Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Personification of the State

If there's one thing that stands out in this whole census debate, it's the strange habit of the populist new right of referring to the state as a person or creature. Two comments from a John Geddes blog post at Macleans are worth reading:

From Sir Francis:

Are you quite sure it is the state qua state that produces the tragedies of which you speak? Is it not perhaps the dispositions and overall ethical character of the people who make up the state which determine whether it produces tragedies or triumphs?

From Emily:

There is no such thing as 'the state'. There are only people.
Don't blame anything on some nebulous 'state'....look in the mirror.

In this whole discussion, the proponents haven't been concerned about politicians gathering information on the number of bedrooms you have for their own enjoyment. The conbots aren't worried about John Baird finding out where their ancestors were from and, presumably,jumping into his Delorian, going back in time, and killing them so that they were never born (I think that's what the issue is). They've been concerned about the government doing these things. The government is a creature. At turns, depending on the point being made, lazy, ignorant, and stupid, or, activist, all-knowing, and, above all, nefarious, the government is a villain to be stopped.

Government leads to fascism, or communism (the new conservative refuses to differentiate, mere definitions won't stop the liberal mind), no ifs, ands, or buts. Forget that Hitler and Stalin are exceptions when considering the modern developed state (as far as domestic life goes). It doesn't matter that the Nazis and the Communists were brought to power for the express purpose of targeting a specific group of people. Don't even think of mentioning that the Nazi's base was the same as the modern right's base today. Nonsense! They were all bloody socialists! Government is a creature and, grown up, it's evil.

Yet at its simplest, modern government is simply a pooling of public resources. We all pitch in, according to our ability, to pay for things that benefit all of us. To decide what those things are we elect representatives to decide. To carry out our wishes we hire public servants. However, once a country gets as large and as diverse as Canada, the public loses sight of what the government does. As is the case now, the public turns on itself. Populists with half-baked flavour-of-the-month ideas take this disconnect and wield it to knock down the structures built over a century and a half. Structures that weren't created for the heck of it, but were introduced to fill a need. In all of this, has anyone stopped and asked, why was statscan created in the first place? Why did those that came before us decide that this information was necessary for a better Canada?

The tragedy of it all is that the machinery of government does have a face. Munir Sheikh, a man who could have made a fortune in the private sector, but chose to literally dedicate his working life to his adopted country, steps aside and faces the wrath of the Conservative faithful for doing his job.


  1. However, once a country gets as large and as diverse as Canada, the public loses sight of what the government does.

    It is this point that causes me to wonder if China could ever be a successful democracy? The sheer scale of that endeavor is mind boggling.

    The same problem occurs in the corporate world too. Once a company becomes big enough, employees (and hell the employers) lose sight of the goals and start working at cross purposes.

    I don't have any answers, but it appears to me that us humans have an issue with managing large social constructs. By and large, we do succeed, despite ourselves. But the dysfunctional aspects do make me pause.

  2. It is this point that causes me to wonder if China could ever be a successful democracy? The sheer scale of that endeavor is mind boggling.

    Well, there's a cultural issue there too. I mean countries without the parochialism of Canada or the United States, like the Scandinavian states, seem to demonstrate an ability to recognize worthwhile common goals.

  3. Shiner,

    Interesting post. I was hoping for a reference to Animal Farm, but alas...

  4. Thanks Tomm.

    I won't lie, my respect for the civil service has alot to do with my personal relationships with public servants, my father, a senior civil servant, chief among them.

  5. I too am a public servant.

    You can imagine the surprise of my co-workers when we talk politics.

    I've gotten use to it. Many of my (Harper hating) colleagues raise important points that I agree with. In general, I have become a little jaded on how issues get turned by the reporters into what they wish to present.

    As a recent example, apparently Montaner's AIDS speech (14 minutes long) was more damning of Russia and Austria than Canada and further that the criticism of Harper and Aglukkaq was vague and un-focussed. Yet the media parsed out little snippets to fuel public outrage rather than present what was actually said.

    I think the census stuff has gone through a similar filter.