Monthly Archives: October 2020

“Social Experiments” and the Common Good

Today I sent the following letter to the leaders of the four parties in the Canadian House of Commons:

Respected Sirs and Madam,

I am writing in response to the Throne Speech and to recent reports of Mr. O’Toole’s stated concerns about “social experiments”, as reported this morning by the CBC.

I am writing to all of you because I am hoping that you will all embrace one political experiment, which is to work together for the common good and not try to make partisan hay out of our current misfortunes and challenges. Of course I recognize that there is plenty of room for principled disagreement about “the common good”, and that the people you serve probably hold a muddled view of what that is. Still, it’s pretty clear when you are being principled and when you are being partisan, just by the way you speak and the amount of thought evident in what you say.

Neither fulsome boasting on the part of the Government, nor carping negativity on the part of the Opposition, can be seen as principled. Those kinds of speech are clearly partisan, and have no place in the current predicament.

I would identify that predicament as primarily four-fold, at the broad strategic level:

(1) The current pandemic coronavirus, and the lively probability of future ones;

(2) Excessive waste and the indiscriminate dumping of its effluents into the air (climate), water, and land;

(3) Inequality and injustice in all forms;

(4) Violence and strong-arm tactics in all forms.

The last three, in all their diverse variations, have become firmly embedded in our ways of life and institutions, as we can see from the huge resistance we see when they are challenged. The insidious thing about those three is that while it is abundantly clear that the whole of society is being hugely damaged by them, perhaps even terminally, someone is benefiting from every single element of each one of them.

The people who are benefiting have power and voices, and do not hesitate to use them. They may even have rights, or at least legitimate interests, often broadly distributed, including the right not to have the whole basis for their lives overturned or blasted into oblivion without some kind of due process. This whole immense and complex system of resistances erects huge barriers against fundamental change.

The virus is different. It doesn’t care about our rights or legitimate interests or due process. It does what it wants, and has forced us to overturn our ways of life to an extent previously unimaginable. I don’t need to belabour that point. You all know what I mean. To a considerable extent we have made those changes, with what is actually, when you come to think about it, a commendable amount of grace. The virus has taught us something about our capacity to change, if change we must.

I suggest that the degree of change and willingness to change that the virus has imposed on us, and our success in changing, ought to give us the courage to tackle the other three in the same spirit. We can drastically reduce waste and dumping. We can address inequality and injustice. We can do away with violence and strong-arm tactics. And when we have done all that we will live very differently from the way we do now, or did before the virus.

And I would say to Mr O’Toole and those who agree with him that the way to get there is through Social Experiments, also Economic Experiments, Political Experiments, and Individual Way-of-Life Experiments of many different kinds. I would say that an Experimental Way of Life is exactly what we must adopt in order to deal with our Four Predicaments, both broadly and in detail.

I think we are doing that, to a commendable extent, in dealing with the coronavirus. More experimentation is yet to be done there, but the process is rolling.

I suggest that it has two principle implications. First, that we need not pretend that all experiments will work. I suggest two principles, adapted from the school of counselling called “Solution Focus”: If you try something that works, do more of it. If you try something that doesn’t work, don’t do more of it, do something different. Experiments sometimes fail. We must not play “Gotcha!” with the people who undertook them, or lay blame, or question their motives, or seek to take mean-spirited advantage of their discomfort, or any of the other practices so dear to us. An experimental culture must be a generous one. It will do us all much good if we simply cut each other a little slack.

Second, I suggest that this kind of process cannot carry on without catastrophic disruption and huge injustice unless our governments are heavily involved in the regulation of it. This is not an environment for unregulated “market” solutions, although ingenuity and initiative may play important roles, as they always have. If we want to cultivate experimental approaches that are effective, humane, and democratic, we must cultivate a vibrant Public Sector, which means among other things being prepared to pay for it. Resources are going to shift away from the comfortable practices of the past into new ones. The old ones are going to scream bloody murder, and we are going to have to deal with them resolutely, using due process of course.

Please notice that I assign to our governments the job of “regulation”, not “control”. Individual initiative remains a huge experimental resource and should be cultivated in the humane way we all know about but don’t always respect.

Please notice also how easily we learn when we must. We learned a long time ago to drive our cars on the right-hand side of the road. That is a severe restriction which we accept. We are learning to wear masks and keep our distance. There may be limits out there somewhere to what we can learn, but they are a long way away.

I have suggested that we are adapting to the coronavirus because it doesn’t care about our complex of resistances. With respect to the second predicament, the one caused by waste and dumping and exploitation, I suggest that Nature doesn’t really care either, although she is a lot more generous than the virus. But if Nature decides she has had enough, she will retaliate very hard indeed, and far more widely than the virus. We do well not to make her too angry. The same might be said for the victims of inequality and injustice, and of violence and strong-arm tactics.

Experiments forever!

Thank you for reading.

Paul Conway
Northern Bruce Peninsula,Ontario
October 4th, 2020