Saturday, March 7, 2009


Years ago I was genuinely puzzled by people I knew and liked who voted conservative. If they're perfectly nice, ethical people, what makes them so different from me that they vote for a party that doesn't care about people in trouble? What is "the Left" and "the Right," anyway?

Well, to start with, the terms came out of the French Revolution, when the radicals sat on the left side of the government chambers and the incumbents of the upturned status quo, the Royalists, sat on the right.

In the broadest strokes, there are a couple of critical distinctions. The conservative right-wing really really believes in individualism and in the so-called “free” market. Government – regulations, oversight, heaven forbid, public agencies – is a necessary evil, to be limited in influence at all costs. This used to be known as “liberalism,” just to confuse matters … from a time when the autonomy, the liberation, of the individual from restrictive social convention was a new and radical concept. Today we’re more likely to call the right-wing “neo-liberal.”

Sadly, the right-wing definition of ‘the individual” has deteriorated into a caricature of the Entrepreneur, the person who wants to be solely responsible for his/her own income and profit. That has morphed into elevating Business itself as an entity, as a social value to be protected at all costs. As for those people in trouble? They should just follow the entrepreneurial model, and they’ll be okay! See the film/read the book The Corporation. You’ll see what I’m getting at.

Right-leaning Americans prefer to call Democrats and anyone politically left of themselves, “liberals.” Maybe as in, “they’ll let people get away with anything!” because another primary value of conservatives is moral authority – external authority. Rules…that limit moral freedom. But NOT, mind you, regulations that limit commercial freedom. Why? Because profit-making has nothing to do with moral character! So goes the fable.

On the Left, we have a more positive view of government, as an agent of collective values. As a social democrat, I see the tax base as the pool of resources we use to take care of communal concerns. In the conservative view, maybe that should be limited to infrastructure: roads, water, building codes. (You know, those things that help business function.) The view from the Left would add education and health care and other systems that empower our view of the dignity of all persons, whether or not they have money. Some people simply do not function within the consumer market, they don’t directly serve the purposes of profit-making … but as community-builders we want to ensure they have a safe place to serve the community in their own way. Children, students, artists, parents, intellectuals, the physically or mentally challenged, the free spirits and the innovators. On the Left, we value the combination of moral autonomy and communal responsibility.
Socially, Canada as a whole is situated distinctly left of the US. We value social programs as part of how we want to live, despite a minority of voices (unfortunately one of them, the Prime Minister) who are trying to sell privatization.

It’s been fascinating to watch the American reaction to President Obama’s budget. As a Canadian, of course I’m watching closely the discussion around his health care reform … I cherish universal health care as a jewel of a mature society. It is under assault in this country, by the proponents of profit-making. I don’t believe the profit motive is a guarantee of quality – not by a long shot. The current American system is the best argument against that. The right wing will always try to sell for-profit health care – or education, or social services, anything – in terms of “consumer choice,” as if that’s empowering.
It’s only empowering for those with money, and enough money at that. (Which raises a tangle of other issues, starting with a minimum wage, a living wage, a social safety net ... for another conversation!) Some things, some social goods, exist outside the market system – they cannot be commodified, they can’t be exchanged for something of “equal” value. One individual's choices are impotent against, say, the threat of illness or the hunger for spiritual sustenance.

But “individual choice” is the mantra of the current, failed global economy. I'm talking about an inflated value on individualism that has obscured the role of community in shaping our lives.

Nobody is self-made. Nobody succeeds – or fails – entirely by their own resources. The values and customs of a community, whether that’s an ethnic community, a region, a nation, contribute to a person’s failures just as they do to successes. This is the great lie of the “rugged individualism” myth, of the “consumer choice” charade. And I think it’s the great lesson in the current economic catastrophe.
At least, I hope it is.

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