Canada is nowhere near what could be described as a security state, and while our social safety net has bigger holes than it used to, our welfare state has proven pretty resilient even if the term is out of vogue. But the direction of the past couple of decades seems clear, at least in English-speaking democracies including Canada, and that is away from the welfare state and towards the security state.
Let’s start with the decline of the welfare state. Neo-conservatives have long railed against the so-called “nanny state”, though in country after country, time and again, they kept losing, at least until recently. The globalized, hyper-competitive economy, however, has given the critics new life. And when economic hard times hit, they almost invariably play to our anxieties to convince us that we have no choice but to reduce the size of the state and cut or dismantle our health and social programs.
In the seventies and again in the nineties, this became the hit song with its predictable lyrics: we cannot afford the welfare state; it stifles initiative; it leads to uncompetitive tax rates; it justifies big government and threatens our freedoms. How galling must be the consistently high performing and robust economies of northern Europe with their high rates of taxation and generous social policies which continue to yield an enviable standard of living and quality of life. Predictably, right-wing commentators are tripping over each other to argue that the Greek meltdown proves that the welfare state is doomed, that Europe has got it all wrong.
In Canada, our current fiscal challenges and the pressures of an aging population have also given new energy to those same neo-conservative views. These critics invariably talk only about the costs of our health and social programs, never the benefits. But Canadians have consistently resisted deep cuts to these services. They understand that medicare and our safety net have helped contain the worst excesses of inequality and reduced poverty among the elderly, and that they are essential to equality of opportunity and to a healthy, mobile, educated labour force. Calling this the “nanny state” doesn’t change the fact that Canada has, until recently, been near or at the top of almost any quality of life index, not in spite of but rather in large measure because of our medicare and social programs.
Certainly Canada’s social safety net needs reform. Critics from the left are entirely justified when they point out that the promise to end child poverty has never been realized, temporary benefits are harder to get and lower in value, inequality is on the rise again, and families facing real care challenges are increasingly on their own. Critics from the right are also justified when the say that there are limits to how much tax we can afford and citizens are willing to pay, that dependency on benefits for prolonged periods can trap people, that almost any program has some unanticipated consequences. And critics from both sides are right when they complain that the performance of our health care system demands real reform.
But those with an interest in dismantling the welfare state don’t want reform; instead they want to undermine its strong public support, so they jump on any flaw or mistake to promote distrust of government and public services. And, to the extent that we fail to undertake the needed reforms, we weaken these programs and, sooner or later, people’s belief in them.
Especially in these changing, often discontinuous times, programs must be adapted continually. We see this, for example, in Denmark’s “flexicurity” approach which gives wide discretion to employers to hire and fire but provides generous social benefits to its citizens paid for through high taxes. Denmark has continually adjusted its benefits and their duration, giving increasing focus to education and training, for example, to avoid a culture of dependency. Their focus? What works best, however imperfectly, for the well-being of their citizens. And even as the Danes scale back some benefits and reduce the duration of unemployment support as part of their current austerity plan, their benefits are still more generous by far than ours and tax breaks are also being scaled back.
Critics will no doubt point to the current measures as proof that the approach doesn’t work when in fact they show, to the contrary, that the approach works just fine so long as it is tended to and changed to fit the times and address future needs. The Netherlands has yet a different approach that also is continually adapted and seems to deliver the goods. So too Norway, Austria and Sweden. Few would dispute the relative health of the German economy and it was here after all that Bismarck created the foundations of the welfare state. Taken together, they show that, even with globalization, we have significant latitude to establish rates of taxation and the state has real options for how to pursue economic growth that is both sustainable and just, including across generations. Northern Europe has become a laboratory of program designs and of approaches to taxes and tax mix. Their health systems, with more public coverage than our own, generally do better than ours in terms of both value for money and health outcomes. We could learn a lot.
Much uncertainty remains for European economies, including the export dependent Nordic countries, and no doubt more changes are in store for their social and economic policies. But it remains a good guess that the Nordics will continue to balance an open economy with strong social programs and will therefore lead the European recovery. As for Greece, it only proves that Europe hasn’t yet figured out how to manage great inequalities among countries that share a common currency. Nor of course do badly thought out programs work as well as good programs. There are no guarantees. Looking at why Greece was first to be hit may have some lessons too. The debate about why is still raging, but high spending, particularly for pensions, its aging population and widespread tax evasion are certainly a dangerous mix, and an important reminder that we have to pay for the benefits we get and that governments are in trouble when their time horizon is no further than the next election.
Canada’s federal system poses some particular challenges but it also gives us a leg up as we have learned a thing or two about how to balance solidarity and flexibility and how to deal with inequality of regions which share a common currency. For us, just as for the Europeans, a commitment to social programs requires a commitment to their reform. Inattention in these changing times will simply mean further erosion and fewer options for future generations. We won’t find the answers in ideology, but rather in the renewal of evidence-based social policy, in intergovernmental collaboration, and in the engagement of citizens, of civil society, in the moral choices before us, including which risks and costs we handle on our own and which we share.
How about the rise of the security state? Again globalization and the asymmetrical threats of terrorism have given new energy to longstanding conservative views that the state’s overriding if not only role is the protection of citizens from external threats and internal wrong doing. And especially since 9/11, we have seen the significant expansion of our military and security and intelligence apparatus . In parallel, we see the increasing use of the criminal law and punitive sanctions, the tough on crime agenda. Here too ideology obscures real discussion and makes good policy, policy that works, less likely.
Certainly September 11 was a turning point in the priority attached to security and, of course, safety is a core government responsibility, but proponents of the security state have been successful in nurturing a perpetual sense of crisis to justify its continued expansion. Similarly, heinous crimes, however rare, are used to stoke fear and justify policies that all the evidence and experts tell us will not work, in fact will make things worse. Policy is shaped by ideology and justified by anecdotes. So, for example, those offenders who provoke our greatest anger and worst fears are always used as the examples to justify making sentences tougher, reducing judicial discretion and discounting rehabilitation, notwithstanding the evidence. Punitive policies take precedence over proven approaches to prevent crime and reduce harm.
In a climate of crisis and fear, we are more easily sold on the need for ever more “security”, with little if any consideration of the costs. But the costs cannot be ignored, and that goes beyond money. Even more important are the risks to our rights and freedoms and to our openness to others. The benefits are sometimes harder to demonstrate than the costs; it is hard to assess what might have happened had the measures not been in place. But we do know what did happen in Toronto including mass arrests to get at a handful of vandalising protesters. We do know that incarceration without fair process is wrong and risky. Canada already has more people incarcerated without a conviction than almost any developed country and depends on prison as a punishment much more than our European counterparts.
The growth of the security state cannot continue unchecked. Governments should be asked to demonstrate that the benefits outweigh the costs no less than they must for social policy and , to repeat, the costs must include not only the money we spend but the threats to our rights and freedoms. Our focus ought to be on accurate assessment of the threats and on what are the least intrusive ways we have to mitigate them. It is simply not good enough to dismiss the evidence and the experts. They cannot answer our questions about the moral choices and value trade offs, but they can help us understand what works and at what cost. And again citizens, civil society, must be engaged on those moral choices and they deserve the best information to guide their participation.
We have seen in the U.S. today how hard it is to shift the momentum, to provide access to health care for all or to build bridges rather than fortresses. In Canada we should have it easier. We have a better base. But we seem to be vulnerable to those promoting distrust and fear. Perhaps our version of the welfare state has worked too well and we expect too much from it and are too easily disappointed by its failures. It seems too that as we get older, we are more fearful. Perhaps we expect more security from physical harm than is ever possible, especially in a free and democratic society. Leaders who over-promise in either camp do us no service, nor does fueling distrust and false fears or ignoring the evidence. And it is too easy to promise that we can somehow have it all without having to sacrifice anything or pay the taxes.
Still, Canada has generally done pretty well and part of our success has been a deep discomfort with ideology and the simple solution. Our economic and social challenges cannot be boiled down to short-term fiscal consolidation. Important choices will be required and, though we have been little engaged in the political process, citizen engagement will be key if we are to shift the momentum here before it becomes even more difficult or before it’s too late.