December 16, 2015
A recent article in iPolitics by the (politically) late Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber, concerning the ambitions of the Alberta Wildrose Party (“Can Brian Jean unite the right in Alberta? Don’t bet on it.”), asserted as follows:
“It’s a myth that Alberta is built on conservative bedrock. For decades, from Lougheed through Getty and Klein, Albertans demanded the best of everything — the widest highways, the best schools and hospitals. When resource revenues were plentiful, governments could keep taxes low. When natural gas and crude prices tanked, governments racked up huge deficits. But at no time did Albertans lose their appetite for big, expensive government.”
I lived in Alberta for 25 years, raising my family and making my living, and because of the nature of my work, I probably got around more than most. I don’t think Albertans have any appetite for “big expensive government”. I think they have an entirely commendable appetite for excellent public services, or at least those public services the majority of them use. Their appetite for paying for them may not be quite as keen, nor for those services used by the less fortunate minority among them, but do they thus set themselves apart from the main stream of Canadians? I am not sure than anything much sets Albertans apart from the main stream of Canadians except their particular regional history and the extraordinary wealth of their land. But that is not what I am writing about today. No, it’s Mr. Rathgeber’s use of the term “big government”.
Big government. Its undertones of tyranny and oppression rattle the ganglions of anyone with even a teaspoon of libertarian blood. But surely it belongs more in the language of propaganda than of reasonable political conversation.
When I am driving down a good highway, I do not feel the heavy hand of government oppression, only the productive hand of basic infrastructure. When I visit the doctor or am admitted to hospital, I do not feel the tread of an iron boot, only the concern of my fellow citizens wishing me well and helping me get there. And so it is with a whole range of common experiences where I feel the beneficent hand of public service. And when I feel myself regulated, which I do not to any inconvenient extent, I feel my community protecting itself, and me, and my descendants, from the harm of abuses and damage.
Of course our government is big. We expect it to do a great deal of work to support and improve our lives, and to do that in ways that are fair and equitable. And we know perfectly well, when we think about it, that if we left these responsibilities to private initiative, the apparent “efficiency” would come at the expense of “comprehensive justice”, if I may so roll social, economic and environmental justice into one term. And while we may squirm under the need to pay for comprehensive justice, we have no desire to abandon it as a standard. Our voting in the recent election proved that.
All big organizations are to some extent inefficient. If you think governments are exceptionally that way, take a close look sometime at big oil, or big finance, or big transportation, or big anything else. And as for big military, good grief! The illusion of efficiency in big organizations, public or private, comes not from some kind of economic virtue, but from their power to do the work that we want done.
Power is always a two-edged sword, and in an imperfect world both edges are going to cut. We do our part when we, as voters and as consumers, work to sharpen the edge that does the work, and blunt the edge that does the harm.
What does all this mean, in the specifics before us these days? I think it means, first of all, being a little patient with our new government—both the executive side and the opposition—to give them time to do what we elected them to do. If we jump all over them, telling them, after a few short weeks on the job, that they are doing it all wrong and should be doing something different, then we are being the very worst kind of bosses, the kind that breeds inefficiency. I think we need to slap down the people who are talking that way, and notice where they are coming from.
We have elected ourselves a government of people who say, no doubt with some sincerity, that they want to “do politics differently”, and an opposition that wants to find “a new tone”, which also means doing politics differently from their side of the fence. But what does it do to their resolve, and their capacity, if we come at them in the same old way? Perhaps the idea of “doing politics differently” applies also to us and to the journalistic folks on whom we rely for much of our data.
In particular, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether all the carping criticism, so pervasive in our politics, journalism, and conversation, is good for our body politic, or our personal mental health for that matter. I won’t say any more, because I don’t want to be carpingly critical even of carping criticism, but I for one would prefer that we find a healthier, more balanced way to judge the performance of our elected officials and “hold them to account”, to use the fashionable phrase.
Holding them to account. Accountability. We hear these words all the time. They are spoken as if self-explanatory, and self-justifying. In the fields of politics and public service, however, they are full of rich technicality. Do we ever think much about what they mean, or the kind of data we need to realize them in a balanced and correct way? Or the kind of clear thinking required to make them just and expedient?
In other words, how can we hold to account the people who are holding “them”—whoever they are—to account on our behalf? How can we do that justly and fairly, in a balanced way, with good data? How can we do it without indulging in carping criticism? And if we are glib and careless in how we do it, ought we to be held to account? And by whom?
Doing politics differently: Quite a challenge, on all sides. A good one, worth answering.