Each of us has a personal vision, world-view, idea which defines for us what a good life would look like.
Most likely, in spite of our differences, there would be some common, fundamental themes — happiness, self-worth, health, freedom, a dignified life — generally, a sense of well-being. Our visions would also include values or principles used to guide our personal actions and our relationship with others. These values will make reference to attributes such as equality, responsibility, accountability, compromise, sharing, fairness in any and all contexts of relationships with others.
It is these values and principles which guide and inform us in determining how society will be organized, how it will function. More specifically, they will guide and inform us in determining public policy with respect to issues of importance to our survival and well-being as individuals and as a society. Issues described in economic, social, environmental, cultural, political as well as personal terms.
Prior to the Great Depression of the 1930s, Canadian society was organized around the principle of the free market as the means to achieve individual and societal well-being. The experience of the Great Depression indicated that the supremacy of the free-market had no answer to the personal and societal devastation caused by the Depression. The experience of the Second World War demonstrated that government intervention in the market made for good public policy and the subsequent well-being (at least in economic terms) of Canadians.
That marked the beginning of the implementation of public policies and programs designed to support and maintain the well-being of Canadians. These programs included income support, education, health, regional/provincial equalization, infrastructure, labour relations, food and product standards and safety. Individuals would benefit but so would businesses and corporations.
Income to buy goods and services; education to perform the tasks required by business; health to work; and where necessary stimulus spending. Regulations were designed with respect to worker safety, food and product safety, environmental stewardship, health.
Governments encouraged and gave financial support to specialized interests. These included interests related to women, the environment, culture, the disadvantaged and different ethnical groups. The objective being to ensure that governments would be informed in making public policy.
Canada became a “welfare state.” That is, a state guided by the principles of personal and societal well-being based on the ideas of personal and societal responsibility. The “welfare state” did a fairly good job. Possibly too good.
By the mid-1970s, there were serious pressures against the idea of the “welfare state.” Businesses, corporations, wealthy individuals considered themselves unfairly and excessively taxed to support the idea of a shared societal responsibility for the well-being of Canadians.
As well, there was the start of a significant consensus being built, particularly among the elite and increasingly supported by Canadians, that well-being was an individual matter and responsibility and (only or necessarily) achievable through personal choice and effort. The state should just bow out of its interventionist role and in the process reduce government expenditures with the attractive byproduct of reducing the need for tax revenues.
This consensus was, and continues to be, supported by theories and propositions such as, or related to: trickle down theory; supply side economics; free market superiority; minimalist government; government debt; and societal bankruptcy. All of which were centred upon the idea that society exists to support the economy, defined in financial terms, as opposed to the economy being managed to support society, its objectives, its well-being and its vision.
In other words, environmental, social, cultural issues, policies, regulations, and programs — which collectively encompass the idea of “well-being” — must be subordinate to financial interests.
CPP, health care, education, environmental standards, public safety standards, labour standards are leftovers of the “welfare state” of the post-Second World War period. All of which have been and continue to be revisited in the context of the current consensus.
The result so far? Wages have stagnated since the mid-1970s. Education costs are increasingly carried by students and their families. There are infrastructure deficits throughout the country. Environmental degradation and issues becoming secondary (at best) to industrial goals. The average Canadian debt load is at historic highs. Public health care is being questioned. Public safety is regulated by the individuals and organizations who have the greatest potential for negative impacts on public safety. Private and public pensions are under attack.
There is nothing inherently right or wrong about any vision or idea. However, what is wrong in a democratic society is the lack of information for and participation of citizens in deciding on that vision and the public policies that go with that vision.
Of increasing concern is the reality that Canadians will have no choice other than to continue on the existing path to wherever it will lead us. Government revenues are decreasing by design which results in the non-capacity to support social, cultural and environmental objectives. Free-trade agreements make it increasingly difficult to revert to past policies or to implement new policies which adversely affect the profitability of industry.
If there is no return from wherever we are going, it seems timely that we examine where we are going and whether we want to go there.
» Chester and Rosemarie Letkeman are both retired from federal public service and are longtime Brandon residents. They are both interested in public policy, but have no political affiliation. Their column runs monthly.