Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Politics: The God That Has Failed

September 1, 1993 -

There is a sense now that the future is almost chartless. And it's this sense of rudderlessness on the part of the population that leads to in turn this sense of despair.

I mean the Canadian population has little respect for anything today. In fact, we have seen a wholesale loss of faith in traditional institutions, traditional leadership, traditional exhortations. That's the most obvious in the political arena. But it's most obvious in the political arena only because we as a culture always put so much faith in governments, in politics. [emphasis added]

—Allan Gregg of Decima Research in a CTV interview (transcript by MediaReach Inc., Toronto, December 15, 1991)
 

Now that the dust of the October 25 election has settled, can we assume that we can get on with our lives and settle into our normal, easy-going routine? Deep down all of us know better. There is a profound sense of unease, if not fear, about the future and widespread cynicism about politics and politicians—something the election results cannot dispel.

How has this dark mood spread across this privileged country, recently described by the United Nations as one of the most pleasant countries to inhabit? (Yet the suicide rate among 15-24 year olds is among the highest in the world.) Gregg hints at the reason when he speaks about our sense of rudderlessness. But, while he correctly observes the symptoms, he does not name the disease that is responsible for our malaise—secularism, the belief that human beings are the sovereign creators of their own "values."

No moral consensus

At the heart of secularism is the belief that there is no God, and we declare man to be the measure of all things. Consequently, there is no authority above us that enables us to determine the difference between right and wrong. Former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau astutely expressed the essence of this belief when he stated, "I have never been able to accept any discipline except that which I imposed upon myself" (Federalism and the French Canadians, 1968, p. xxi). Such a radical belief in the self has profound implications for our lives together as a nation. Reginald Bibby, in his book Mosaic Madness, neatly summarized this dilemma: "At the individual level, politics in Canada have become self-serving means to self-serving ends" (p. 153).

The social fallout of this notion of individual sovereignty is devastating. Individualism breaks apart the bonds of all social structures, for very obvious reasons. If my own happiness is the chief objective of my life, I can pursue it without any regard for others. In reality, this means that there are many abandoned and neglected people, especially women, children, the old, the disabled, and the poor.

The alienation people experience makes many look to the state as the reintegrator of society, as the one institution that can provide meaning and security. Thus, the secular faith leads inevitably to a strange paradox. While secularism glorifies individual liberty and removes all internal constraint in the private sphere, leading to social disintegration, we witness the increasing reliance on the state to solve the problems of society. This is how the state is transformed from a protector of personal and institutional freedom to a dispenser of entitlements and claims demanded by a host of interest groups.

What we have largely forgotten, however, is that politics ought to be about the common good, not special rights and claims. But more importantly, underlying the notion of the common good is a general agreement about what constitutes the moral basis of our nation. The radical faith of individual supremacy has fundamentally undermined that consensus.

The new managers

Gregg correctly observes that our loss of traditional faith, as he describes it, is "most obvious in the political arena." Politics has become a growth industry, expanding into every part of our lives. Although I fundamentally disagree with the thrust of the suggested draft of a social charter produced by the Ontario government in 1991, one of its opening statements is factually correct:

Canadians now expect their governments to provide or fund a broad range of services, many of which were previously unavailable or were provided by private, religious, and charitable organizations. 

Likewise, the 1985 Macdonald Commission described the state as "the key actor in channelling" the evolution in national self-image. Governments are the institutions that "must provide meaning and recognition for the citizenry" and "manage society as well as the economy." Such an ambitious project means the expansion of governmental function via the enactment of laws and regulations. But lawmaking, which used to be backed by a consensus about 4 'peace, order, and good government," is now driven by politics as an avenue of social engineering.

This change has fundamentally altered the notion and purpose of law. Instead of serving as a basis for a civil order in which individuals and institutions exist in freedom, the law is becoming a matter of detailed (administrative) regulations of areas of life that are rightly the domain of the private sphere.

State intervention that is not borne up by a broadly-shared moral consensus is likely to become coercive rather than consensual. In an age of relativism (there is no truth), internal conviction about right behaviour will inevitably weaken. We will witness increasing reliance on the state to impose external constraints. This is exactly the sentiment expressed by Supreme Court Justice Beverley McLachlin when she said: "Today, it is not to religion or the community that society looks to regulate and remedy its evils—it is to the law, primarily the criminal law" (as quoted in Western Report, July 19, 1993).

Our increasing reliance on the state is greatly expanding its power and reach, at least in the sense of being intrusive, but, simultaneously, it is also seriously weakened. The state cannot deliver what is now expected of it simply because of human and institutional limitations. The outcome is overload and gridlock, which fuels the widespread sense of disillusionment and cynicism toward politics and politicians. This is a dangerous and vicious circle. Robert Fulford was right when he wrote that what we now need is not liberty through politics but liberty from politics.

Crazy glue

Bob White, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, disagrees with Fulford. In a speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto (February 15, 1993) White let loose a withering condemnation of what he called the "triumph of market sovereignty." In this context, he quoted the late British economist Joan Robinson: "All economic questions are basically political questions, and all political questions are basically moral questions."

The first part of Robinson's statement will be readily endorsed by all socialists. But those who do not accept the idea of an all-inclusive and unlimited state should strongly object. To be sure, there is a relationship between economics and politics. Laws are needed to govern various aspects of economic life. Taxes must be paid and economic resources marshalled to provide the basis of a social safety net. But to collapse economics into politics is a form of reductionism that undermines the freedom and integrity of economic life, exactly what we now see taking place.

The trouble with the second part of Robinson's statement, "All political questions are basically moral questions," is that a politicized and relativistic view of society makes a moral consensus impossible. It is then not surprising that politics is turned into a form of social engineering. This is in line with White's concept of the ideal society:

Because the strongest glue holding masses of people together in bonds that will not easily be broken, is found primarily within national borders. Within these borders, the political bottom line is that people realize many of their hopes and dreams through government action. (Canadian Speeches: Issues of the day, April 1993) 

There you have the aspirations of those who would build a new society through government action. But it is a dream that cannot be realized. Those who reject a relativistic view of the "good" in favour of respect for a transcendent (God-ordained) norm of what is right and just should not hesitate to defend their alternative views. Such an effort is not to place the sovereignty of the market over against the sovereignty of the people to be mobilized for the purpose of establishing a new socialist order. We need to face up to the reality that the troubles we are experiencing as a nation have deep roots in the soil of the belief in human self-sufficiency and politics as a technique of liberation and self-fulfilment. As Václav Havel declared: "Without commonly shared and widely entrenched moral values and obligations, neither the law, nor democratic government, nor even the market economy will function properly."

One thing is certain. We will not resolve our difficulties and divisiveness until we succeed in fostering respect for the good (the truth) that is not of our own making. What is needed above all is wisdom, beginning with a humble awareness of our status as image bearers of God and a respect for the limits of all human endeavours, including the limits of the state.

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