Friday, September 14, 2007

Fundamental Flaws in Modern Conservatism

I've felt for a long time that the philosophical stream of conservatism suffers from some pretty fundamental flaws in its current incarnation (as embodied by the so-called "neo-cons" on both sides of the Canada-US border).

As a historical note, we didn't arrive at the modern variety of conservatism overnight - it has its roots in the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s. Ever since then, we have seen governments become increasingly focused on money matters, and gradually losing sight of the fact that governments exist to govern people, and that the public purse exists to fund that governance.

More or less, starting with Reagan and Thatcher, the idea of government as business became a core part of the ethos of the conservative movement. The argument became that government spending of any sort was bad, and debt was even worse. Key programs such as education or health care came under scrutiny and massive cuts as these governments worked towards their utopia. It is at this point that conservatism lost its soul in my view.

Topics like education and health care are expensive, whether individually funded or publicly funded. Effective use of available financial resources is essential to enable those programs to achieve the broader social and economic goals they are intended for.

However, while expensive, education and health care represent more than mere numbers on the balance sheet. They are in fact investments in the population for the future. A healthy population, with adequate access to health care is ultimately more economically productive; similarly, an educated and generally literate populus is going to be capable of greater productivity. The policies of Thatcher and Reagan started a process of dismantling key public infrastructure programs by starvation.

Like any shrub, bureaucracy tends to grow out of control unless regularly pruned and directed. Pruning a shrub is one thing, you still have to tend to its basic needs such as water, or ensuring that it gets enough sunlight. The same is true for key public programs. Starving them at the roots is guaranteed to kill them - and in the case of education and health care, that starvation happens primarily in the form of funding cuts.

We've experienced this first hand in Alberta over the course of Ralph Klein's tenure in Edmonton. Calgary stands as a testament to the penny-wise, pound-foolish approach to the public. In Ralph's Alberta, it became all about eliminating both deficit and debt. In the process, the Alberta government reduced everything to dollars and cents - people and their needs really got lost in the process.

The consequences? Today, Calgary is grappling with existing schools that are overcrowded and in serious decay; we are at least two hospitals short of what we need - and then there's the people costs. A parsimonious attitude towards funding has resulted in wages for professionals such as doctors, nurses and teachers that have not kept up with inflation in Alberta's urban areas - making it difficult to attract new people, and retain those that we already have. Key programs such as AISH have languished, leaving some of society's most vulnerable members in dire straights trying to make ends meet when their ability to earn a living is severely impaired for whatever reason.

So, while Ralph Klein achieved his much sought-after goal of no debt/deficit, and surplus budgets in Alberta, he only did so on the fiscal front - and left Albertans with a different kind of debt - one related to infrastructure and people. To me, this means that government has lost sight of its true strengths - namely providing good governance to the people.

Which brings me to more recent parts of the picture - the emergence of a uniquely loud, strident conservative that almost seems to believe that in a place like Alberta, that they have a right to govern.

People like Craig Chandler, whose recent tirade against non-conservatives in Alberta has garnered him undeserved attention. Chandler's insistence that there should be some sort of political hive-mind in Alberta is reprehensible to say the least, but is merely reflective of a mindset that has passed from ideas into inflexibility. Chandler's brash assertions ( and subsequent attempts at evasion and denial ) do little other than to reinforce the perception that conservatives have become rigid, inflexible ideologues incapable of dealing with anything other than the relatively simple perspective of dollars on a balance sheet.

Then there's aldermanic hopeful, Richard Evans, whose snide condescension in the comments section back here invokes some of the worst of 19th century industrial era thinking:

Solutions? Yup! They include placing the mentally disabled in facilities where they can be properly cared for, workfare programs, allowing secondary suites and getting the city bureaucracy the hell out of the charity business.


Institutionalization? Brilliant. Only the most expensive possible solution, and often the least effective. The most severely disabled can benefit from institutionalization, but beyond those cases there are other options that don't involve resurrecting the notion of the asylum.

As for workfare, that's little more than a form of institutionalized slavery, and the results aren't exactly compelling where it's been tried.

His "get government out of charity business" line smacks of George W. Bush's "faith based initiatives" where Bush has tried to turn over social services to local charitable organizations. Unfortunately, what that does is often hand over the distribution of public support funds to the whim of self-appointed moral police.

As one of the commenters before points out, these solutions sound more Dickensian than anything else - when the wealthy "dealt with" problems by putting them where they couldn't be seen, or simply blithely ignoring the reality of the problems entirely - assuming that "someone else" owns them.

In the previously linked comments section, you find that Evans is bitching about the $6 million or so a year Calgary expends on homeless issues. That sounds like a lot when you have an average salary, but one cannot lose sight of the fact that the $6 million is coming out of a budget of some $2 billion - making it about 0.3% of the city's total budget - that's a smaller fraction than most people making $50,000 spend on entertainment such as cable television and internet ($60/month = $720/year = 1.4% of gross income) $6 million sounds like a lot, until you put it in perspective relative to normal expenditures that many people make without even blinking.

Government in general is ultimately about compromise. There are few absolutes that can be applied, and even fewer that don't have to be bent or compromised at some point or another. Today's conservatives have lost sight of basic people issues, as well as longer term questions of investments that produce long term benefits. Governments are responsible for taxpayer dollars, but they are also responsible to the social construct called society - there are two balance sheets - one fiscal, the other human that must be understood. You cannot reduce people to mere numbers and have a government that is truly successful.

3 comments:

Richard said...

As for workfare, that's little more than a form of institutionalized slavery, and the results aren't exactly compelling where it's been tried.

Care to cite some numbers instead of a biased, open-source, wiki article?

Unfortunately, what that does is often hand over the distribution of public support funds to the whim of self-appointed moral police.

You're assuming that under my plan, "public support funds" would exist. If the city gets out of the charity business, it'd have no need to expropriate those funds from the taxpayer. Can you say "lower taxes"?

Evans is bitching about the $6 million or so a year Calgary expends on homeless issues.

If you're going to quote me, at least be honest about it. That 6 million bucks is just what's spent on the 307 individuals who moved to this city with the express intent of taking advantage of our social services.

Nice try though!

Grog said...

The subject of "workfare" is controversial - it's not at all clear that it is effective - while the World Bank likes it, it also has many critics - my point is that it isn't known to be terribly effective unless you reduce things to something as blindingly simplistic as numbers.


If you're going to quote me, at least be honest about it. That 6 million bucks is just what's spent on the 307 individuals who moved to this city with the express intent of taking advantage of our social services.


Your arrival at that number is based upon supposition - and a really bad reductio-ad-absurdium argument by which you conclude that $6 million goes to people you consider "undeserving".

You're assuming that under my plan, "public support funds" would exist. If the city gets out of the charity business, it'd have no need to expropriate those funds from the taxpayer. Can you say "lower taxes"?

Really? Can you say increased costs in other areas - such as law enforcement, drug treatment etc.?

Take a look at footnote 2, p 17 of this study.

If you are so short sighted that all you can see is "reducing taxes", then you really have made my point for me about the deplorable state that conservatism has arrived at in recent years.

Social Darwinism doesn't solve problems - it creates them.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think today's 'Non Sequitor' sums up in an image what I feel is to be the outcome of today's NeoCon's agenda. The other image would be the same NeoCons being crowned as society's new elite, nobility and so on, with all of the titles, ranks and privileges but of course none of the responsibilities that come with them.

http://images.ucomics.com/comics/nq/2007/nq070915.gif

As for 'workware' we have had that in Canada; funny how it's conveniently glossed over, even forgotten in our history books. Back in the '30s we had wonderful setups that today would be considered in violation of all laws of decency of the western world and were nothing more than slave labour camps. Any pay was clawed back as rent, clothing allowance and such resulting in no pay and with terms set by the courts such as the amount of time to be served these places were nothing more than prison camps, just for being poor and unemployed.

Maybe we should set up camps like these for politicians who are voted out of office, since they're now unemployed maybe they should have a taste of what they intend for those down on their luck. And they can pay their rent, food, medical, and daily living expenses from those fat pensions they give themselves, while waiting a preset period before being re-employed into the private sector, so as to not create any 'conflict of interest' from being in the public sector. Let see how well some of these people can cope after a year's worth of fourteen plus hours days of hard labour in the middle of nowhere, out of contact of family, friends and society, without amenities.

E.