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What Happens to Truth

The End of an Era—What Next?

June 1, 1994 -

I want a good welfare state. I want medicare. I want good schools. But you can 't have them unless you manage them efficiently. And if we carry on with our present tradition of deficit spending and turning a blind eye to the inefficiencies of our present programs, ultimately Canadians are going to vote to eliminate and slash, and we '11 wind up with a social policy network which is far, far worse.

—John Richards (transcript from CTV's W5, April 14, 1994) 

Make no mistake about it: we are facing the end of an era in which we have lived as if there really were a free lunch. Our practice of piling up debts for the next generation is soon coming to an end. And no sector of our society will be exemp/t from the coming hardship. Guard dogs, electronic security systems, and barbed-wire fences will not ward off the nasty effects of social and political upheaval that will accompany our failure to act wisely. But it doesn't have to be that way. We can choose an alternative response to the challenge before us.

There are at least three clearly discernible attitudes that underlie our current predicament: 1) the belief that a good society can be created by governments; 2) morality is what we say it is; and 3) the "system" is responsible for people's behaviour.

Dangerous currents

The extent of government involvement in every sector of society has grown rapidly and has led to unprecedented high taxation and debt levels. Intrusive government results when politics is corrupted by the attempt to bribe voters with their own money and when politics is turned into an exercise in social engineering. The outcome is overload, intensified political strife, and, ironically, the inability of the state to perform adequately even its core task of providing "peace, order, and good government."

Besides the financial bankruptcy plaguing us, our situation is aggravated by an accompanying moral illness. The disease afflicting us now, especially influential in the opinion-shaping institutions, is creating a "me generation," which lives as if we were all autonomous individuals who decide for ourselves what is right. And if something is right for me, there is no one who can tell me otherwise. In other words, there really is no other morality than that which I create myself. The real problem with such extreme selfishness is that it destroys the possibility of a decent society.

Closely related to the foregoing is what can be called the "system syndrome." This is the notion that society functions as a huge system in which individuals are merely helpless pawns. The other side of that coin is that individuals are not held responsible. For example, we are told that "the system" makes us a racist and sexist society. Consequently, the recommended solution is to bring about systemic changes, that is, new forms of (coercive) public policies that are designed to stamp out gender- and race-based discrimination. Such policies are invariably defended with high-sounding moral platitudes. However, they are based on a false premise and are bound to institute new forms of discrimination, now reinforced by the powerful arm of the state.

Forgotten in the "system" approach is that to locate the source of behaviour in the system is to deny that each person is responsible and, also by the grace of God, able to act responsibly. Once you deny the reality of human responsibility and divine grace in the lives of individuals and of society, you are left with what Richard John Neuhaus has aptly called "the naked public square." And such a public square is bound to be inhabited by demons, especially the demons of power and violence.

Out to lunch

There are a number of influences at work that may help us face the profound changes that are coming in the very near future, or, better, that are now upon us. For one thing, we are not alone. Many other countries are facing the same difficulties. New Zealand faced its crisis some ten years ago. All the advanced welfare states in Western Europe are in the process of chopping their prized social security networks to control their nations' finances. Even Sweden, much praised by the political left, has been forced to cut back on its widely admired and generous welfare state provisions.

The reasons are three-fold. First, countries have run out of money and reached the limits of their borrowing capacity. Second, the generous social security provisions have led to welfare dependency and abuse. Third, the high cost of a social safety net has become an obstacle to job creation. All industrialized countries are now desperately struggling with these symptoms and trying to rein in the unrealistic expectations that have been created by their very generous social security programs. But that task is exceedingly difficult and in danger of unleashing social unrest on a large scale.

In Canada, too, there is a growing awareness that drastic changes need to be made, although very little in the way of a consensus about the way to achieve it now exists. Politicians are loath to tell voters at election time what they don't want to hear. Once in power, most politicians are intimidated by the difficulties and try to evade the hard choices as long as possible, with some exceptions. But drifting along—while piling up huge additional debts—is only making matters worse.

What is encouraging is that more and more observers, even among the political left, are facing reality and calling for a drastic realignment of public policy. For example, John Richards, one-time NDP member of the Saskatchewan legislature and a member of the radical Waffle wing of the NDP (quoted at the beginning of this article), is a prime example of a "chastened socialist." This term refers to people who have not forsaken their socialist ideals, but have realized that the level of state intervention and public spending in Canada is untenable and must be reduced and redirected. Richards minces no words:

The left is out to lunch if its definition of what it means to be left is to want more. To ignore limits, on the grounds that placing limits on social programs is alien to the spirit of mutual aid and generosity, is to invite political chaos. (Patricia Best, The Globe and Mail, April 30, 1994) 

Even life-long supporters of the liberal (generous) welfare state, have come to the conclusion that we are in for some rough changes. For example, Peter C. Newman, writing in Maclean's (June 27, 1994), says that we are in the grip of a political revolution of unprecedented proportion. He continues:

More than any other single factor, this sea change is based on Canadians' slow-burn realization that their entitlements are running out. Infinite demands on governments at all levels have collided with finite treasuries. No matter how worthy the cause or the recipient, we're being thrown back on our own resources. Like it or not, Canadians have become responsible for their own actions and for paying their own bills. That's a basic shift in the Canadian character. To suddenly have to give up such entitlements, after generations of depending on the state, adds up to a social revolution of no mean proportion.

Is there a way out?

That the very survival of our nation is now openly discussed and in serious doubt underscores the severity of our troubles. In this context, we should not only think of the "Quebec problem." That's an obvious one, but there are many other threats to our existence as a coherent society and a distinctive nation. For a nation's existence can be secure only if there is more that binds us together than merely economic benefits and the kind of sentimentalities that are now often bandied about.

Despite the indications of greater realism among a growing number of people, there are still plenty of destructive forces and habits about. Take the current federal government's attempt to rein in the public's expectations, although so far consisting mostly of gesturing in that direction. Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy's planned overhaul of the entire social security system in Canada is sure to confront strong opposition from a number of vested interests.

Prominent labour leaders have vowed to fight any reduction and all major changes, a sentiment echoed by other vocal interest groups, such as the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. This opposition is couched in the familiar rhetoric of the struggle between the oppressed (victimized) and the "corporate agenda"—a catch-all term for all that is evil, greedy, and anti-social.

Mel Watkins, a prominent economist and socialist, has described the efforts of other nations, including Sweden, to curtail its runaway expenditures as "incentives for the rich and powerful and cutbacks for everybody else." Judy Darcy, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (Canada's largest union) told her troops: "You are the major force that stands between the public services we provide and the dog-eat-dog society our adversaries propose. The battles ahead are scary." This kind of intransigence does not bode well for the attempts of any government to bring its finances under control by means of more realistic public policies.

How do we get out of the mess we are in? Or is there no way out?

We must keep in mind that the leading spokespersons defending the status quo often do not represent their own members. For example, despite the fact that some unions depict all forms of cooperation with management as a sellout, a growing number of unionized workplaces are experimenting with a different style of labour-management relations. The positive results of these local attempts to establish a genuine partnership between labour and management should not be underestimated.

We should also remember that our difficulties, because they are indeed serious and go to the very basis of our society, present an opportune occasion to challenge the assumptions that have caused our predicament. The failure of current policies may well stimulate a serious questioning of the assumptions that undergird those policies, especially the three mentioned at the beginning of this article. Take for example, the belief that the individual is the centre of the universe. Even considered from a purely logical perspective, such an assumption makes no sense. For if it were true, it would be impossible to have any meaningful interaction with one another. This is the dilemma that lies at the root of the problems we now confront and are increasingly unable to resolve.

All the energy and agitation that now go into remaking ourselves as a nation is just so much empty posturing unless we begin to realize that the "good life" is beyond our human ability to achieve by purely organizational and technical means. The trouble is that we are trying to do just that by bulldozing through the remnants of a Christian civilization. But this, in an odd way, may well be an opportune time to reassert the real meaning of that almost forgotten way of life. It's a way of life based on the paradoxical rule that we gain life by losing it. Genuine fulfilment, and thus social wellbeing, does not lie in selfishly grasping it but in giving ourselves in a life of service to God and to our neighbour. If two thousand years of an often bloody history has taught us anything, it should have driven home the truth of that reality—the truth that sets us free indeed.