The Power of Ideas

September 1 st 1997
I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.
—John Maynard Keynes

Ideas have legs in the sense that they are not the disembodied abstractions of some ivory-tower academic, but are real spiritual forces that go somewhere, that are on the march in somebody's army, and that have a widespread effect on our practical, everyday lives.
—Al Wolters

Jeffrey Simpson, Globe and Mail columnist, observed that a shift has taken place in the geographical origin of new ideas in this country. For years, he asserts, Montreal was the nest in which new ideas incubated, hatched, and eventually spread their wings over the rest of Canada. The ideas of Trudeau and company have surely left an indelible (and dubious) mark on this country.

Simpson suggests that recently, however, the nest has moved west. The Reform Party, the Canada West Foundation, the National Citizens Coalition, all headquartered in Calgary, are stirring the ideological winds, claims Simpson, that will shape debate in Canada for the next decade or so. If this is in fact happening, does it matter? If it matters, is it a good development?

Nothing new

The evidence of Montreal's decline is beyond dispute. Economically, culturally, spiritually, and politically, Montreal is not what it used to be. It reached its apex in 1967, when it hosted the World Fair and provided a focus for Canada's centennial celebrations. In subsequent years, Montreal was hit by the FLQ crisis, controversy surrounding the Olympic project, stiff language laws, and a flight of business to Toronto.

The seeds for these setbacks were sown years before 1967 in what is referred to as Quebec's Quiet Revolution. This highly secular movement sought "freedom" from the restrictions and "chains" forged by the Roman Catholic church which dominated Quebec society.

The new thinkers in Quebec weren't really offering anything new. The human inclination to be autonomous is as old as the Fall and always results in disaster. Quebec was no exception. But new ideas and movements do often expose that something in society is not as it should be. The church did play too prominent a role in the daily life of Quebecers, which made it difficult for independent and voluntary organizations to flourish.

An example is the history of the Catholic trade union movement in Quebec. To counter the militant ideological bent of trade unions emerging at the turn of the century, the church took the initiative of forging a federation consisting of the emerging trade unions under the banner of the Canadian and Catholic Confederation of Labour (CCCL). But church leaders did not allow for the proper separation between the authority of the church and the function of the union. Hence, when the "shackles" of the church were thrown off during the Quiet Revolution, the CCCL was renamed the Confederation of National Trade Unions (in 1960) and separated itself from all influence of the Christian faith. Today, it is one of the most militantly socialist-oriented unions in the country.

Suspect plan

The rest of Canada followed Quebec's lead and began to place its faith in the rights of the individual as guaranteed by the expanded role of the state, a view championed by former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Essentially, the view was this: God is irrelevant; people are autonomous and naturally inclined to the good; bad things happen because bad structures have resulted in an unequal distribution of resources. With advances in technology and through scientific, rational legislative initiatives and "just" regulation of the markets, we can create, if not heaven here on earth, at least the society of our dreams.

While much debate has taken place on how to implement this ideal, the basic premise has not been seriously challenged. Arguments have focused on how best to effect the plan; not whether the plan itself is suspect. Differences among Canada's major political parties are hard to notice and often their positions are interchangeable. Witness the Liberal's new view on free trade and the GST. Prime Minister Jean Chretien recently took credit for the GST—two elections ago he campaigned against it.

In this rather mixed-up soil, the seeds of change began to germinate, and the first major shoot to appear was the Reform Party. Clearly dissatisfied with the current state of Canadian politics and feeding on the established theme of western alienation, Reform soon rose to national prominence. It embodied a different way of looking at the world. Reformers were not only against big government, but also against big unions and big business. Its supporters were purported to represent the quintessential ordinary Canadian, and Reform presented itself as a populist movement.

No doubt, the Reform Party represents a new set of ideas. One may debate the merits of their policies, but their approach represents a shift in thinking in politics, economics, society, and the role of government. Reform's view is that governments are getting too large, interest groups too prominent, and the average hardworking taxpayer is being asked to pay for an increasing array of causes he or she finds personally distasteful.

In the Eastern-based media, Reformers are derided for their often inarticulate opinions and ideas. Labels of bigotry, intolerance, and fundamentalism for those who support their ideas are not uncommon. But these ideas are beginning to take hold in the mainstream. Many political commentators agree that the positions now adopted by the federal Liberals were put on the agenda by the Reform Party, including deficit cutting and the new tough stance with separatists in Quebec.

Shaping policy

Shifts in ideas do make a difference, especially if the shift is at a more foundational level. New ideas in technique, methodology, or process are important but are not on par with the deeper changes in underlying assumptions. As the opening quotes suggest, the gradual encroachment of ideas are very significant and need to be analyzed carefully. The worldview of leaders such as Trudeau shaped government and economic policy for a whole generation. The ideological shift represented by Reform may have a similar significant impact.

If a shift is taking place, and if that shift is based fundamentally on underlying ideas, what can we make of its impact on society; not only on politics, but also on labour relations and economics? One of the key changes that has taken place affects the role of government and, more specifically, government spending. Today, only a few isolated academics and out-of-touch politicians and trade unionists argue that government deficits are not a problem. Even Lucien Bouchard realizes that being sovereign and bankrupt is not that attractive and has belatedly begun the process of trying to balance his province's books.

The impetus for this focus began in the West. Groups such as the Fraser Institute, with its annual announcement of the first "tax-free" day, and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, with its debt clock ticking away to economic "doomsday," warned that there were limits to government expansion. Ironically, by helping to ensure that governments don't spend themselves into bankruptcy, these conservative groups may very well prove to be responsible for maintaining many of the programs that Canadians now take for granted.

While the deficit fighting initiative should be applauded, it remains to be seen whether the current restraint is simply a temporary break. Is there a shift toward a different economic order, one that facilitates other players (particularly intermediary organizations) in the economy and in society to do what many thought only government could or should do?

Caution flags

Many of the new ideas emerging are positive, but a few caution flags need to be raised, such as the rise of total individualism and liberalism as represented most clearly by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute. This Institute correctly identifies offensive practices, but it too often offers solutions that err on the other side. Their call for right-to-work legislation in response to the injustice of coercive unionism is a case in point. Yes, there are problems with union power, as WRF has stated for years, but a solution that raises individual rights to a new absolute and does not take into consideration the inherent community aspect of a workplace fails to properly balance the various legitimate interests.

Just as individual rights are not supreme, neither is all government activity by definition bad. Ongoing discussion needs to take place on the proper role of government. Because the state has a tendency to continue to expand, we should have a bias towards less is better. This is not because government is inherently bad, but simply because many things can be done better in the non-state sector by volunteers or nonprofit groups.

Time will tell whether the trend Jeffrey Simpson and others have identified will continue and what the effect will be on Canada. Either way, the struggle for the hearts and minds of Canadians can only intensify with the increasing realization that the ideologies of yesterday are wearing thin. Periods of change are opportunities for the Christian message to once again give direction. May that message continue to be heard in the months and years ahead.

 

Ed Pypker is a former editor of Comment. He currently serves as Director of HR at ATS (Automation Tooling Systems), and as chair of the board of the Paideia Centre for Public Theology.

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