Alex Himelfarb worries that our state is being dismantled and rebuilt as an ugly, uncaring, police state. The architect of this, of course, is Stephen Harper and his minions who crafted the budget:
This budget gives pretty clear signals of a different Canada, perhaps hard to get at because it is not about building but about dismantling: not dismantling the state—witness the expanded use of the coercive criminal law power and the build up of our military and security apparatus—so much as rolling back the progressive state.
This is fairly typical as far as budget analyses go. Cardus, too, had problems with the budget. We noted that “those who share Cardus’ belief that a renewed social architecture will be enhanced by seeing institutions other than government grow in capacity” would be discouraged by the Conservatives’ approach.
Himelfarb rightly notes that “if there is not much more to a country than the market, individual interests, and local communities, and the territory within which all that takes place, then citizenship and civil society lose much of their meaning.” At first glance, he appears to be on relatively solid ground. Canada is, after all, a state; a political community. And political communities are more than an amalgam of markets, individuals, and territory. But, when he speaks of what does define Canada as a state, he runs into problems. He says that the government’s budget implies
a different view of our shared citizenship, of what ties us together as Canadians across language and region and community. They offer us what I have called elsewhere “bargain basement citizenship”. The new deal, the contract, seems to be that less will be asked of us—less taxes, no mandatory long census, no requirement to register firearms—and less will be provided in services and entitlements.
What are these things that tie us together? What would high-end, well-made, designer citizenship look like? Well, a place where more is asked of us—mainly information and money. There is nothing in Himelfarb’s piece about terms of service to one another. Nothing about rational discussion among these various communities—markets, cities, churches, businesses, unions, schools, artists etc.—about what it means to be human and what it means for these to exist in tranquil order. Nothing about how political authorities might interact with these other, independent and inherently valuable—and Canadian—institutions. No, designer citizenship—a progressive state—implies more taxes, registering our guns, and seeking more government-sponsored services and entitlements.
This might be unfair to Himelfarb. I’m sure his understanding of the progressive state involves more than taxes and information given to government. But it’s telling—and worthy of further examination—that when he looks for what defines Canada, he offers nothing but a centralizing state, moving its moral vision forward. If that’s what defines Canada, he’s right, we’re living in a dollar store’s warehouse. But, perhaps instead of looking only at the price-tag and the name, it’s time for Himelfarb to look at the quality of the weave on the cloth.