Recorded live at the Ottawa, Ontario relaunch of Cardus—October 16, 2008.
Civic, social, cultural and economic flourishing requires a new and different arrangement of social institutions. The last two generations have increasingly built an undifferentiated society—meaning, simply, we naturally default to fewer and fewer institutions to solve the problems of the day. Today our default is toward the government or the markets. The coinage of our contemporary debate is the left or the right—what governments should do and what they shouldn’t do. The result of this debate has produced the pan Canadian consensus of the last few decades in Canada.
This conversation has run its course. These deep assumptions about the possibility of governments and the markets are simply unable to tackle the challenges we face.
Our blame-game has largely led us to tackle two institutions: the office of the CEO and the government. To be sure, there is much blame to be distributed. Additionally, it will now require much wisdom on the part of our business and government leaders to bring us through this tangled web of international finance, regulated environments and highly complicated relationships.
However, our default of blame has ironically overlooked two other major players. The first is the institutional and governance infrastructure of the very companies that have so dramatically come upon this trouble. They are the thousands of directors across this world who approve the paycheques of CEOs and the credit risk policies of their corporations. They are the hundreds of thousands of shareholders who dutifully attend the shareholder meetings and carefully steward their investments.
The second gets closer to home. It is you and me and our shared cultural, social and economic assumptions about life. Might our cultural values of consumerism and short-termism have contributed to the situation we are in? Might the social lessons we learn in our families, received from our parents and given to our children, have anything to do with credit trends and stewardship? Have our faith institutions and our educational institutions taught us the basic virtues of thrift, of thinking long-term and of the fundamental principles of loving our neighbour when we are making business transactions?
And let me probe deeper yet: can the principles of the market driving our economic sphere sustain themselves without the key social, cultural and religious values that we hold so deeply? My point is that this kind of questioning changes the default blame or responsibility. It differentiates the architecture of our economy beyond the market, the individual and the government, to other spheres—social, cultural and spiritual. And this is the very mission of Cardus.
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