Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Moral Drift in the Peaceable Kingdom

January 1, 1995 -

The crucial problem is that the Western cultural model, apparently triumphant worldwide, is disintegrating socially and morally in the rest of the world and in the West itself. In sum, the West's true vulnerability is of a moral nature.

—Giorgio Ruffolo, former environment minister of Italy Peter Gzowski's guests on his January 18 CBC Morningside radio program provided a fascinating but also disheartening glimpse of an ideological conflict that is now dominating all our public policy discussions.

The two antagonists, Michael Walker of the Fraser Institute in Vancouver and Murray Dobbin, a writer and broadcaster in Saskatoon, were debating the "New Zealand situation" and its significance for Canada. In 1984, New Zealand drastically altered its public policies in response to a currency/debt crisis by making massive cutbacks in public spending. Ever since, it has been held up as either an admirable example to follow or as a dreadful mistake to avoid, depending on one's perspective.

Is there a middle ground?

The heated discussion on Morningside was disheartening because the two debaters had such radically different interpretations of the same events, each backed by his own rapid-fire recital of facts and figures. What the dispute between Walker and Dobbin clearly showed is that they dealt not only with the "facts," but with different ways of interpreting the "facts," based on their-perspective. That's why they became bogged down in a kind of ideological "warfare" and ended up in complete disagreement.

Such extreme polarization of positions has increasingly become a regular feature in discussions of the problems facing Canada. While there is still a store of common sense and goodwill available to help us weather the difficulties we confront, the continued hardening of dramatically opposed positions—especially by vocal interest groups—makes it difficult, if not impossible, to do what must be done.

The difference between the two positions, often described in terms of Left versus Right, is now clearly evident in every issue that concerns the level of government involvement in the shaping of Canadian society. In short, the welfare state, as we have come to know it, is in a crisis. The current controversies are all about how to respond to that crisis. Some of the most obvious symptoms include a rapidly growing debt load, heavy dependence on foreign capital, a high level of structural unemployment, and a sagging currency, all of which are exacerbated by severe political dissension, a fading sense of the common good, and a widespread loss of faith in all institutions.

Canada has been dubbed the "Peaceable Kingdom," but it is now beset by a complex of serious problems that threaten the very existence of our nation. Besides, it is no longer so peaceable. There has been a disconcerting rise in pathological and criminal behaviour. Not only have the streets become less safe, an unprecedented, vicious kind of violence has even invaded the schools in a number of large urban areas.

The difficulties we now face in our welfare state politics has two major elements. The first is structural, namely, the entanglement of politics in all of society. The second goes much deeper. The real crisis of our time is the pervasive moral disarray in Canada and throughout the Western world.

Entanglement

The entanglement of politics and society is driven by the idea that politics is seen as the key to building a modern and prosperous society. This notion is clearly reflected in the 1985 Mcdonald Commission report, which declared that governments "must provide meaning and recognition to the citizenry" and that "the state will remain the central institution for the governing of humanity for the foreseeable future."

Nowhere has misguided state interventionism come to the fore more clearly today than in the economy. But the more we argue about how to resolve our economic problems, the worse they get. For more than twenty years we have heard Canada's finance ministers declare solemnly that the deficit must be controlled and the debt reduced. But every promise to take action has remained unfulfilled, so that we are now adding $110 million to our accumulated debt every day. One-third($41 billion) of federal revenues ($124 billion) must now be devoted to pay interest on our national debt. The current Liberal government has vowed to reduce the deficit, but even with its targeted reductions we will add another $100 billion to our national debt in a mere three years. Some fiscal management!

The entanglement of politics and economics makes it hard to discern our economic problems and reach a consensus on a course of action. If we continue to search for political solutions, we can expect our current woes to continue, or get worse. Economic problems require economic solutions.

The federal government's bungling in the area of regional economic development clearly illustrates this point. All the billions of dollars that have been poured into these projects over the years have not had any lasting impact on the economy of the targeted regions. Not only have scarce resources been wasted, but healthy, alternative developments have been obstructed.

Another striking example of the perverse impact of political interference in the economic domain is the socalled pay and employment equity legislation. This legislation creates disincentives for investment and the creation of new jobs by diverting energy and economic resources away from key business functions. Instead of trying to directly control and determine the hiring, promotion, and payment of wages to certain designated categories of people, accompanied by a costly, bureaucratic enforcement apparatus, government policies would be more beneficial if they were aimed at creating a climate that is conducive to economic development and to fair wage and hiring policies.

It is encouraging that even some erstwhile supporters of equity legislation are beginning to realize that these policies do more harm than good and are rethinking then-positions. Nonetheless, there are few who dare to publicly oppose these egalitarian policies, and the juggernaut of state intervention rolls on.

This criticism of state encroachment is not intended to deny governments' legitimate tasks. The state, as administrator of public justice, has a very important role to play in the economy, but it needs to focus its attention on creating the right conditions for a healthy economy, not in trying to control the outcome of many details of economic life. There are many other tasks of a modern government, such as protecting the constitutional rights and freedoms of all citizens; maintaining public order; safeguarding borders; maintaining a stable currency; protecting those who cannot help themselves; and ensuring that all citizens have access to basic health care, educational opportunities, and welfare. This is not an exhaustive list. But in all these activities, the state should aim at reinforcing personal responsibility and the integrity of the nonstate structures, such as the family, the church, the business enterprise, and other voluntary social relationships.

The problem with the direction and scale of state intervention taking place today is that it undermines personal responsibility as well as the role of nonstate structures. And by acting as if it could manage all of society, the state has become overloaded. Governments are strained to the limit in trying to cope with all the problems they are expected to solve. The effect is government impotence, and an increasingly dissatisfied public, unhappy with governments' inability to provide for all their needs or wants. The real danger in the current trend of the expanding state is that democracy is being subtly replaced by totalitarianism.


A moral problem

There is an even more important reason why we are now beset by serious problems and disagreements, and it is having a profoundly destabilizing effect on our entire society. Giorgio Ruffolo, former environment minister of Italy, wrote an insightful article (quoted at the beginning of this article) entitled "Needed: A New Moral Revival" (reprinted in World Press Review, November 1994) outlining the reason for the troubles plaguing the entire Western world.

Looking back on this century, we see a bloodied and deeply burdened world. Even now, there are more than 70 wars or guerilla conflicts raging in various parts of the globe. All the political and economic powers of the highly developed West have not been able to prevent the current regional conflicts, nor the two world wars that have caused the death of millions of people and unprecedented material destruction.

The West, despite its material accomplishments, is ineffective in the rest of the world. Not only that, internally, it is also beset by what Ruffolo calls a kind of social and moral disintegration. He cites three ways in which the "moral instability" of the West has come to expression.

First, there is a "permissive cornucopia," which means that more is always better. Ruffolo elaborates:

Everything is permitted, and everything can be obtained. The removal of limits also removes all values, because it is precisely from the awareness of limits that moral responsibility is born.

The second area of weakness is a loss of a sense of connections. A collective ideal of aggressive self-gratification transforms the individual into a private being, closed inside his narcissistic obsessions, and it transforms constructive emulation to destructive envy.

The third form of moral untenability is the loss of a sense of end. Human society needs a transcendent goal to survive....Our societies have proved incapable of substituting an ethical project, a system of social values, that could give meaning to the growth of their power.

 

According to Ruffolo, this has produced "at the century's end a dangerous condition: a world out of control." What is needed is an ethical renewal that re-establishes the sense of limits, connections, and transcendence, three insights for avoiding a new, albeit more sophisticated, form of barbarism.

One need not agree with every detail of Ruffolo's analysis of the problems now besetting Western society to recognize that his main thesis applies very much to our own situation. We are attempting to restructure society while we are busy cutting the roots that provide us with moral guidelines, without which we are adrift. This moral drift lies behind our political and economic problems and our seeming inability to resolve them. In plain words, we are trying to live without God.

Without the recovery of a sense of limits, social cohesion, and the realization that we cannot fashion the rules for our lives and our institutions as we please, we will continue to flounder. But we also have the choice of choosing a better way. The question is, do we have the courage and wisdom to make that choice? It's a choice that begins with rightly diagnosing the sickness of moral and spiritual decay that is now afflicting us.

This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, a journal founded by Harry Antonides. Find all of Harry’s pieces, and thousands more, at http://www.cardus.ca/comment