classify and categorize how ‘strangers’ are treated. Partly, these rules have emerged from historical experience and are particular to individual societies.  For example, the European memory of the mass starvation and refugee crises following World War II has shaped the image of what a refugee is today.  Ultimately, because European states had an inordinate influence on the creation of global order in the post-War era, European ideas have heavily influenced international laws. A ‘refugee’ is a classification of people distinct from a ‘migrant’ in two main ways:  1. a refugee has rights to legal process, material support, and protection in the country they are seeking asylum; and 2. a refugee has the right to not be forcibly returned to their country of origin.

Today, states have created an elaborate edifice of laws, institutions, informal rules and practices that help them to classify and categorize how ‘strangers’ are treated.

However, states have jealously guarded their own rights to define someone as a citizen or to keep them out of the national family.  In doing so, states have created legal categories that make no sense when applied to real humans, because states’ rights and human rights conflict.

BarbariansThis background helps us to understand more clearly the landscape of political arguments going on now around migrants, as well as the ways in which the rules are being interpreted and applied.  It also allows us to recognize the limitations of these rules, in particular the ways in which these rules have arbitrarily divided humanity into categories that systematically de-humanize them and construct them as ‘strangers’, outside of the ‘families’ created by states.  The insistence on the application of these rules by state leaders reveals their emptiness.  Insisting that migrants register in the first country of arrival, that they be registered in order to apply for further transit, and that they somehow demonstrate and document that their movements are involuntary, are levers designed to ensure that they remain outside of the national family, not that they be embraced by the protections of refugee law.  Insisting that the solution to the problem is to ‘solve the Syrian conflict’ or ‘eliminate ISIS’ is similarly meant to distract from the fact that migrants have already waited 4 years or longer for the world to do something to help them, and that many thousands of refugees remain in countries closer to their countries of origin in the hope that they may be able to eventually return.  Some of these host countries, including Turkey, have been unwelcoming and hostile to their presence, driving them further afield to find sanctuary.  The insistence that migrants be prevented from ever settling in their countries of refuge ignores the legal invocation that they not be refouled back to danger.  The legal distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees’ is increasingly nonsensical, and the insistence on respecting it only reveals the arbitrariness of the categories.

In light of these realities, it is amazing that some have now decided to re-invoke humanity and the home/family analogy, and have even opened up their homes and lives to help strangers.  The defeat of the

The legal distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees’ is increasingly nonsensical, and the insistence on respecting it only reveals the arbitrariness of the categories.

Harper government in Canada is a rebuke of a legislative program designed to reinforce categories of separation and exclusion, to invoke tribalism in the legal guise of statehood. It is understandable, if not totally forgivable, that this welcoming comes late, and that it comes only with the ever-closer proximity of the suffering of others. Maybe that’s the best that humans can do.  However, states are another matter.  States are created by humans to encourage the compassembrace of strangers into a larger family. The next step is to build on the initiatives begun by states to encourage the expansion of the national family and to begin to challenge the arbitrary categories that divide humanity up.  The human willingness to challenge the separation created by distance has communicated empathy throughout the state system.  What remains is to communicate this to states in the future through new laws that strengthen human ties rather than state rights.

The Politics of Game of Thrones

Daenerys-Targaryen-game-of-thrones-23107710-1600-1200With an average audience of 18.4 million viewers, Game of Thrones is among the most popular TV shows ever produced. Many are drawn to the show for its grand storytelling of love, betrayal, war and power. However, those who study politics see much more beyond the plot. In this session, we will explore the politics of the show by reviewing select video clips and quotes and asking thought provoking questions. How do the themes of Game of Thrones help to inform us about world events today?

Unsettled Balance: Ethics Security and Canada’s International Relations

Book Cover 2015

New Website for Unsettled Balance Book here!

Since 9/11, the wars on terror, economic crises, climate change, and humanitarian emergencies have led decision makers to institute new measures to maintain security. Foreign policy analysts tend to view these decisions as being divorced from ethics, but Unsettled Balance shows that arguments about rights, obligations, norms, and values have played a profound role in Canadian foreign policy and international relations.

Examining a wide range of events in Canada and abroad, the contributors to this volume collectively explore three key questions. What is the meaning of ethics and security, and how are they linked? To what extent have considerations of ethics and security changed in the twenty-first century? And what are the implications of a shifting historical context for Canada’s international relations?

Whether probing how Canada handles the tension between ethics and security when hosting large-scale international events, engaging in humanitarian aid initiatives, or entering into military operations, each chapter provides insight into key decisions in recent Canadian history. In a time of rapid change, this book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how Canada responds to the challenges of an increasingly volatile world and why it responds the way it does.

How to Follow the News: 10 Rules of Thumb

After following the news for many years and thinking about world events, I’ve been able to observe some things about news gathering. I’m an advocate of reasoned and dispassionate analysis based on information, but it can be hard to be impartial when so much of the news today is biased one way or another.  However, I don’t believe that reasoned thinking about international events is incompatible with advocacy.   The strongest and most defensible points of view are those that are supported with evidence and with thoughtful and informed reasoning.  Sometimes, though, it’s hard to be informed when the media obscures the truth.  The rise of the internet has not made it any easier.  In fact, speculation and accusations are given even a wider audience when things go viral.  So, here is some advice, feel free to take it or leave it, and try to keep an open mind.

  1. There are angels and devils on both sides, but this doesn’t mean the claims and arguments of both sides are morally equivalent.

In the aftermath of rage over the killing of 3 Israeli teens, many Israelis protected Arabs attacked by crowds on public transit.  Many Palestinians have worked inside and outside Israel for peace and understanding between the two sides.   Ordinary people on both sides want the same things everyone wants:  a chance to live peacefully, make a living, and enjoy some freedom.  Nevertheless, the costs of the long conflict have not been borne by both sides equally, and this reflects the large power imbalance between the two sides. This imbalance should be a factor when deciding one’s view.   Here is an analysis that puts this conflict in context, and considers the ethical arguments.  Here is another.

2. Real life events are [almost] always more complicated than they seem.

Folly, lack of foresight, incompetence and brutality can produce unexpected outcomes for all sides.   Indeed, the last few months have seen an unprecedented array of crises emerging in a variety of global locales.  In a highly competitive market, so-called ‘hard reporting’ has been replaced with shallowness at best, and inflammatory styles of reporting at worst  One consequence is that there are few able to offer a strategic analysis of a event.   One must often wait, or dig deeper, to get a better understanding of the big picture.  Try to find out about what happened in the immediate weeks prior to the event, or read about the country and regions involved to get a sense of the context.

3. People and systems are distinct things.

Individuals, whether in a leadership position or not, develop cognitive frames over the course of their lives to understand the world and their position in it.  Both people and systems will actively protect those frames, but systems take much longer to change course, partly because they are supported by longer generational memories. Systems are more permanent, and every system demands allegiance, but be careful not to identify individuals as symbols for systems, they are not the same thing.  People behave differently in a group than they do as individuals.

4. Sometimes good people do bad things, and vice versa.

Beware of the ad hominem argument.  An examination of the actor is often insufficient to explain any given behaviour or action.  A given actor usually cannot be reduced to a single bad (or good) decision.

5. Opportunism is far more common than planned conspiracies.

It is almost never good strategy to organize and plan an attack on one’s own people in order to gain sympathy.   The risks of discovery are high, and the results can backfire.   For example,  some explanations of the Odessa event of May 2nd 2014, in which dozens were killed in street clashes between pro-federalist and nationalist forces in Ukraine, strain credulity by claiming ‘agent provocateurs’ were responsible.  Similarly, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu tried to paint a negative view of the opposition by stating that: “Hamas wants civilian casualties”.   Be skeptical of such oversimplified characterizations and convoluted theories. Recognize that different sides will opportunistically use images to elicit anger and sympathy for their cause.   Have anger, and have empathy.

6. People don’t like inconsistencies, but these are frequent and often deep in human events.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state that happensPhilosoraptor when information is contradictory. Individuals often go to great lengths to overcome  the discomfort, including ignoring contradictory information, oversimplifying the facts, and narrowing the frame of reference.  Try to recognize these strategies in yourself and others. Try to become comfortable with contradiction, blurriness, messiness, and complexity.

7. Every report becomes part of a track record, don’t forget the past.

Don’t base your decision on a single report, study, or bit of information.  Compare today’s headlines with those of the past. Don’t forget when today’s reports conflict with those of yesterday. Follow stories that are given less attention, so you will know more about them.

8. All sides will try to appeal to emotions.  Beware of manipulation.

The internet and television news are eminently malleable, with out-of-context quotes, selective information, and even photo manipulation. Watch for terms like “appears to be” and for leading questions that raise doubt or provoke.   Think about what the media is choosing to focus on when preparing a story. Consider the effect of the format and phases of revealing a story.

9. Look deeply, look widely, and compare reports from a variety of sources.  Look for hard evidence, not eye witness accounts.

Personal interviews are a mainstay of video reporting.  They are ALL edited, and eye witnesses, even when sincere, are unreliable.

10. Beware of appeals to authority.

Even those with inside knowledge, high levels of education, and recognized credentials can sometimes lie.   People can also be mistaken in their facts and biased by their education.   Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other UN agencies have long established track records and can generally be trusted when other sources are more questionable.  However, they are also not infallible.

 

The Psychology of Wealth and the Social Contract

Credit: Flickr User Philip Taylor
Credit: Flickr User Philip Taylor

Social science is telling us that morality and generosity decline among the most well-off.   Ever since I heard about this study at UC Berkeley I’ve been curious to imagine how these findings might apply to political systems.  It seems that material wealth, or even the feeling of wealth, has a greater impact on one’s attitudes towards others than previously believed; possibly even a greater impact than previous political ideology, upbringing, or education!   Studies have shown for some time already that generosity is more marked among those who have fewer resources compared to those with more, but now it seems we’re starting to get results that reveal even more about the nature of these differences.  There are intriguing hints at the sources of these really surprising findings.

Nick Powdthavee, an author of a study of the effect of lottery winnings, found that greater wins tend to make people more right-wing and inegalitarian.  He declared:

“We are not sure exactly what goes on inside people’s brains but it seems that having money causes people to favour conservative right-wing ideas. Humans are creatures of flexible ethics.”

Also in this study, the authors speculate about the effect on democracy, arguing that self-interest trumps morality in decision making.

This last point is where I depart a bit in interpreting the meaning of these studies.  Moving to the right may mean supporting an effort to protect one’s own ‘hoard’, but it is only ‘self-interested’ on an individual level, not necessarily on a social level.  Democracy is to some degree about keeping these tendencies in check and allowing a public good to emerge from the apparent conflict of interest created between the rich and the poor.   The paradox, of course, is that the wealthy MUST be on board the project of contributing to the social good at the very point when they are the least motivated to do so (due to their wealth, apparently).   As the wealthy opt out of the social contract that makes things better for everyone, they undermine themselves by eroding the means by which the social fabric is maintained.

 The paradox, of course, is that the wealthy MUST be on board the project of contributing to the social good at the very point when they are the least motivated to do so…

I assume, of course, that the wealthy are still in some way part of that social fabric.  Wealth seems to offer a way out of social obligations and norms [for example, by letting people think they can drive faster with a more expensive car, even if they end up paying a ticket].   But why do people choose to opt out, even if it becomes more expensive, and actually less rational, for them to do so? Why send your kids to private school, pay your taxes to another country, or get your healthcare from a boutique provider, when comparable services can be obtained much more cheaply by paying your fair share to the common pool?  It’s not exactly self-interested in the rational, economic sense, to do this.

I’m wondering if the answer has to do with the psychological need to control the environment, something that money provides unequivocally in a capitalist society.  What one loses in material cost [private school is more expensive than public, paying a ticket is more expensive than driving according to the rules, for example] is made up for in control over the process. If it is about control rather than about wealth, it has implications not only for what the rich do individually, but how they act toward the political system as a group.  For if the tendency to protect one’s own extends to the effort to control the society as a whole, it means the wealthy will make social laws and rules for everyone else that reflect their particular interests.

Fostering empathy in the minds of the wealthy may not be the way to go, as this article in the Atlantic suggests.  A considerable amount of energy is spent in encouraging charity among the wealthy, which has had little impact on the mindset.  Indeed, what is interesting is that most Americans have experienced poverty in their lives, if only temporarily, at one time or another.  This means a significant number of wealthy individuals, and yes, even members of Congress or Parliament, have also experienced poverty.  If the above studies are correct, it seems unlikely that this experience can trump the psychological effects of wealth, and the tendency to be less egalitarian or generous, that goes with wealth. It doesn’t seem likely that human nature will change.

Credit: Flickr User Brent Granby
Credit: Flickr User Brent Granby

Bridging the psychology of the individual with the need for a public good means bolstering institutions that supercede and limit the tendencies of the wealthy to opt out and to control the process. Unfortunately, many democratic institutions have been put in place to do exactly the opposite: to control and limit the worst excesses of the general public [see the Canadian Senate].

Public education, public health care, parental leave, elder care, social services, and even sewers and parks have often been thought of as contingent on ‘affordability’ (Yes I’m looking at you, BC Liberals!)  In fact, by highlighting the idea of the public good, these institutions remind us of the vulnerability of the social contract to the psychology of wealth. Now that we know more about the effects of wealth on our thinking  (and by that I mean everybody’s thinking) social planners should be better equipped to make the case for the defence of that social contract.  That defence should strongly state the need for everyone, but especially the wealthy, to be included in the social project from which we all benefit.

Climate Change: Deconstructing Conservative Fatalism

Photo Credit: Thinkstock
Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Recent comments about climate change policy from conservative world leaders Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott suggest an important shift in conservative thinking about climate, science, and the role of country governments in tackling the problems of climate change.  Having lost the public relations fight about climate knowledge, conservatives now either vacate the field or adopt a discourse of what Stephen Colbert might call ‘truthiness’.

Like the child in Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the conservatives under Stephen Harper have ‘called out’ the world over inaction on climate change.  This strategy has had some success.  Harper stated recently that “no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country. We are just a little more frank about that, but that is the approach that every country is seeking.”

In this way, conservatives can claim to be the real ‘truth tellers’ who can then freely take the low ground of inaction.  By doing this, they make common cause with critics of climate politics while also maintaining a distance from the more extremist deniers [who quite frankly are starting to look rather foolish]. This discursive strategy is nothing new to the Harper conservatives, who have had some success in using it to justify pulling out of the international effort to negotiate a new agreement.

In Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, a child is the only one who sees that the Emperor is not wearing rich clothes but is indeed wearing nothing.  The child has done what none of the Emperor’s advisors dared to do, and so has credibility because of his/her relative freedom from social constraints.  These constraints restrict what subordinates may say to the Emperor, and so make it difficult to oppose his views.  The child, unrestricted by expectations, has the ability to speak their own mind without fear of the consequences.

Much is forgiven when a speaker can be said to be ignorant and unsophisticated, and the moral of the story is that wisdom and social value can come from the mouths of innocents not captured by the oppressive dictates of social expectations.

Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations.

However, taking a ‘truth teller’ role in international relations has many more risks and is far more complicated.  Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations.  Norms are built in the space created by uncertain statements, blurry commitments and nondescript agreements.

Social expectations and norms in other settings can become a straightjacket of nakedness, as the moral of the Emperor’s New Clothes suggests.  But international relations is different.  In IR, social expectations and common norms are flimsy and weak.  The risk of defection from any common enterprise is so high that the appearance alone of cooperation (nakedness) is often the only thing carrying the projects of climate change agreements forward, and making progress possible.  Bravery means a willingness to be at least a little bit naked, and aware of one’s own vulnerability.

For this reason, Conservative ‘truth telling’ should be seen for what it is:  first, it is an unabashed instrumental rationalist strategy for defecting from a common effort to address climate change.  It is not a cowboy-esque statement of independence worthy of respect for its pluck and grit.  It is not brave.  It is not radical.  It is not inspirational.

78806802Second, using ‘truth telling’ as a political tactic obscures the fact that defection imposes costs on all of the other countries seeking a means of fairly distributing the disastrous effects of adaptation to climate change.   Defection means cheating.  Any common benefits that come from an agreement, such as a reduction in emissions, will be enjoyed by all, whether they have paid any part of the cost of adjustment.

Conservative ‘truth telling’ is not brave.  It is not radical.  It is not inspirational.

Canada and Australia, as wealthy developed economies, will be enjoying the benefits of the economic adjustments imposed on poorer, less developed economies.  Canada is not the weak ‘child’ calling out the powerful Emperor, but rather, Canada is like the Emperor exploiting the helplessness of his subjects for his own vanity.

Any real effort to ‘tell the truth’ about climate change needs to demonstrate a willingness to pay a price for the achievement of real emissions reductions.  No one is saying that countries aren’t reluctant to take on that price.  To say so is not ‘truth telling’ but a recognition of the difficulty of achieving agreement.

To recognize the difficulty and then back away from it reveals a self-serving policy that celebrates weakness and apathy, not strength and independence.  Conservatives are banking that their celebration of ‘do-nothing’ policies will play on peoples’ fatalism and fear about climate change.  Let’s not let the Emperor succeed in this vain pretense.