A new poll from The Manning Centre shows that Canadians' views of government are becoming more conservative -- at least, that is what Preston Manning says. In response, he thinks government should become more of an enabler, partner and facilitator, and less of a prime mover.
I generally agree with this view of what government should be, but I disagree that this involves a shift away from liberalism and toward conservatism. If anything, the reverse is true.
Progressive or liberal government has always been about the struggle against social forces that prevent individuals from realizing their full potential. In the 18th century it was the feudal aristocracy. In the late 19th, it was unfettered capitalism.
Today, it is a 19th century form of government that still sees the public as passive consumers of its policies and programs. This is what is really behind some of the key findings in Manning's poll. Bringing it out makes quite a difference to how we view them.
Until recently, governments saw good policy-making as the challenge of identifying the main cause behind an issue, then proposing the best solution. For example, opponents might debate whether poverty was the result of lack of education or a culture of dependency. In the end, the winner of such a debate got to use government's resources and powers to implement their preferred solution. To the victor went the spoils.
This winner-take-all approach to policy-making is changing. Policy-makers now routinely describe key issues as "wicked" or "complex." To say that an issue like poverty is complex is to say that it has many causes, not just one. These might include a lack of education AND a culture of dependency.
Indeed, poverty usually involves a host of causes, such cultural or gender barriers, illness, lack of opportunity, technological change, economic shock, or a range of other things, including causes not yet recognized.
Furthermore, these causes interact in complex and often surprising ways, which, in turn, means the solutions usually require action from a range of government departments, as well as stakeholder organizations, communities and individuals.
Lastly, the particular constellation of causes will be different in different places. Thus the causes of homelessness in Winnipeg, which has a large Aboriginal population, are importantly different from Vancouver, where the problems are often related to drug use.
For governments, this new "holistic" way of looking at issues is the equivalent of a seismic shift: If complex issues don't have simple causes, neither do they have simple or one-size-fits-all solutions. As a result, fewer and fewer people still believe governments can solve complex issues on their own. Indeed, these days, most people will roll their eyes at such a suggestion.
Not surprisingly, Manning's survey finds a sharp decrease in the public's confidence in government's ability to solve big challenges. Who knew?
The survey also finds that individuals are more inclined to rely on themselves to solve many of their problems. Well, if you find that government can't fix your problem, how many alternatives do you really have?
My point is that these findings have little to do with either conservatism or liberalism. They are the inevitable response to governments' growing inability to solve problems. But here the survey might have gone further. People are also increasingly weary, distrusting, and even resentful of politicians.
I would wager that this trend is connected to politicians' continuing efforts to peddle simple solutions to complex issues and to play winner-take-all politics. The inevitable result is public disappointment and disengagement.
This is where Manning is on the right track. If governments can't solve complex issues on their own, we need to change how they work. Governments must learn to engage citizens and stakeholders in helping to find and implement the solutions. In a complex world, everyone has a role to play. I share Manning's view that such a government must see itself more as an enabler, partner and facilitator, and less as the primary decision maker and problem solver.
This, however, does raise the conservative-vs.-progressive question. I said that progressive government has always been a struggle against social forces that prevent individuals from realizing their full potential. Traditionally, such forces have been described as conservative, in the sense that they resist social change and seek to preserve the status quo.
In the 18th century, these conservative forces were mainly identified with the feudal aristocracies, while progressives were those who fought to secure individual liberty.
By the early 20th century, the forces of conservatism had migrated to business, such as the railways, the textile industry and the coal mines. For progressives, the new task was to blunt the excesses of early capitalism by giving government a new role as an agent of social equality. This not only meant providing relief from poverty, but access to other social goods, such education and health care.
The social forces are shifting again. In politics and government, conservatives today should be identified with those who seek to maintain a form of politics and government that treat citizens and stakeholders as passive consumers of its policies and services.
The task for progressives is to transform our system of government into one that promotes empowerment and responsibility by engaging individuals as active participants in the task of community governance.