How Political Cynacism Imperils Democratic Society

Canadian Speeches, May-June 2003 | Go to article overview

How Political Cynacism Imperils Democratic Society

We are in danger of losing our free and democratic society if public cynicism and lack of faith in the ability of government to promote the greatest good the largest number continues to prevail. We need to redefined a role for government that meets public aspirations without reverting to the old, rejected, all-know, be-all model, with its excessive spending, regulation, and intrusion. Prepared text of a speech delivered to the Canadian Club of Toronto, May 20, 2003.

We live in a time of moral relativism. Every idea, behaviour and habit carries a weight, worthy of equal consideration, and is supposed to be as acceptable as any other. Indeed, many consider this the hallmark of an enlightened, pluralistic, open-minded society.

When you look at our public opinion data, however, there is one area where unequivocal judgementalism seems to be not only accepted, but the norm. Today, regardless of socio-economic status or ideological perspective, the electorate appears to be uniformly disdainful of politicians, governments and state activity.

The business class has prospered during this climate and seems to be defending it more vigorously, than ever before. Young people and social activists believe non-government channels are more effective in advancing their interests. The poor now actually fear government and see the state standing idly by as our social safety net unravels. And the vast middle class, in between, have concluded that politicians are nothing more than rapacious provocateurs who abuse their shrinking tax dollars.

Any challenge to these "truisms" is deemed at best fringe and at worst delusional. Within this illogical morass, we rarely hear a dissenting voice or alternative vision to what amounts to intellectualjihad. Silence has become consent.

Yet, in complete juxtaposition to this view, we routinely gather together, as we have here today, because we seek the sense and benefits of belonging that comes only in a group.

Whether by nature or through experience, we have also learned that group activity has a more practical purpose -- simply put, we can accomplish more together than alone. Indeed, within only a very few limits, the larger the task we seek to accomplish, the larger the group we find it necessary to form.

Need a pot hole in the road fixed? The neighbours will do. Alleviate traffic congestion? Now it will be necessary to enlist everyone who uses the roads in the congested area. Fight the war on terrorism? Probably wise to engage the whole world.

Gathering together to satisfy human needs, of course, is the central integrating concept modern civilization has used to pursue societal goals and move society forward -- it is noting less than the basis and rationale for creating communities and governments.

In fact, while you rarely hear anyone talk about it anymore, when we organize into groups it also has an enabling effect on our character and behaviour.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau made this point, eloquently, 340 years ago when he wrote The Social Contract:

An explicit part of the "contract" Rousseau immortalized, is that in exchange for the benefits of community, we voluntarily surrender some of the unbridled freedom we would otherwise posses if we lived apart. We erect a stop sign that delays our arrival to our desired destination, but we do so willingly, to avoid head-on collisions.

"The civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Then only, when the voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses and right of appetite, does man... find that he is forced to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations."

As I advise clients or comment on current events, I am often struck by how often people I otherwise admire seem to give short shrift to this fundamental aspect of our social organization -- that community, duty and restraint produce not only more efficient results than we could achieve alone, but they also breed better citizens and better human beings -- that there is a moral imperative that forms the basis of our gathering together and not simply a utilitarian and practical one. …

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