Face it. All this talk about citizen engagement presumes there is one relationship that really matters – that between citizens and their political representatives. Great effort is put into cobbling enough citizens together to make the political process take note. It all becomes a convenient exercise because it rests on the premise that politicians aren’t listening when citizens are speaking – politicians “bad,” citizens “good.”
But there’s more to it. At its essence, citizenship involves a sense of solidarity, a reciprocity between citizens meant to infuse the democratic exercise with a sense of urgency and purpose. They must view themselves as partners in an enterprise far greater than themselves, and which entails costs as well as benefits. While it’s common to bemoan the rotting relationship between citizens and the political order, it is actually the decline of citizen-to-citizen partnership that represents a more serious threat.
Why don’t we work closer together? It’s a good question, and at least two clear answers emerge. The first has to do with the increasing fragmentation within the political order itself. Without effective political oversight, citizens correctly sense that their combined or individual efforts have little effect – the politicians will just do what they want anyway. And yet citizens continue to vote in a way that magnifies such divisions instead of minimizing it. It’s an ongoing paradox.
The second reason is more troubling and has to do with the slow evolution of citizen-to-consumer transformation that has come to look on the State as a provider of goods and services we want instead of the great social enterprise which is surely is. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith worried about this over three decades ago, when he noted that a growing group he titled the “contented majority” was becoming more ambivalent about the public space and politics in general. They were displaying the growing tendency to refrain from investing in those public benefits from which they only benefitted indirectly. In a word, they were “shopping” – selecting what they directly desired and bypassing those things others might require for a sustainable life.
Despite all their generosity towards their children, this is where the Baby Boomers failed in their commitment to the young. They overlooked that a great part of the costs required to educate, heal and equip their children were actually subsidized by other citizens through the State. Despite putting money aside for post-secondary training, parents suddenly discovered that it was far more expensive than in previous times. And even if their kids did graduate, the availability of jobs or benefits were quickly eroding, leaving the children more dependent on their parents for longer periods of time than in previous years.
Put simply, while we provided for our children in a private fashion, we failed to follow the example of our parents by using tax dollars and joint citizen efforts to invest in a compelling infrastructure that would be there when the next generation required it. By promising companies ever lower tax rates, and by offering some of the lowest individual tax rates in the country’s history, we left little on the ledger to fund universities, colleges, research, manufacturing, research and development, training in opportunities for international positions in diplomacy and aid, and we cut funding to the arts. The result is that we have companies and embassies closing, post-secondary institutions more reliant than ever on tuition, and the emasculation of research opportunities that strip research teams of personnel and future opportunity.
By being turned from citizen into consumer, we focused most importantly on those things we desired for our daily lives, neglecting the long-term investments that permitted other citizens to invest in our children’s future, just as we did in theirs. The troubled mix between democracy and capitalism has at least produced this – the emphasis of the wallet over the welfare of the citizenry. We treat public policy and its benefits as an option instead of a necessity, and now that it’s time to pay for our kids’ future we find that without the accrued investment of other citizens we actually can’t afford it. Add to that a government that is working every day to pass omnibus bills that cloak the true intention of stripping the public space to the point where it can no longer rise and fight for itself, and you have a future for the next generation that is significantly smaller than what preceded it.
In providing for our children and not for the children of others we overlooked the one essential that could ensure a better future – public policy. We have permitted capitalism and partisan politics to define democracy for us. The truth is that neither of these really has much to do with a healthy future, especially taken in isolation. If we wish to make our more equitable values the true essence of our democracy, then we must pay for them and collectively guarantee their sustainability. They are the true products of democracy, not derivatives, stocks, or hedge funds.
If we wish a truly prosperous future for the Gen X’ers and Gen Y’ers, then must pay the bill collectively that we can’t hope to cover individually. Our parents provided for us by building bridges, hospitals, universities, funding peacekeepers, backing researchers, and placing public duty over private delights. The Baby Boomers became the generation of bar codes and we are now paying the price in public benefits we can no longer afford. That future can be reversed, but only if we return to true investment in the public space and not a smaller Canada.