In the recent federal election, the Canadian Alliance campaigned on the premise that Canadians are tired of activist, in-your-face over-government from Ottawa. And, since in their view the Liberals are the “More Government Party,” the Alliance tried to forge co-belligerent links between libertarians (who want government to stop fooling around with the market), social conservatives (who want government to get its hands off the traditional fabric of social life), populists (who want government to hand back power to citizens through direct democracy initiatives), and regionalists (who want Ottawa to stop making decisions from afar that fail to understand local realities).
But, as the Alliance ruefully learned, a majority of voting Canadians are not anti-government. One significant reason for the Alliance’s failure to make inroads in Ontario is the perception that it is an anti-government party.
Canadians want their voices to be heeded by a government that has a clear job description that unambiguously states the positive task of government and its proper limits. What Canada needs now is a one-two punch of democratic reform and room for other players than government to shape Canada’s future. Return the power of representative democracy to the influence of citizens, rather than prime ministers, premiers, and party whips. Return the power for social change to the control of economic and civic entrepreneurs, rather than bureaucrats and policy wonks.
Government is a force for good and a forum through which society answers the questions, “Who is my neighbour?” and “What is my responsibility to my neighbour?” Political cooperation does not require total agreement. Politics is about sorting through our disagreements in a civil manner, finding rules by which we can live together peaceably. These rules must provide space for people to live out their different ideals. That is why core freedoms such as freedom of speech, religion, conscience, and association are so essential.
The momentary alliance between fiscal and social conservatives during the last federal election rallied around a common resentment against government intrusion into areas beyond its proper sphere of influence. The fiscals dislike government intruding into areas that they want left to individual values; the socials see government undermining traditional values. Common ground was found in a platform of downsizing government. The cost of government, manifested in debts and taxes, provided convenient political arguments in support of this platform.
The default position in our public life today is that an issue is either personal, to be decided along lines of individual preference or market forces, or political, to be resolved through government action in which state power is used to prescribe or proscribe specific solutions.
But are these the only options? Must we choose only between individual desire incarnate in the hidden hand of the market or a collective purpose forged through the heavy hand of government?
Every day, people address social issues through other institutions: families, companies, unions, faith groups, community organizations, schools—and this is hardly an exhaustive list. Most of our civilizing efforts are driven neither by state obligation nor by market forces. Such solutions are tailored to local circumstance, provide avenues for meaningful social participation, and almost always are far more satisfying and effective than centralized government initiatives.
Creating room for civic entrepreneurialism by nongovernmental agencies is not a new idea. The seventeenth century political theorist Johannes Althusius made an argument in favour of this kind of structural social pluralism.
Althusius’s ideas received favourable consideration from Wilfrid Laurier University professor Thomas Hueglin in a recent book entitled Early Modern Concepts for a Late Modern World. Hueglin describes Althusius’s theory as “a system of politics in which sovereignty would be shared and jointly exercised by a plurality of collectivities, spatial as well as social, on the basis of mutual consent and social solidarity.”
From the point of view of civic entrepreneurialism, once an issue is identified as needing a social solution, the question becomes, “Which social institutions are best suited to provide this solution?” Government has an active role to play, but it is a facilitating rather than a prescriptive role. Decisions need to be made as close as possible to the people who will be affected. Ample opportunity for diversity and flexibility must be given in the eventual solution adopted.
A workplace analogy might be helpful. Think of the present public policy model as management identifying a problem and asking for worker input, thus facilitating a process whereby workers make and implement a decision. Different departments may well try different solutions. That would be a good thing, as the solutions are more likely to have local buy-in, be sensitive to local conditions, and be more efficient and effective in addressing real needs.
Critics suggest this amounts to abandoning political leadership. I would argue the exact opposite. Using the coercive power of the state to impose party-made remedies takes less leadership than working with diverse groups to accomplish social objectives.
This is not to suggest that the federal government does not have clear areas of jurisdiction that do not require the involvement of other levels of government or nongovernmental institutions. In these areas, it must model efficient and enlightened leadership. Capable administration of its legitimate responsibilities will only enhance its credibility with other institutions.
The application of a civic entrepreneurialism model has profound influences on a political platform. Rather than forcing a choice between government programs and market forces, it encourages the civilizing influence of other collective forces toward resolving identified social problems. With a broader base of involvement from institutions closer to the citizenry, solutions will more closely reflect the diverse value systems in our society, thus helping to overcome the cynicism and disdain with which too many people treat public life.
This approach will have a significant effect on the way we do politics. Much of the current cynicism stems not only from what our leaders do, or don’t do, but from how they do it. In a bipolar world, forced to swing wildly between individual desire and collective control, we can expect governments to act forcefully on their agendas. The logical result? A winner-takes-all approach to government.
From the left, governments pursue their activist, interventionist agendas. From the right, governments take on a centralized, autocratic character. It is more efficient, after all. On both the left and the right, more power ends up in fewer hands. The evidence of Lord Acton’s wisdom in observing the corrupting effects of power are there for all to see.
Political parties would be well-advised to carve a platform that gives Canadians closer influence over the democratic process and closer influence over economic and social change insofar as it affects their own lives. Canadians will vote for a platform that clearly states the government’s job description: government focused on those tasks that are uniquely political; government where we need it but not where it gets in our way; government that is strong in the right places and gone from the wrong places; government that hears and heeds our voices, and gives us room to move.