This Election, Let's Talk About the Public Good

07/08/2015 05:36 EDT | Updated 07/08/2016 05:59 EDT

It's been a while, but I've been thinking about the importance of civility as we ramp up for a fall election.

I know, I know -- it's a bourgeois notion, shot through with elements of class and privilege and advantages not everyone has, but at its heart, isn't it really about treating each other with simple decency?

Hands up all those who think that's a hallmark of public conversation these days. It's tempting, of course, to lay it all at the feet of the Harper government and see contemporary events in that context:

But this revived interest in civility plays into a larger notion than the shortcomings of the current government. Frequently, I'm on about the meanings of words such as "conservative" and "progressive," but today it's not about labels or definitions or parsing or semantics, but rather about what makes us better versus what diminishes us.

I'm not about to list the myriad illustrations of the Harper government's disdain for the public interest once again. That's been done, comprehensively, more than once, and it's not what we're here for today. No, our purpose is more fundamental, and it is this: what is government here for?

Back to the notion of the Public Good. Because that, more than anything else, is the business of government -- and of governance. The cultivation of the greatest good for the greatest number. The nurturing of a healthy and self-sustaining public sphere.

For that conversation to happen, however, we need to speak the same language, so let's return to first principles and define our terms. By public sphere I'm not speaking merely of public institutions or the apparatus of governance or regulation, nor am I defining it in narrow binary terms in mere contrast to the private sector. (In so doing, I'm also pushing back against a decades-old impulse to reduce everything to the most simple and simplistic possible terms, but that's another argument.) The public sphere, as I speak of it, encompasses far more -- not just institutions, but the space wherein we interact with those institutions, and with one another. It is the realm wherein we function as citizens, as people with responsibilities to our fellow citizens and to our society at large. It is where civic engagement happens.

Isn't it everyone's interest, then, to ensure that it is properly resourced and treated with respect? What is the point of having a public sphere otherwise?

Think of it as analogous to the environment. When we allow air and water to be fouled by private actors with their own agenda -- profit, power, or otherwise -- the community suffers. That which we have in common is diminished. Whether it's industrial emissions, or lies and malevolent divisive bullshit, narrow interests benefit at the expense of everyone else.

You'd think this would be self-evident, but a lot's been invested in convincing people otherwise. Divisive nonsense like market propaganda, or profit maximization, or reducing regulation to allow private actors unfettered freedom, or whatever. As if allowing entities with huge aggregations of power and money to do whatever they like is inevitably going to produce the greatest possible benefit. Surely history's taught us otherwise.

There's more -- critical thinking, civic engagement, respect for the meanings of words, the role of government, the language of the market, but the overarching theme here is, or ought to be, the common good.

As we head into a federal election this fall, then, can't we resolve to make this our touchstone? To the extent that we hear coherent positioning and messaging from any of the contenders, let's ask ourselves:

Will this enhance the public good?

Will this build a sense of community, of common purpose, of commitment to the greater good?

Divided against each other and manipulated, or resolved to combine our efforts?

I know which way I'd go.


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