The Liberal government’s proposed changes to incorporated small business loopholes has triggered a national throwdown that has pitted small business owners, including engaged doctors and farmers, against Finance Minister Bill Morneau and a prominent set of scholarly economists. The debate is hovering over the media landscape like a thick layer of smoke, and Canadian citizens are debating the issue in their living rooms, on the bus, and in coffee shops. What we have here, friends, is a good, ol’ fashioned public debate. So, how’s that going? Not so great.
A well-functioning democracy relies on a public realm in which citizens mingle about, discussing, debating, forming preferences, and communicating those preferences to policy-makers whose job it is to ensure that the people get what they want, more or less. And if democracy is in particularly good shape, those outcomes will tend to be fair and equitable, with no group or small cadre of groups dominating outcomes. In Canada, we do fairly well at producing representative policy and we’re decent at fair and equitable outcomes. We can do better, though, and when prolonged national discussions about policy pop up, we ought to seize the chance to get people involved in a way that builds their capacity as citizens and respects their dignity and autonomy as humans.
The tax proposal issue is already a study in democratic debate, but it’s not an encouraging one so far, for a few reasons. Let’s start with you and me. Most of us have very little time to be citizens. We have jobs, families, and hobbies; we have to get up in the morning and make breakfast, go to work, get to the store in the afternoon, get caught up on bills in the evening, and get to sleep at night. Most of us have precious little time to learn about an issue, analyze each and every little bit of the evidence and arguments on each side, and generate a sophisticated, rational, and autonomous position. So we tend to use shortcuts, known sometimes as “heuristics,” to make up our mind. Sometimes these mental shortcuts take the form of a source we trust and whose judgment we consciously or unconsciously adopt as our own. That source can be a friend, a family member, our doctor or lawyer, a political party, or a professional association.
Heuristics can be awfully useful. Sometimes they permit less engaged or sophisticated citizens to approximate high-quality, educated political preferences and opinions. Often, however, folks will use these shortcuts “off the shelf,” without much consideration of why an organization or person might support or oppose this or that proposal. When that happens, democratic politics is reduced to a battle between partisan forces and interest groups, with ordinary people stuck in the middle as popular opinion fodder, as coveted “hearts and minds”—or tuned out altogether.
The tax changes debate has lined up two sides of heuristics, each on one side of the democratic battle, like an 18th-century European skirmish. On the one side, in favour of the changes, is the government, a few notable economists, and a handful of professional groups, including the Canadian Nurses Association. On the other side, opposed to the changes, are many incorporated professionals and their associations or interest groups, including the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. This isn’t unusual. This is democratic pluralism: groups battle it out, as parties and experts and professional bodies form shifting coalitions depending on what’s at stake at the time.
The tax issue is just accessible enough to be susceptible to competing frames—among them are fairness (such as “People should pay their fair share in taxes”), and economic and professional imperatives (such as “Business will suffer, and doctors will quit or never start if we make these changes!”). Never mind that there each of these competing frames tends to be oversimplified and each could overlap with its opposing side, frames are powerful tools in debate, and they are often used strategically in an effort to manipulate rather than deliberatively in an effort to persuade. That, too, is common practice.
The issue at hand is also just complicated enough to incentivize people to rely on heuristics and ready-made frames when they make up their minds about which side to take. Thus, many people are all too keen to switch on democratic autopilot, which means that interests and experts fully control the debate.
So what? What’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t the experts, the elected officials, and the professionals just Thunderdome it out amongst one another, and all the better for them if they can rally the population by bloody hook or crook to their side? Ideally, no.
Good democracy requires a constant balance among competing groups, including elected leaders, partisan interests, professional interests, and citizens at-large. If you get too much partisan or professional dominance, you risk corporatist or elite rule, which can marginalize and dominate citizens. If you get too much expert-led government, you end up with technocracy, which you might expect is a good thing—let the smartest folks in the room do their thing!—but we disagree constantly about who the experts are and whether their recommendations are good or competent or true or ethical. Even the experts often disagree with each other about these considerations. If you get too much popular control, you may end up with unhinged populism or tyranny of the majority. So, democratic debate requires a distribution of power and influence among these groups, filtered through the political exchanges in the public sphere where we all make up our minds, and back to the corridors of formal power where elected officials decide what to do.
My argument presupposes that citizens can in fact make good political decisions. Because they can. With time, resources, motivation, and a chance to participate, people come up with thoughtful, informed preferences, opinions, and solutions. That’s good for democracy. When one or more of these goods are missing, the quality of democratic debate suffers and so do outcomes. In the case of the proposed tax changes, professional associations and their members are disproportionately driving the discussion, winning the framing battle, and inserting themselves as the only good and true and reliable heuristics for citizens looking for a way to make up their mind. Regardless of whether or not these advocates are right or wrong, the debate itself is not great, and that’s bad for democracy.
Doctors and farmers, for instance—whom we tend to trust and cannot live without—enjoy a structural advantage here, and they’ve mobilized to exploit that upper hand. The Liberals, who genuinely seem to be pursuing these changes in earnest and for the right reasons, have not done themselves any favours, having done a poor job selling the proposed reforms to Canadians so far. For their part, Conservatives have disgraced themselves in their headlong rush into unmitigated partisan thoughtlessness, and NDP leadership contenders have weighed in with a mix of unhelpful side-swipes and slightly more constructive, if heavily qualified, support. None of this helps ordinary Canadians make up their mind about what we ought to do here.
Who’s going to win the battle of the mental shortcuts? My best is the government will entertain the idea of amending its proposal and reaching a compromise. That’s a perfectly fine and democratically palatable outcome—and an example of democratic pluralism at work. But the whole affair will leave Canadians a little more frustrated with and a little less trusting of politics and politicians, and perhaps professionals, too.
If every side in this matter pulled back the throttle on their own strategic interests and committed to engaging citizens in a more deliberative and thoughtful way, something might yet be saved. Indeed, the moment could even be leveraged to build trust and citizen capacity. I don’t expect that will happen, but don’t just take my word for it; take a moment and think it through for yourself.