The Ones That Got Away

by Glen

cabalchessYou can always tell when democracy is in a period of decline when there is an increase in volunteerism, charity and celebrity status.  It sounds counter-intuitive, but hear me out.  We have entered a phase where civil society has to pick up the slack from where governments increasingly leave off.  It’s something of a mug’s game, where more becomes expected of citizens than is required of government.

And then there is that third great sector that doesn’t really have to worry about such things very much at all.  The fabulously wealthy, the businesses they run and own, and the financial institutions through which they flourish – become increasingly disconnected from the daily lives of average Canadians and feel little connection to country anymore; their lives are spent more internationally than domestically, as is their wealth.

This has always been one of the great temptations and weaknesses of democracy – especially in a country as vast as Canada with its small population.  It becomes increasingly possible to partake of the benefits of citizenship without ever giving back.  Those who acquired great wealth in Canada feel less and less of an inclination to support the historic social compact of linking wealth with a sense of social justice.  In previous eras the emphasis for the elite wasn’t so much on charity as it was on the building up of the public good – libraries, education, hospitals, infrastructure.  The manner in which this rough equity was achieved was not by grand gestures of philanthropy or opulent fundraisers, but rather by a fair sharing in the tax burden through which wealth was disbursed throughout society.  Participation in this process was both expected and met by those better off in Canada.

We will never be a nation of only millionaires.  In a country as remote as ours the absolute best that could be expected would be a functional, energetic and committed middle class, and in this we succeeded better than almost every other nation.  The elites knew it, understood it, and even appreciated it because the social peace and high employment numbers provided key purchasers for the many products they produced.  More than that, they worked within the system and supported its innovation.  The boom of the post-war years witnessed such an expansion of the progressive state that the wealthy elite themselves shared in the overall expansion of the economy.

The previous two decades have witnessed a great reversal of such a positive development, and this for two key reasons.  Today it is as easy to make money from money in the burgeoning financial sector as it is to actually own something that makes and sells products.  And since financial transactions can travel around the globe almost at the speed of light, there is less and less an inclination for the wealthy to set up shop in a nation, invest in its future and equip its workers. In reality, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to imagine Canada as a real place, with real people, needing real jobs, real research and development, real communities, and real government.  To them, Canada has become a stop along the way rather than a place to plant the kind of roots that lead to investments that cement communities and provide a sense of hope.

The second reason is the rapid decline of the war generation.  They returned to Canada following the conflict and over the course of the next few decades shared their largesse in a structured way that permitted the public good to be better served.  In what seems oddly archaic now, these men and women willingly paid their taxes if it meant that their kids could get to university, their parents could acquire healthcare, if a secure future in later years became a real possibility, and Canada could robustly invest in an expanded humanitarian and economic influence around the world.  My parents were of that generation and they have been dead for over three decades.  Each year the ranks of those like them are depleted and replaced by a citizenry deeply suspicious of taxes, governments, and more than a little jaded with words like the “public good.”

The outcome of all this is now coming into bold relief.  We are volunteering more, giving to charity, and making heroes out of rock stars and billionaires who live elsewhere to escape the tax burden and yet who give millions to noble causes.  Yet all of these efforts bundled up together could never come close to how Canada and other nations functioned when the various economic sectors worked together to broaden the middle class and provide a measure of hope for the marginalized.  There isn’t enough charity to build universities, medical centers, seniors home, ports, high-speed rail systems, a functioning a personal mail service, deep investments in new roads, refurbished neighborhoods, or even research.

Should Canadians become more charitable out of a noble instinct to better those who are struggling, who is to argue?  But should they pursue such an option as a kind of “catch up” for the lack of public investment they will never succeed.  By permitting wealth to avoid responsibility, we are turning Canada into a charitable cause as opposed to a just and vibrant society.

We have a remarkably sophisticated society – something that comes with a land so vast and a people so diverse.  The failure to invest in the public good not only erodes our future, it permits private wealth to avoid commitment, and without a fair portion of that wealth we cannot fulfill our contract.