Policy challenges and opportunities for the 21st century

As we attempt to exit the pandemic, the opportunity is ripe to reinvigorate our institutions and adapt them to a changing cultural, and geopolitical landscape. This is a short essay on challenges and opportunities for the decades that lie ahead.

Economic Policy and the Dignity of Work.

The world is entering a new era of economic realities. First, in the realm of fiscal and monetary policy, new methods of financing, global interconnectedness, and high levels of indebtedness present novel challenges. Fiat currency now reigns supreme, bitcoin and alternative currencies prevail, and increasingly many goods, services, and mediums of exchange are intangible.

As a result, it is tempting to treat the government’s monopoly on currency as a licence to print more money and increase spending without concern for levels of debt and interest payments. However, it is important to remember that value is inherently tied to purchasing power, and interest payments represent real debts that generate no value, and whose opportunity cost rival education, health care, and social service spending in many provinces. Without a plan to return to and permanently sustain balanced budgets, we are at risk of heightened inflation, and a further erosion of the virtues of prudence, thrift, planning for the future and our ability to protect it for generations to come.

Secondly, technological advancements and a market economy have brought us great reductions in material deprivation and as a result, we are entering an era where material scarcity could become rarer and rarer. However, it is mistaken to see this as a sign of a post-scarcity world, as nothing is free in opportunity cost, and the value of goods and the pleasures people derive from them are both relative in nature. Rather, access to goods, services, and work are taking on a new importance in the hierarchy of needs. With material concerns increasingly being met, we are more and more inclined towards goods that are inherently intangible – the goods of status, recognition, and dignity.

With this in mind, economic policy must be attuned to fostering the conditions for people to pursue ways of life that satisfy their changing needs. Public policy and the cultural narrative around work should emphasize more than just opportunities for advancement. The missing ingredient is dignity and a more expansive conception of work as vocation and service.

By portraying advancement, proportional representation among groups, and achievement of power as desiderata, a person’s dignity is reduced to an outcome, rendering only certain careers and goals desirable, and closing off the possibility of recognizing one’s inherent worth in the development of one’s own capabilities in a unique role. Rather than promote the view that upward social mobility, white collar jobs, and statistical equality between identity groups in different types of professions are the keys to the good life, it would be wise to spend time articulating the value of every calling and sector of work – official and unofficial.

Everyone has something to give. By offering their talents through monetary and non-monetary work in the public and private spheres of life, people draw a sense of dignity and purpose from providing for others, doing it well, and treating that work or service as a vocation. To that end, reorienting government funding to a wider array of jobs, as well as providing the opportunity for people to engage in non-monetary caregiving will do much to meet the timeless human need for dignity that is taking on new forms today.

The Rule of Law and the Charter – Rights and Corresponding Duties

In a world where positive rights proliferate, the negative rights upon which our Charter is based have already been significantly undermined. There can be no doubt that a focus on individual rights has weakened social solidarity by overemphasizing autonomy at the expense of social obligation. However, making common goods the subject of rights claims erodes the very meaning and effect of a right in the first place, which is the protection of a sphere of individual freedom and the family unit.

To protect the sphere of the local, the familial, and the individual, it is important to attempt to enshrine property rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. By having a firm defence of property guaranteed in the Charter, power and opportunity can be more widely spread, rather than concentrated in the hands of the few – usurped by government agencies through tax-funded public monopolies, and large corporations that seek rents through lobbying and subsidies.

Changing Demographics: an aging population, pension reform and the future of our public services

As our population declines due to changing gender roles and an overemphasis on work at the expense of family, care, friendship, and civil society, it is important to have plans to meet this challenge. Immigration is but a stop gap, as second-generation immigrants assimilate and adopt the values and lifestyle of a largely materialist, and secular Canada. Barring unforeseen changes, it looks as though birth rates are set to continue to decline, and our public services may soon be unsustainable.[1]

A bold rethink of the way we fund pensions and public services is needed. The universal availability of the welfare system, public health, education and pensions are great achievements. In order to maintain their universal quality, save the system from collapsing under its own weight, and improve it by providing more choice for Canadians, it is crucial to explore mixed models of financing and delivery.

There are countless countries around the world who already provide things like vouchers, and school choice, build in ratios for public/private provision of medical billing for doctors and hospitals, as well as social welfare delivery, for example.[2] When the right measures are in place, not only are results better for clients when there is choice and incentives in the mix, but research and innovation is higher and the systems are more fiscally sustainable, all while preserving the universal access and a high quality of service provision for the entire population.

The State of our Social and Natural Environments

The boons of technology and scientific rationality, coupled with a liberal polity and economic system have enriched our lives to hitherto unforeseen levels. This is something we wish to maintain, but it is under growing threat from overconsumption. A technocratic approach to problem solving has fostered an attitude of extraction, domination, and consumption that is unheedful of the natures of things. A proper concern for our environment – both natural and social – cannot come through more technological innovation alone. For, under the mindset of growth and expansion, more consumption of a new sort always fills the void left by innovations that reduce pollution and waste, disease or poverty. In the social sphere, we see friendships, family, and community life threatened by an overemphasis on freedom and choice; equally in the natural environment, this attitude has led to high levels of pollutions, and threats to ecological health and climate destabilization.

The answer to social and environmental degradation can be sought in subsidiarity. The federal and provincial governments ought to delegate more responsibility for the environment and the social sphere to municipalities through civil society funds. Civil society groups can perform aspects of public service more effectively than government entities, given their local perspective, and informal touch. Furthermore, they do so at lower, or no cost to the taxpayer. 

To achieve the goals of local control and service provision, as well as fiscal sustainability, the government could fund grants to civil society groups that can demonstrate provision of socially valuable services of an environmental, or social nature. Such a program could contain offset and tax deduction features. For example, every charitable donation associated with the grant-funded project could be made tax deductible for the organization at an above average rate. Or, for every additional dollar of charitable donations that flow to the organization as a result of the project, the Federal or Provincial government will fund the local municipality at a percentage on the dollar in the relevant public service category in question.

By supporting civil society, we are better able to cultivate the behavioural changes needed to address these issues, in a way that spreads them outward from the bottom up.

Canada’s place in the world is changing. We continue to offer peace, order and good government, a national character that is polite, respectful, and moderate, and opportunity for people of all sorts to call this country home. One can hope that more begin to tackle these problems with a genuine commitment to diversity within unity that uplifts rather than sow’s division, and aims at the common good by increasing opportunities across the board, where those opportunities are tailored to the unique interests and potential of every person.

[1] Stein Emil Vollset et al., “Fertility, Mortality, Migration, and Population Scenarios for 195 Countries and Territories from 2017 to 2100: A Forecasting Analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study,” The Lancet, July 2020, S0140673620306772, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30677-2.

[2] Bacchus Barua and Mackenzie Moir, “Comparing Performance of Universal Health Care Countries,” Fraser Institute, November 2020, https://www.fraserinstitute.org/sites/default/files/comparing-performance-of-universal-health-care-countries-2020.pdf; “School Choice and School Vouchers: An OECD Perspective,” OECD, 2017, http://www.oecd.org/education/School-choice-and-school-vouchers-an-OECD-perspective.pdf.

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