Tag Archives: Canadian politics

How Individualism Fails Young People

In contemplating the ‘crisis’ in youth voting and the abject failure of Canada’s political system to engage with young people, I’ve been drawn back to political philosophy and the ‘big questions’ of political life, freedom, and rights.  Remembering my own university days, I recall with fondness and even excitement the mass mobilization of workers, young people, and politicos against BC’s program of Restraint (we’d call it austerity today) in the 1980s. The Solidarity movement in the province took its cue from Polish workers’ unions’ resistance against communist domination, and the coalition formed in opposition to right-wing restructuring in BC culminated in a series of strikes and actions that potentially would have affected all sectors of the province.

Monuments in North Korea
Political debate in Western countries has been set up as an individual vs. group battle.

It’s hard to imagine such a movement today.  The causes that appeal to young people today, including diversity and identity acceptance, marijuana, GMOs, and a free and open internet, are not trivial or unimportant, but they don’t lend themselves to mass action, and maybe that’s on purpose.

In Western liberal culture, people tend to be predisposed to individualism. Individualism is an idea or approach to political life in which each person is deemed to be rational and free to make their own choices. In taking on board issues like marriage equality and GMO labeling, young people are following this individualistic script.

The idea of the rational and free ‘masterless man’ (and to the extent that rationality was associated with masculinity, a man it most likely was) emerged as an icon during the European Enlightenment, where it was a revolutionary idea. Medieval thinking drew upon an organic and hierarchical vision of social life, in which the focus was on individual responsibilities to the social order.  Identities and consummate freedoms, both of nobility and commoners, were always circumscribed by the demands of prescribed social roles.

Since the Enlightenment, almost all political debate in Western countries has been set up as an individual vs. group battle, with ‘freedom’ almost always associated with individual choices, and restrictions on freedom seen to emanate most centrally from the state.

The arguments of those on the side of the common or social good almost always had to concede that some (individual) freedoms had to be curtailed to be able to fulfill the larger social goals.  Rather than being able to make a positive case for the social good,claims for group rights had the onus of proving the necessity of deviating from the default of individualism.

Young woman sleeping on bed in student dorm, head resting on books
Group advocates have sounded like your Auntie’s voice chiding you to grow up and act responsibly.

Even worse has been the tendency to associate rationality with individuals, and irrationality, or emotion, with the mass and the group (or the mob).  People who follow groups, by extension, are irrational or driven by emotion. Our tendency is to re-imagine all social relationships in terms of the individual vs. group battle which shaped Western perceptions since the Enlightenment. But what if the individual vs. group tension is less of a battle of opposites and more of a continuum?

Today, young people emerge into Western culture with an elemental awareness of the importance of individualism in their lives. Parents prepare their children to be rational, self-governing individuals, conscious of their power and freedoms and willing to take on the group in the name of justice and individual freedom. It is necessary to equip young people with the words and ideas of individualism not just to protect them in an individualistic culture, but also to protect individualism as a value in and of itself.  Without the inculcation of individualism into young people, the fear is that freedom will be lost to future generations, and the oppression and irrationality of the group will win out. In Western culture, we believe that young people need individualism to understand themselves as free people.

But individualism fails to deliver the freedom it promises.  By understanding only the individual as the free unit, and not the group, we fail to protect and preserve freedoms for everyone.   Having been told all of their lives that their fates are their own, that responsible and committed people will be able to succeed, and that protecting one’s own freedom of choice is paramount, young people eventually discover that their lives are largely determined by hierarchies, that responsibility and commitment do not necessarily create success and may even be punished, and that exercising their own freedom of choice individually is a limited and essentially hollow way to find fulfillment.

Chairs and people seated
Individualism as a social norm and as a model for communities is empty.

Psychologically isolating and materially disempowering, individualism as a social norm and as a model for communities is empty.  It impoverishes democracy by discouraging social action, it reduces political life by disparaging the community, and it enables and empowers the abuses by the powerful by attributing success to individual rather than social factors. In addition to doing all of this, individualism also leaves young people vulnerable to attacks by the state.  The Harper government’s efforts to impose stricter penalties on young offenders, to impose mandatory minimums in criminal law, and provincial governments’ efforts to defund education have been met with almost no active resistance by the youth demographic.

The point is not to return to an organic and stable view of social order as the highest value, as it was practiced in the Medieval era, but to reject the false dichotomy of individuals vs. groups, and to recognize that communities are the source of both individual freedom and the pursuit of the common good.  To advance a notion of free societies, it is sometimes necessary to question the idea that individual choices are the only way in which freedom can be exercised.  Freedom is also exercised when communities choose together, deliberately, to pursue common goals and purposes. Indeed, similiar things have been said by many ancient philosophers to be the truest expression of freedom.

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.

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.


A Leaner, Meaner Politics in the US: What About Canada?

In his book The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity will Remake American Politics Thomas Byrne Edsall argues that shrinking public and private resources will make politics leaner, meaner and less civil.  It’s not just that right and left disagree on how to distribute resources, it is a fundamental rift in the understanding of the purpose of the state itself.   It’s also not just a fight over ideas:  it is a battle for survival.  The supporters of the right, to pearth_tighten_belt_800_clr_7668araphrase Edsall, are ageing, embattled, middle to upper class whites living in decimated and depopulated suburbs who are increasingly bitter about the direction of the redistributive state.  In the past, the right’s call to arms was a kind of negative freedom (‘Don’t Tread on Me’) which fought to preserve the individual’s ability to choose their own forms of happiness unimpeded by state regulations.  The premise of this, we know now, was the expectation that everyone could gain from a growing pie.  No more.  Programs for which supporters of the right are the primary recipients (including Medicare and social security) are considered sacrosanct.  Programs from which others benefit (read black, immigrants, poor or public sector workers) like Medicaid, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or income supports, are untenable ‘entitlements’.  On the left, there is a counter-move to protect the public sphere from erosion while simultaneously trying to remain coherent in the face of a fiscal crisis and an unrelenting personal attack on Obama during an election year.  The left is increasingly turning to middle class minorities, immigrant and young voters who are far less steady in their support and are on the whole less well-established and more vulnerable both economically and politically.

These kinds of politics reveal rifts that have historically deep-soil_money_canada_pc_800_clr_2385eated roots but which linger below the surface until austerity and crisis reveal them.  What rifts lie below the surface of Canadian society that have been eroding the social consensus gradually and unrelentingly?  Could Canada go down a similar route?  Recent battles paint a picture of the possibilities.  With vitriolic flourishes the Harper government and environmentalists are fighting an increasingly pitched battle over oil resources.   The push for a pipeline to expand foreign markets for oil, whether through a Northern route or Keystone, has as its root a long-standing fear that overproduction of oil will drive the price down and shrink profits.  This is a real fear, since the flattening of oil prices will make the billions of dollars already invested uneconomic, and capital will flee.  On the one hand, it seems more like an embarrassment of riches than a problem of austerity: oil consumption is maintaining a steady stiff pace overseas and is set to grow, along with its negative climate impacts.  On the other hand, it has all of the set piece features of a zero-sum fight over a shrinking resource.  As anti-fossil fuel efforts grow, and as more bitumen-type oil production facilities are being developed in Latin America and more unconventional oil is prospected in the Arctic and other areas, the chances of oil revenues becoming restricted in the future is higher and higher.  If this happens, look for politics here to follow a similar path to those in the US, with the centre of the storm being the role of shattered_dollar_coin_800_clr_8730the state as a (re)distributor of resources.  With potentially shrinking state revenues due to tax reductions and few other signs of growth outside the resource sector, the temptation to retrench at the expense of the poor, immigrants, the disabled and other marginalized groups may well be irresistible.  On the other hand, another fight between regions in true Canadian fashion may be brewing.  I want to end on a positive note here.  Everything I’ve learned in teaching young people about politics in the last 15 years has taught me that if anything, youth are more accepting, welcoming, compromising and diverse than ever.  I can only hope that these qualities will enable the cultivation of a middle ground in the future in Canada that seems increasingly elusive in the divisive and paralyzing politics down south in the US.  If we are to believe Edsall, however, austerity could bring out the worst in all of us.

Harper: Solving Problems that Don’t Exist, Ignoring Ones that Do

Governments operate on two distinct tracks.  In one track, they make decisions according to an ideological architecture.  This is developed by the party elite, elaborated during the election campaign, and either refined or even jettisoned upon taking power. Governments also operate on another track, which involves making decisions ‘on the fly’ in response to rapidly-changing circumstances or urgent problems that require solutions.  Governments that follow the first track but ignore the second track,  risk being derailed by emergent or unexpected circumstances and problems that refuse to fade away. Governments that follow the second track exclusively, risk losing coherence and becoming bogged down in compromises that prevent bold action when needed on deep-seated and longer-term issues.

Whatever one might think of their ideological architecture, the Harper government’s program of action since achieving a majority has been rigidly and ideologically focused on the first track.  Conservative governments often tout their superior fiscal management and efficient governance, but when problems are ignored because of ideological short-sightedness, then this sacrifices the ability to be functional, efficient and fair.

The government’s single-minded pursuit of the purchase of F35s for the military is a good example.  In the face of disappointing progress on its development, buyers like Turkey, Australia and Britain have delayed or reduced their orders.  Not Canada, at least not yet.  Where is the urgent need to spend millions of dollars on military hardware?  What pressing requirement is driving this purchase?  With Canada standing down in Afghanistan and few urgent threats to national security looming on the horizon, the only explanation is ideological.

With a continuing budgetary deficit and the economy showing signs of weakness, the government is forging ahead as well with its tough on crime bill, which involves building more prisons, without releasing any information about its impact on the budget.  This is despite the fact that violent crime in Canada has been on the decline for the last thirty years, and the American experience has proven that increasing incarceration rates have actually increased the crime rate in that country.

The elimination of the gun registry similarly exhibits a puzzling and almost obsessive focus on problems that don’t need fixing.  All the evidence points to a decline in gun homicides since the introduction of stricter gun control in 1995.  Whatever information has been gained will be lost as the records are destroyed, to what end?  Given the willingness to spend on defence and in other areas, it does not seem that the savings (which are relatively minor) justify the loss.

Meanwhile, it took a housing emergency in Attawapiskat, only one of several Northern communities facing serious problems this winter, for the government to take remedial, and (as it turns out) heavily delayed, action.  This is despite the fact that Auditor General Sheila Fraser identified serious problems in May 2011. In her report, Fraser described the ‘unacceptable’ discrepancy in  government funding of education, housing, and services for First Nations.  These structural problems remain persistent and call for more than band-aid solutions.

Electoral politics do not explain these decisions particularly well, given that the Conservatives have a secure majority in Parliament and the Opposition parties are in disarray.  The first track (the ideological one) tends to dominate when  other problems do not make headlines or intrude in unpleasant ways on the government’s radar.  Deflection and diffusion can work to a point, but the underlying problems of poverty, discrimination, and environmental destruction continue.  These problems are not usually spectacular, but they are urgent.  Ignoring them has costs.  These costs will continue to mount up, in increased health care spending, crime problems, pollution, and other social ills, until such time as the government is unable to ignore them. This neglect is ultimately self-defeating.