Monster hospital

by Aaron Wherry

Some thoughts now on Mark Kingwell’s recent essay, not necessarily in response, but at least inspired by. Andrew Potter has posted some of his thoughts here. Both Andrew and Mark are exceptionally smart and have offered valuable perspective and insight. I apologize for the complete lack of references to Aristotle in what follows.

Turn to page 21 of John Duffy’s indispensable Fights Of Our Lives and you’ll find an editorial cartoon depicting Canadian politics as a seven-headed dragon: some of the heads are named Perjury, Drunkenness, Bribery and Calumny. The cartoon appeared in the January 22, 1874 edition of the Canadian Illustrated News. Our country was, by then, less than seven years old. Five pages later, Duffy describes the 1891 election thusly:

Macdonald saw before him an unexpected and timely opportunity to turn the spotlight away from his decaying government and onto his opponent’s proposal. He transformed the election called for March 5, 1891, into a two-month attack on Laurier’s loyalties, arguing that unrestricted reciprocity was “commercial union” and tantamount to “annexation” by the United States. Macdonald played both of the country’s militant extremes against the middle, hammering the Liberals as traitors in English Canada while enlisting his church allies in Quebec to trash Laurier as an anti-clerical rouge out to destroy Quebec’s Catholic character. It worked. The Tories managed to hang on to their majority despite losses in Ontario and Quebec.

Twenty years ago, a story appeared in this magazine under the headline “Politics of Abuse.” “Many analysts,” it was reported, “say that civility is disappearing from Canadian politics.”

It’s possible that in the century in between, Canada achieved, however briefly, a state of civility: or at least that we were somehow better than we are now. But it is probably fair to say that Canadian politics has never been a gentleman’s pursuit, defined principally by reason, eloquence and goodness. Our politics is inherently and intentionally adversarial. It is populated by people who must first have the ego necessary to put one’s name on a ballot and assert one’s fitness for leadership, power and privilege. When such people are placed in opposition, unpleasant things will occur. Distasteful remarks shall ensue.

All of which is to say I’m not convinced that we are somehow worse off than we have ever been. In two and a half years watching the daily ritual of Question Period, I’ve seen and heard things that have made me depressed, angry, despondent and various other adjectives that would probably qualify me for immediate medical attention. I can recall, on one occasion, finding it hard to remain in my seat and watch, actually feeling the urge to flee the area. But I’m not sure I’d be able to say anything different had I somehow been able to watch the previous 140 years in their entirety.

I don’t think it much matters though how now compares to before. However better or worse or the same it was in the past, it should probably only matter how it is at present, and how acceptable we consider that to be. If we aren’t happy with how it is, that should be enough, regardless of precedent.

So let’s start there. What precisely is wrong with what we have now?

Question Period is, at present, a fairly witless exercise. That members should ridicule or mock another’s position or circumstance is to be expected. That it is currently done so stupidly is consistently disappointing. In addition to its substantive and practical value, politics should at least be somewhat entertaining. At present, there is more wit on display in the average high school cafeteria at lunch than in the average session of Question Period. If I must watch, I would appreciate better jokes.

What else? Is too much power concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office? Is Question Period poorly structured? Are Parliamentary committees insufficiently empowered? Is publicly funded propaganda too prevalent? Are confidence votes misused? Many such flaws in the system could be legislated. In the past week, Parliament has moved to end the blight of ten-percenters and, at least in theory, limit the Prime Minister’s power to prorogue the House. There may even be voters willing to look kindly on parties who show an interest in such things.

Are the Parliamentary Press Gallery and the country’s major media outlets failing the population they are supposed to serve? At times, yes. On this, there is perhaps some hope in the current turmoil of the media business. If, as we move forward, outlets are compelled to focus financially not on advertising but on drawing and maintaining readership and viewership, we may find that what many readers and viewers want is nothing more complicated than better and more useful journalism. If I were put in charge of a paper tomorrow, that’s the wager I’d make. If that failed, I’d hire Glenn Beck to be my managing editor.

Do anonymous web commenters often drag discussions down to their basest possible level? Sure. But no more so than those who enjoy talk radio, a medium that has existed for more than half a century.

These are technical points though. When we talk about civility what we’re talking about is tenor and tone, the way political players talk and behave and interact. And on that, I will actually defend our current state of incivility. Or at least assert its relevance.

The suggestion that MPs should act more civilly has always struck me as somewhat misdirected. Truly civil people, I suspect, don’t need to be told to be civil, they don’t need to act. And, with all due respect to the theatrical aspects of politics, I don’t generally believe that what we see each afternoon in Ottawa is anything less than who these people are, or at least who they are willing to be. However grossly they are willing to act, I’d rather it be on display in an open forum. And for all the reasons to disregard the proceedings, much of everything that you could possibly want to know about the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and various other prominent members on all sides could likely be gleaned from watching a week’s worth of Question Period. Whatever else it is, it is a test of character. Or at least it should be regarded as nothing less.

At the same time, it’s impossible, I’d argue, to separate the politicians we have from the people who elected them (or the people who, in not voting, allow them to be elected). Politicians are, strictly speaking, our representatives. But they are, more specifically, our creations. They do what will be rewarded, avoid what will be punished. They are who we allow them to be. As such, the House of Commons between the hours of 2pm and 3pm, as members gather for Question Period, is nothing more than a reflection of the country as it is. Perhaps we are not often quite as angry or indignant or spiteful or petty. But if the discussion is lacking in maturity or seriousness or inspiration or verve, is it not possible that that is merely an indication of where we are as a people? Would it be at all that unreasonable to suggest that we, as a public, are as disengaged and self-satisfied as our politics? This would not necessarily make us bad or stupid or mean. Perhaps we are merely content and in the absence of urgency, our politics languishes.

Ultimately though, it is us. We can turn away, stop watching or dismiss it all as so much nonsense. We can warn of dire consequences if nothing improves. But ultimately our politics, at its highest levels, is what we let it be. And so it becomes who we are. And until we are willing to be something different, we are left with what it is.

Monster hospital

  1. One of the peculiarities of the Canadian Parliament is the apparent willingness of our Prime Ministers to lower the public's opinion of the political process and politicians if there is even a chance of gaining a minor advantage over the opposition. Mulroney ran over Turner on the issue of patronage and in one of his first acts as PM replaced the sitting Air Canada board with PC hacks. Trudeau beat on Stanfield's wage & price controls during that election and enacted them soon after. Joe Clark seemed like a decent fellow but the misadventures of Chretien and Harper are well documented. (Kim, we hardly knew yah).

    I think ultimately this is at least partially associated with concentration of power in the PMO. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the remarkable tendency of Canadian PM's to have sex with those that follow them into the party leadership. Trudeau screwed Turner, Chretien screwed Martin etc. Perhaps if the power currently in the PMO was at least distributed to Cabinet, a more long term view to political progress would result.

    • Agreed. At least with our backbenchers and those outside of cabinet and the committee process that old altrusim applies in spades. The politics is so petty and spiteful because the stakes are so small. The more real influence joe average mp has, hopefully the greater their sense of engagement and responsibility. But a nasty little streak of cynicism in me says not. The more influence and power all mps have, the more temptation to partisanship. After all, our cabinet ministers hardly cover themselves in glory most days. Not at all an arguement for not emasculating the pmo and turfing a good number of unelected wide boys that are increasingly influential in politics these days. Politics seems to be increasingly about who's most committed, rather than who has the better ideas.

    • One could also argue that the reason the PM has such a willingness is because a minor advantage can translate into a significant shift in the number of seats given a FPTP electoral system with multiple parties.

  2. Quite a rant there, Wherry. Covering the clowns everyday has got you down, eh?

    Cheer up. Iggy's talkfest, the modern-day egghead's Woodstock, surely will be an exercise in civility and all things that nobler minds aspire to, including mind-numbing boredom.

    Let's face it. Politics is no longer about public policy. It's about entertainment. Why else would CBC replace Don Newman with Evan Solomon, CTV give Jane Taber a co-anchor position, and FOX News be the most popular cable show in the US?

  3. If I must watch . . .

    That is your duty.

    . . . I would appreciate better jokes.

    And the fact that you can observe and transmute malice aforethought into prose that both edifies and amuses [Me, at least.] is both your reward and ours.

    Without the intent of any scent of condescension I say, keep up the good work. Caesar si viveret, ad remum dareris.

  4. Beautiful essay. May I suggest using it, unchanged, as the introduction to the The Commons: the <del>Movie</del> Book?

    Politicians are, strictly speaking, our representatives. But they are, more specifically, our creations. They do what will be rewarded, avoid what will be punished. They are who we allow them to be.

    Here, I think, is the paradox. One of the most effective ways to change people is to shame them, and one of the best ways to shame someone is to imply that he / she is letting our glorious past slide into ignominy. That our past was often inglorious, or at least uncivil, is thus very inconvenient, because it robs us of a powerful rhetorical weapon against today's incivility. It would be better to follow Confucius and honour the ancestors — we thus honour the virtuous side of ourselves.

    Dare I again recommend my far-out-there plan for reform of nearly 5 years ago? Perhaps because no one has ever bothered to demolish it, I still think it would solve one key problem: the lack of an audience that must be convinced. With 100 essentially non-partisan votes up for grabs in the House, ministers and critics would both have to do more than mug for the cameras or play to their house-trained back bench. They arguments would have to be coherent, their jokes would have to be funny. Fundamentally, obfuscation and unfair criticism would remain, but no one could afford to do to those 100 votes what they've been doing to Wherry.

    • Unfortunately, random selections always bug me a bit, because random does not guarantee any sort of uniformity.. by its very nature. So we could wind up with 100 people all from Vulcan, SK.. fine town that it is, I'm not sure the average fisherman from Halifax, NS, would be terribly happy with the kind of governance that brought forward.

      Or if you divvy up the random seats by riding, there's other factors.. the random selection could wind up getting 100 devout mormons.. or muslims.. or scrap-bookers.. or what have you. Nothing wrong with any of them as it stands, but our country is made of so much more than that, having the deciding factor in our politics thorougly dominated by one group without the say of any of the others could pose problems.

      • Ah, interesting! I wonder if there is some way to test how diverse randomness is? I have nothing against Vulcan, SK, but I certainly agree it would be weird to have its townspeople rule the country.

        • The problem is that the moment you start doing that, you introduce the debate back into randomness. Why are we testing for this instead of that? Well who made you the guy who decides what we test for? I want this criteria, he wants that one, how do we choose which are the most important? I know we could hold a vote.. oh wait..

  5. "Question Period is, at present, a fairly witless exercise."

    Spot on, Wherry. Politics is adversarial, as you write, and civility is not a goal we should be trying to achieve because the best way to find 'truth' is through argument and confrontation. However, I don't think it is unreasonable of us to expect a better caliber of pol with the salaries we are paying them. I wish they were all Churchills, with his bon mots and clever quips, but we get these sh#t sandwiches instead.

    Boomers and their personal is political/year one/libertine beliefs have destroyed any sense of civility that we did have 40 or 50 years ago. I find our modern pols to be far less erudite and much more foolish than their predecessors.

  6. "But if the discussion is lacking in maturity or seriousness or inspiration or verve, is it not possible that that is merely an indication of where we are as a people?"

    This comment on our society makes me want to crawl back into bed and never come out again.

    If where we are as a people is lacking maturity, inspiration, verve, or seriousness, it doesn't bode well for our ability to properly evaluate and assess ways of addressing the ills that face us – rising health care costs, a staggering deficit, democratic reform, &c.

    It's fair enough to say that things are what they are – but to leave it at that, not striving for improvement in how we approach our politics, and what we expect of our politicians, is the worst sort of giving up.

    It's a fair comment on our society and politicians that we want more civility / intelligent debate / productivity / efficiency &c. After all, isn't wanting more part of that enigmatic concept we call the human condition?

  7. Aaron, very good commentary, although I am not at all certain that the House was placed there to entertain you. If you follow Jack's advice, and develop this into your book's intro, may I suggest you reflect further on: If, as we move forward, outlets are compelled to focus financially not on advertising but on drawing and maintaining readership and viewership, we may find that what many readers and viewers want is nothing more complicated than better and more useful journalism.

    Ask your Ad Sales Department whether "drawing and maintaining readership and viewership" has anything at all to do with selling ads. I suspect they will explain to you that you cannot separate the two concepts as you have here.

    • Someday when these online publications have the balls to charge for their content, number of readers matter more than advertising. The economics of the web are very different than the economics of print.

      • YYZ, you've done it, too, I'm afraid. Number of advertisers matter at all times TO advertising, whether it's a full-page glossy on the back cover of a printed issue or whether it's (to pick a nonrandom sample of this very page on my screen) a "click here" for Walden University, or whether it's Maclean's own "click here for 4 free issues" to subscribe.

        Of course paid subscriptions matter, too. It's just that they and "advertising" are not severable.

    • I read that as the stranglehold of add dependent quality journalism is waning. Most of us would say that's a good thing. Important is, i suppose, what model replaces it. I'm all for better and useful journalism being in the driver's seat, but it is not at all clear where the money is coming from to fuel it. And i'm not sure i share Aaron's optimism. There are an awful ot of people out there who want the Becks and the Steyns as managing editors. People who may have an appreciation for non mainstream pov, but also people who just want to have their biases and deepest suspicions confirmed.

    • What's on the magazine shelves in the store refutes you.

      Count the number of magazines on politics. Count the number on tabloid expose of the week.

      People don't want journalism. People want entertainment. We devote so much of our lives now to work most people simply don't have the energy required thereafter to get significantly involved in anything else.

      • "People don't want journalism. People want entertainment."

        Hammer, meet nail head.

        "We devote so much of our lives now to work most people simply don't have the energy required thereafter to get significantly involved in anything else."

        This is the part where I usually reply, "if you wanted to, you'd find the time and energy". There are millions of people who tell themselves they don't have the energy to get invested in anything else, when the real issue is that they just don't give a flying fadoodle. Compare: those who get involved in causes and activities outside of the office are more likely to say that they became involved because they cared enough or that they wanted to make a difference (along those lines) rather than "I was bored and I needed something to spend my energy on.".

        • Yet so few people do it that I suggest that those who do are actually the exceptions, not the rule. They are the ones who have the time and energy left over, and I don't believe they are as common as you might like to think.

          • Because it's an area in which I've done a lot of research, I'll talk about civic engagement/voluntarism. In those terms, we're talking about 20% of the population who form a civic core. One-fifth is more exception than rule, yes, but it's a sizeable exception.

            A further 15-20 per cent get involved in something periodically- such as a one-time fundraising event or charity auction.

            The voluntarism curve isn't just one curve, it's a three-humped camel; rising through adolescence, falling in early adulthood, rising again after birth of first child, falling again through the child's adolescence, then rising again post-retirement. At two of those three bumps, I'd argue that the individuals involved are pretty gosh-darned busy as it is, without factoring in their philanthropic activity or other forms of engagement.

      • What's on the magazine shelves in the store refutes you.

        You replied to me, but your subsequent text suggests that you meant to comment directly to Aaron's points. Please confirm.

  8. Oh the fond nostalgia of Boudria, Copps et al presenting the finest in manners and witticism during QP in the Mulroney years….shining a bright light on how foolish Canadians were to elect a different Conservative government. Oh! Heavens above…in recent times QP is only a sham when the Liberals are being stonewalled…unlike the full frank disclosure and sharing of cabinet confidences during the Chretien years…the poaching of sitting members to stave off defeat in confidence votes under Martin…ahhh the good old days of civility and comportment.

    • The difference between the Mulroney years and now is that, then, it was the opposition attacking.

      Today, we have a government that believes that sarcastic messaging and constant attack is their primary (and only?) role. Of course, 35% of the voting population agrees with them.

      • And BM had a rather massive majority his first term, followed by a reduced but still workable one…and no 24 hour news cycle and very little gotcha writing and real parliamentary regional bureaus and real newspapers with real reporters doing real research and real editors sending copy back for more sources and very little A1 editorializing. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a perfect time for news, just far superior to today where everything is driven by sexed up scandal stories with little substance that are designed/programmed by 'experts" to increase viewer/readership to drive ad revenues to make crippling debt service charges to bankers and hedge funds who sit in back rooms and count money while destroying the fabric of our democratic system creating a generation of attention challenged monkeys who feel "entitiled" to everything someone else worked hard for. Meanwhile a class of Mandarins who have overseen this decline continue to amass more power and create more rules to make their "moral high ground" unassailable…all while flouting the law as written.

    • '…ahhh the good old days of civility and comportment"

      Did you bother to read the article at all? The tittle was enough eh!

  9. Interesting conclusion that Mr. Wherry comes up with that what we see in the H of C is just a reflection of ourselves. I suppose if we were to examine our individual actions we would see lots of not very civil behavior.

    I know when I read the comments on this board, there are about a dozen folks who are consistently a good read with thoughtful civil contributions. And then there about a dozen more who are almost always highly partisan and even alienating those around them. Though I try to stay with the first group, I`ll admit I sometimes fall in with the incivil crowd, hence an ability to garner minus thumbs with just a Good Morning. Maybe the H of C crowd could use a similar method to judge a Baird or Easter rant…..nah they`d just end up projecting the wrong digit.

  10. I think both Kingwell's and Wherry's attention to the lack of wit is key to all of this (as Jolyon and Connors have noted).

    The idea that things were once more civil never seems to stand up to historical scrutiny. (see also: http://dredtory.blogspot.com/2009/06/when-hacks-a… )

    But there is good evidence to suggest that despite asshattery being a constant, the level of intelligence and wit in debate used to be more robust. The exact reference escapes me right now, but JR Saul examined stump speeches from the 1800s in one of his books (noting that many of these were given to often illiterate rural populations), and I had to share his amazement at the depth and intelligence of the ideas put forward. The age of the sound bite and a society too impatient to think (or worse yet, one that scorns ideas or discussion of any complexity and nuance) has cost us dearly.

    And that scares more than rude, bratty politicians. Manners are a lot easier to get back than intelligence.

    • Re stump speeches and the JR Saul book…

      A book from several years ago (about media and politics, author escapes me at present) made a similar point about the importance of political speeches. I don't recall if there was mention of illiteracy, but it did make the claim that (illiterate or not) the public was much more engaged/informed a century ago compared to today.

    • When the Lincoln-Douglas debates were held, papers apparently were sold out every morning as townspeople rushed to see what the riposte of the day before had been.

      I doubt most college graduates could intelligently summarize those debates now, let alone assess the logic and vote accordingly.

      Something has indeed happened to the social intellect in the last 150 years and it is not encouraging.

  11. Why are some political blog comment boards more "civil" than others? A microcosm of QP? I have my thoughts, but maybe some journalist might look into this – there are lessons to be learned from say comparing a Macleans vs a G&M.

    A slap down or banishment from a blog author/moderator serves the same role as Speaker. A clever put down/retort from one commenter seems to be more effective than an ad hominem. Thumbs? Equivalent to getting your clip on the news – I don't care for them, personally. Associations. Partisanship. Records of past comments coming back to hold commenters to account. etc. etc.

    Worthy of a followup story by some journalist, I figure.

    • Hmmm. I'm not sure we can extrapolate much from anonymous comment boards, nor fruitfully compare them to the utterances of our elected representatives. We are mostlyy unaccountable for what we say, as a rule (one of the reasons I'm not fully anonymous is to keep myself accountable – but I don't mean to slight those who choose not to do so).

      Perhaps on a more general level, our participation unduly reinforces the notion that all perspectives are somehow worthy of consideration (getting back to the whole lack of wit and intelligence in discourse thing I mentioned upstream). That I wake up and think anyone should give a crap about what I think has to be somewhat symptomatic of a society too disdainful of complexity and the dilligence necessary to tackle problems in a meaningful manner.

      Anyway, I'm not trying to be nasty or suggest you're wrong – just my reaction to musing your ideas.

    • Perhaps "hit and run" commenters tend to be attracted to comment boards that (seem to) have a large audience, whereas "civil" commenters end up finding refuge on comment boards that have a narrower audience, an audience that is looking for the reasoning behind ideas?

      Just throwing it out there….

      • I may be delusional, but on occasion I hear an utterance or a position put forward by a politician, public official, journalist that I had previously read on these blogs. Combined with the occasional posting by someone recognizable leads me to believe there is a different quality of readership here as well.

      • SDA has a narrower audience than the G&M.

        Rather than it being a question of the audience, I'd say it is a question of the format and the tone set by the authors. Every single blogger here on this seems more than happy to jump in to the discussion every so often, which is a huge difference than what you'd find at say, a newspaper or a TV/radio news site. Reporters and columnists are not expected to engage with their audience in the same way that bloggers are; the comment threads are on those sites are there as an afterthought rather than by design.

        Here, we have great columns and blogs written by great authors who do occasionally jump in or at least make it very clear they read the comments and this in turn attracts good quality commenters (its about more than civility) who in turn attract more of the same.

        • Hmmmm, where I used narrower I probably should have just used smaller (in numbers). Is that the way you took it?

          I have only visited SDA once (maybe twice?). I didn't stick around long enough to deduce if their audience is narrow in number, narrow in opinion or both, although my brief visit did suggest a certain narrowness of opinion; what's your assessment?

          • I've made two visits to SDA, and generally avoid the place as much as possible. The site has a reputation of being pretty intolerant.

  12. We all are pop culture lemmings led by crooks and lairs who head for the cliff then turn aside to save their skins while we hurtle over the cliff to our doom. Ha, hah.

  13. Agreed…but the balance has shifted (will shift). But I'm aligned with your overall point.

  14. "But no more so than those who enjoy talk radio, a medium that has existed for more than half a century."

    Oh, I don't know about that. In talk radio you have a call screener to take out the wingnuts preemptively. With webforums you have to wait until the mods erase a hideous comment, which may be out there for hours or days beforehand.

    Also, on the radio, people know your voice, and can tell you that they think you're an idiot at the barber shop or Legion later.

    • I won't even charge you the two cents.

      And while on the subject of democracy reform, I have an idea of my own. Democracy must be brought closer to home.

      If democracy is about the individual participating in his own governance, then the best democracy is that in which the individual's vote is proportionately greatest — that is, where the denominator is least. Our current structure, which has all the money, the power, and the glory going to a far-off distant capital, makes people feel as though government is something, well, remote (I won't get in to the absurdity of having a (even if only symbolic) unelected, divinely ordained, and a mere ocean's length away, head of state, as you and I, Union Jack, have danced to that song before) . Fervently sending caps-locked, electronic epistles to Gerard Kennedy's office — in my opinion, the digital-age equivalent of cramming a crumpled message into a dusty wine-bottle and hurling it out to sea — is hardly my idea of involvement in the political process.

      What I am advocating, at the risk of giving that contemptible David Miller an erection, is that our current system be inverted, so that the bulk of authority, which means tax dollars, goes to the city (how is that for city-state influence, Jack?). The federal government would be reduced to handling only that which is nationally necessary and necessarily national, like the military, border patrol, and, of course, owning the podium.

      • Going by your logic, why stop at devolving power to the cities? Take it down even further to the borough, neighborhood, block, or even individual and scrap everything above that. There is *nothing* that is necessarily national and nationally necessary. Even the military can be devolved down to the individual if we so desire — protect your own damn property, and if someone seeks to impose a law upon you that you do not like, shoot them.

        But obviously we recognize that this is an unproductive route to take and that a higher level of government is a good thing. Part of the reason for that is that by coordinating effort aka resources we get more done than we would with a similar amount of unco-ordinated effort (even if that effort is all toward the same goal). So really all it comes down to is an argument as to what is and isn't "nationally necessary", and on that question everybody has their own opinion. Personally, I think nationally necessary is any task where the general feeling of the nation is that we all want a similar goal. If we all want a similar goal, then it makes sense to leverage all of our resources by bundling them together and taking advantage of those economies of scale. Thus in my mind, the federal government should be even larger, and take a broader hand in ensuring that post-secondary education is accessible by all Canadians. That no Canadian needs to go hungry, or sleep in the rain, or suffer debilitating illness.

        But that's my idea. Perhaps yours differ, and that's why we vote for the people we vote for.. in the hopes that they'll best express our ideas and get something that, while it might not be exactly what either of us wants, will leverage our resources to get more of something pretty close to what we both want.

        • I do want to devolve power further, I want as much power as possible to be devolved to the individual. I think individuals should have some responsibility for protecting their own property.

          I don't know what is unproductive about this route. I do not know what you mean when you say that coordinated effort gets more done than uncoordinated effort, to use the emerging cliché, do you think the post office is more efficient than Federal Express?

          What do you mean "we all want a similar goal"? I don't want it. If by "we all" you mean the majority, I have to ask you, do you think the individual should be sacrificed to the state? The one to the many?

          Thus in my mind, the federal government should be even larger, and take a broader hand in ensuring that post-secondary education is accessible by all Canadians. That no Canadian needs to go hungry, or sleep in the rain, or suffer debilitating illness.

          Why do you think only the government can provide charity?

          • In reverse order:

            Because relying on the individual to provide charity means, by and large, that charity doesn't get provided. Statistics show that how much you donate to charity tends to be a constant percentage of your income. Those who don't, don't when they're broke and don't when they're rich. Those who do, do in either circumstance.

            And yet private charity is notoriously inefficient for dealing with real human needs. Ask any charitable organization. Funding comes in fits and starts, but need tends to be fairly constant. Funding comes when things are popular, but need is always present. You want to see what private charity does? Go down to the nearest animal shelter a day after the news has had a story about an injured dog. You'll see lots of people coming in wanting *that* particular dog, and most not interested in even looking at any other animal.

            Also, providing charity puts yourself at an economic disadvantage compared to someone who doesn't. Thus leaving welfare up to charity is a good way to ensure that only those who don't want to provide charity are the ones that can afford to do so.

            Do I think the individual should be sacrificed to the state? To a point, yes. I believe in reducing suffering for as many as possible, for suffering begets itself. But that's beside the point, as I think there are a number of goals that you can say "we all" have.. I mean, unless you *don't* want life, security, and happiness. In which case, the answer's pretty easy.

            What is unproductive is that if you've got a rifle and you're trying to protect yourself from a more organized autocratic group, such as, say, the Hell's Angels.. you're going to lose. Economies of scale add weight. Is the post office more efficient than Federal Express? I dunno.. you show me Federal Express that does the remote northern and rural routes in similar time as the post office. The problem with private enterprise is that it picks only what is profitable, not what is necessary.

          • Thus leaving welfare up to charity is a good way to ensure that only those who don't want to provide charity are the ones that can afford to do so.

            Can you explain this sentence to me, I did not understand it.

          • If you provide charity, you are placing yourself at an economic disadvantage with those you compete against. The greater amount of charity that is provided, the greater the disadvantage. Those who are disposed to provide charity thus place themselves at a competitive disadvantage for the accumulation of capital as those who do not.

            Welfare, or more specifically the taxes used to provide it, negate this somewhat as the advantage you gain by *not* being charitable is mitigated due to the proportional effect of taxation.

            Without this mitigation you would have a twofold problem acting upon society:
            1. The need for welfare and charity would be much greater — those who are disposed to give would be sought out for much more help.
            2. Those with no disposition for providing charity would not have their economic advantage mitigated at all — when combined with economies of scale, this means they would eventually be in the position of being able to leverage their more charitable competitors from the market.

            IE, eventually, those who support charity can't afford to provide it, as their less-charitable competitors essentially eat their lunch.

          • I see.

            Do I think the individual should be sacrificed to the state? To a point, yes.

            It seems to me that this statement represents the origin of our divergence. May I ask you, to what point?

          • You can, but I'm not sure I can give you a solid quantifiable answer. The answer in general is where the suffering imposed on the individual being sacrificed is greater than the suffering being relieved by said sacrifice. And this is further confounded by my belief that we need to weigh long-term effects as well as immediate.

            It's messy, I know. Both because suffering is subjective and long-term effects are difficult to weigh against the here and now (our whole evolutionary make-up goes against the concept, for one.. but that's another discussion). However I think it has to be messy because everybody is an individual and there are no hard and fast lines that can be drawn. (Or rather, there are an infinite number of such lines, and every single one of them is wrong in some aspect or another).

            Just to be clear, I don't propose these things out of some sense of altruism or a belief that people shouldn't suffer (although the latter I have) but rather because I understand that people who do suffer are more likely to do things which expand and compound that suffering to the point where it may effect me.

          • Am I correct to conclude that the point, at any given time, is whatever the majority says it is?

          • No, because again, that's one of those hard and fast rules. And as I've mentioned elsewhere, the saying is "ignorant masses" for a reason. Sometimes the majority wants to do something that will inflict suffering on individuals, or on a group, that is not greater than that which would be relieved. At times, the majority may be wrong.

            That was kind of my point. There isn't any specific point where you can say here's where it's right, and here's where it's wrong, because it's simply not that easy. Life is messy and ugly and glorious and wild and complex and crazy and anything else you care to name.

            Now, I will argue that if you're going to continue to live in a society if you really believe the bulk of it is in the wrong.. then either you get seriously involved in changing it — as in taking every opportunity you have to make a difference, including running in elections and the like, or you get out.

            Any other choice is simply being an idiot.

          • Before I go ahead and do something drastic, I want to be sure my conclusions are correct.

            Now, it seems to me that the issue we are debating is rights (collective vs. individual, origin of, limits, etc., etc.). I think "rights" are a fundamental topic regarding government, if not the fundamental topic. Before I run for government, or decide to search out a different government to live under, I want to know that my reasons are valid.

            I think what you have said is that the individual has rights up to a point. Beyond that point, which is an amorphous one, the collective has the authority to strip the individual of as many rights as it chooses. However, we are yet to determine where the collective gets its authority, except that, as you've said, it is not from a majority.

            But I do not think that a right is a right if it can be taken away. It is a little like having the freedom of speech up to the point that you say something that offends someone.

            So my question to you, then, is this, do you agree that a right is not a right if it can be taken away?

          • I disagree that we have any natural rights at all, and that we only have the rights granted to us by society. en you think about what a right is, it is essentially a promise of a certain type of behavior toward others with the hope that they will reciprocate. Well, if society isn't reciprocating, you simply don't have that right.

            I stopped believing in natural rights when I started believing in evolution for this reason:
            Your parents must have the same rights as you.
            Evolution means sooner or later every form of life on earth today shares some form of common parentage.
            Therefore every form of life on earth must have the same rights as you.

            Therefore a "right to life" has no meaning, as our survival requires we violate it by eating.

            If there is no right to life, then all of the other "rights" which stem from it (property, security of person, etc.) similarly have no meaning.

            Thus, there is no form of natural rights, and thus any "rights" we have are entirely constructs of society. Since history has shown that what people considered as "rights" before turned out to be wrong (eg. slavery), we cannot say with certainty that our own society is not similarly wrong in what we consider to be rights.

            Ergo, there are no rights, and trying to justify your actions according to whether someone has a "right" to do something is simply making something up to rationalize viewpoints that are non-productive.

  15. I've had that song stuck in my head all day now, and that's a good thing!

    "I fought the war, but the war won't stop for the love of God. I fought the war. I fought the war, but the war won".

  16. Oh, and as a Laurier alum I must point out that you've spelled the Prime Minister's name incorrectly in your tags.

    Wilfrid.

  17. Good essay Wherry.

    I'll throw in a couple of thoughts:
    (1) "The suggestion that MPs should act more civilly has always struck me as somewhat misdirected. Truly civil people, I suspect, don't need to be told to be civil, they don't need to act."
    Yes and no. Yes, politely obfuscating when someone asks a legitimate question looks civil but is profoundly uncivil. But heckling or shouting people down, for example, is a case in which the dialogue can be improved by improving the outward behaviour regardless of people's actual intentions.
    (2) Civility fundamentally is not about being "nice". It's about being honest. A civil politician answers legitimate questions to the best of his ability because he knows that this what his job entails, i.e. what he owes to the public. It doesn't matter whether it works to his political advantage; if he's honest, he gives what is owed. Likewise, a civil politician asks legitimate questions rather than trying to smear his opponents.
    (3) I think ridicule directed from the press at our politicians is a good thing; it helps to keep them from taking themselves too seriously, it quells pomposity, and it leavens the atmosphere. But it's most effective when applied equally to all parties. One-sided ridicule merely fosters contempt and condescension. These are not helpful.

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