The End of Progress?

Margaret Wente, always of value and never boring, has written an important and disquieting column about, among other things, the capacity of government. Wente inventories the string of crises – the financial meltdown, the Gulf oil spill, the European meltdown playing out in Greece, for starters – that not only continue to cause untold harm, but also continue to befuddle those we look to for solutions – governments, experts, international organizations.

She goes on to articulate what no doubt many of us are thinking or fearing: that we cannot cope with what we have created. We cannot predict the problems. We cannot figure out how to prevent them. We cannot solve them with any certainty when they occur. They are too big, too complex. The best we can do perhaps is muddle through with our eyes wide open. This is, Wente suggests, the age we live in, “the age of the blow up”. In this scenario, at least taken to its extremes, experts are not to be trusted – indeed there are no experts. And governments and international organizations are incapable of addressing the big issues; they matter only on the margins and only after-the-fact. If Wente is indeed capturing something of a broadening despair, then no wonder people are increasingly turning away from governments and reluctant to pay taxes. What for?

Wente is certainly on to something when she points out that the kinds of problems we are dealing with are different, tougher. They have local and global dimensions, exceeding the capacity of any one country or organization to address. They are unfamiliar – we simply did not have off-shore drilling or such powerful global financial markets before- and so old ways won’t do. And these new problems are deeply conflictual, bringing out our diverse and often competing interests, which usually means winners and losers.

But despair surely is not the way. I hope Wente was only rhetorically considering that we have reached the “end of progress”.

First, I say this as a matter of personal inclination. When confronted with a choice between hope and despair, I strongly recommend that we choose hope. This is not a matter of evidence ; neither approach, neither attitude can be proved. But despair simply doesn’t work; we will never achieve great things together if we believe we cannot. Hope at least gives us a shot.

Second, despair about our level of knowledge and expertise ignores how many did warn us and continue to warn us about the risks of unconstrained greed and unsustainable growth. Many fine economists have been worried for some time about the fallacy of the perfectly efficient market and the limits and even dangers of a model of humans as economic beings motivated only by external and material rewards. Environmentalists have warned us of the risks of drilling off shore and, more generally, of our refusal to reduce our carbon dependency and to put sustainability at the centre of our public policy and private choices. Of course, science is imperfect and it’s often hard to know which voices to heed; we always make our decisions with imperfect knowledge. But evidence should matter and we should expect our political leaders to put the moral choices clearly even when the evidence is murky. Politics could be about helping us choose what we value most and what we are willing to put at risk.

Third, the apparent failures and befuddlement of our governments shouldn’t blind us to how successful our collective efforts – governments – have been in fighting disease and reducing ignorance, in improving quality of life and in building democratic institutions that have worked pretty well. Much of what we now take for granted was built during a time when Canadians were more trusting and deferential to governments. Government had the freedom to act and because public enterprise was valued it attracted the best of us. That’s not the case today.

In an age of distrust, accountability has been transformed from a democratic value to a cult of blame and punishment, tying up governments and making public service less attractive. Constant cuts have eroded quality and consume the energy of public servants. A vigorous new ideologically driven libertarianism misses no chance to attack government, sees every collective action as a threat to our liberty and turns every misstep into evidence that all things government are dangerous. Politics, especially minority politics, seems ever smaller and irrelevant to our needs, with each party seeming more concerned about their survival than ours. And people begin to look elsewhere for solutions and meaning.

It is to the good that we have learned to question government’s role in our bedrooms, its incursions into what were private spheres and its potential to undermine our sense of responsibility and independence. But we are also grateful that family violence is no longer a private matter and we have learned the importance of our interdependence, and the benefits of sharing risk and opportunity. Of course governments make mistakes, grow arrogant, take on too much. We have learned that a bit of humility is good for government. But we also know that there are some things, important things, that we can only achieve together through government, that our liberty can only be realized through a healthy political community and inclusive society. Throwing up our hands in despair or turning our backs to government makes no sense given what has been achieved and is simply too risky given the challenges ahead.

Of course, hope is pretty empty if we do not seek new ways to solve our problems, new ways to make the institutions of democracy work for us. This probably means revitalizing the Party system so that our political parties are more than contests between people but contests among ideas. This probably means revitalizing our electoral system so that voices too often excluded are heard. This probably means revitalizing our Parliament as the place where the great debates about our future happen at least from time to time. This probably means revitalizing our public and foreign service and restoring policy capacity in government and in Canadian society in a way that cuts across institutions and disciplines and generations and cultures and countries. And much more. Not all at once of course but “the age of the blow up” probably demands that we reengage not despair or disengage.

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