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Shal Marriott: The election is over: Let’s continue to disagree

Commentary

Parliament is back in session, and before it even began parties were already calling for unity. After any election and especially when the result is a minority government, there are familiar refrains of “joining together” to move forward. Erin O’Toole even expelled a senator from caucus last week, citing the need for his party to be on the same page to hold the Trudeau Liberals to account in the House of Commons.

As seemingly sweet as this rhetoric is, the call for unity either within parties or between parties, or even in the public sphere, should make us uncomfortable. To be on the same page or in complete agreeance about legislation or public policy strikes against exactly what democracy and the Westminster system are designed to do: foster debate and disagreement.

It also belies the country’s basic pluralism. In a country as diverse as Canada – one marked by ethnic, religious, socio-economic, and other differences – so-called “political unity” or a “shared vision” is not only improbable, but it’s also undesirable. It invariably means that different voices and perspectives have been marginalized in the name of ridding ourselves the perceived divisiveness of debate and disagreement.

Consider the House of Commons, which is an active space of contestation. There is a reason why the opposition parties and the government literally face off against one another during session. It is not for the petty squabbles which commentators love to get their soundbites from, but rather that Parliament by its nature asks politicians to constantly engage in debate about complicated topics which usually invoke competing principles and values. This ensures different opinions are heard and considered on the most fundamental political questions the government is tasked to address before legislation is ultimately voted on and passed into law.

The House of Commons provides a place where there is meaningful deliberation about what the government ought to do (or not do). Members of Parliament hear and confront the voices of those they disagree with and are asked to consider what they have to say. Whether or not they listen is beside the point. What is significant is how essential these disagreements are to our political system. It is why we elect candidates from different political parties with different values and beliefs.

These differences and disagreements should be celebrated as a strength, not viewed as weakness.

These calls for unity set aside how crucial these fundamental debates are out of a desire to reflect a shared vision. They aspire to a monolithic political community which belies the country’s diversity. Yet we know that a shared vision of the Conservative party, which is fundamentally a coalition of various political ideologies, isn’t fully possible. Just as a shared vision of Parliament, which is comprised of different political parties representing constituencies from across Canada, isn’t achievable. There cannot be meaningful differences or constructive arguments if everyone is expected to fall into line with the same vision of what Canadian politics should look like. Nor is it realistic to expect a vision that encompasses the unique perspectives and positions of the entire public.

These differences and disagreements should be celebrated as a strength, not viewed as weakness. It allows for more perspectives to be heard and considered. It is a sign that our politicians value opposing views, and more importantly that Canadians have opposing views that do not disappear after an election has been called. Disagreements about what is best for a political party and what is best for a government to do should be encouraged, with the hope that ultimately the best arguments will be victorious.

Not only is dissent an important value for the politicians on Parliament Hill, but it is also a crucial part of the broader public sphere. Surely not everyone is watching C-SPAN, but the spirit of these debates is one we should aspire to. The idea of the public sphere as a space of contestation itself goes back to Aristotle and is one of the reasons why democracy as a type of government works. The public sphere fosters, or should foster, constant disagreement about the affairs of political life. We shouldn’t shy away from these discussions or be tempted to forget the relevance of where we disagree in an attempt to have more productive conversations.

In his book The Death of Politics, the author and former presidential speechwriter Peter Wehner argued that the ability to have these kinds of disagreements is a sign of a society’s strength.

“The task of politics is to live peaceably with our differences and for people to find appropriate outlets for their views to be heard and represented,” writes Wehner. “A healthy politics has as its goal not a civic nirvana where we all just get along, but a nation with enough sense of unity and common purpose to accept and overcome our differences – and where deep differences do exist, to debate them with words rather than fists or billy clubs or bullets, in ways that are characterized by intellectual rather than physical conflict.”

Debates are easy to observe during election seasons. Parties hold conventions before the writ drops where they contest planks of their platform. People wear different coloured pins, they vote for different candidates, they might even debate at the bar who they think the next Prime Minister should be. Yet after an election is over, there is a temptation to want to stop disagreeing. To say that for the sake of the party or the country, there needs to be a shared vision of political life moving forward. What these calls obscure is the value of these debates in the first place and why they are important for the country.

Canadians will always disagree about politics. This is a feature of the system we have, not a bug. The goal should not be to agree or to aspire towards a utopian vision of politics where everyone shares the same views. We should hold firm to our beliefs, genuinely hear the opposing positions of others, and continue to have meaningful conversations about the different directions the government should take. Canadians should strive to embrace disagreement, recognizing that it allows us to share different ideas about political life and helps to create a discourse where more voices are able to be heard.

Sean Speer: The next political divide may be between drivers of history and mere observers

Commentary

We’ve published two Hub Dialogues so far this week and while both conversations are fascinating, they might seem like a funny pair. They don’t outwardly have a lot in common. They’re quite different thinkers on different topics with different tones and perspectives. 

The first one was with long-time Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman on his latest book about the relationship between eighteenth-century religious ideas and values and the rise of modern Western economics. Professor Friedman is scholarly and dispassionate. His book is a pure intellectual exercise in which new and interesting knowledge is the ultimate purpose. 

The second dialogue was with public intellectual and iconoclast Michael Shellenberger on his provocative book, San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities. While Shellenberger is highly credentialed and broadly empirical, he also has a well-earned reputation as a citizen journalist and a passionate advocate for his point-of-view. He doesn’t write merely for knowledge’s sake. He also aims to provoke, engage, and ultimately shape contemporary political debates. 

The 77-year-old Friedman doesn’t have a Twitter account. Shellenberger tweets daily for his more than 150,000 followers. In journalistic terms, if Friedman is the New York Times, then Shellenberger is Substack. 

Yet, notwithstanding these differences, there is a common theme that runs through both dialogues. It is the notion of human agency: what Friedman calls the “possibilities of human choice, human action, and human decisions.”

In his book, he observes that Protestant views about human agency and individual autonomy gave rise to Western economics in the Adam Smith tradition. A religious worldview that granted a role for individuals to shape their own lives and the world around them was far more conducive to the conception of modern capitalism than the predestinarian religious thinking that had predated it. 

Shellenberger takes up the question of human agency when he discusses the failure of progressive policymaking to address the drug crisis in San Francisco. He argues that the prevailing views in favour of safe injection sites, government-provided safe supply, and a general permissive to public drug use presumes that both policymakers and addicts are helpless to address the underlying issues and the only option is to supply addicts with access to drugs. Shellenberger describes these policy developments as the outgrowth of a “victim ideology” whereby traditional ideas about human agency and personal responsibility have increasingly been replaced by a crude binary between victims and oppressors. 

Drug policy isn’t the only area in which he’s been critical of modern society’s diminished sense of human agency. In his previous articles and books on climate change, Shellenberger has consistently challenged those in the degrowth movement who believe that the only way to mitigate the effects of climate change is to have the human race accept stagnant or declining living standards. His alternative argument is that we have the means in innovation and technology (including nuclear energy) to address climate change without sacrificing our living standards in the developed world or the process of pulling people out of poverty in the developing world. 

The upshot: although Friedman and Shellenberger may not outwardly have a lot in common, they both place human agency at the centre of their understanding of culture, economics, and politics. 

That perspective seems to be in diminished standing these days. So much of our popular discourse on a number of issues starts from the premise that there’s not much that we can do as individuals or collectively to address problems or shape outcomes. We seem to be living in something of a Marxist ascendancy in which there’s a prevailing assumption that our present and future conditions are functions of big, impersonal, and structural forces that will invariably overwhelm the choices and actions of individuals. 

This modern version isn’t necessarily statist, though it may ultimately prove to be. It’s instead found expression in the rise of identity politics which organizes society according to a set of immutable characteristics such as race, gender, age, and sexual orientation. This line of thinking is gaining much greater ground—particularly in major institutions such as large companies, news media, and schools—than Marxist-inspired economics ever did. Recent cases at Yale law school, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, and various Silicon Valley firms reflect the growing fecundity of what are sometimes described as  “structuralist” ideas.  

The human agency side of the spectrum has a built-in advantage over the structuralists.

The basic premise is that individuals are fundamentally defined by these immutable characteristics. This structuralist worldview then presupposes that there are inherent limits on one’s ability to separate him or herself from their particular identity group. Regardless of our individual talents or efforts, we must accept that our lives are subject to these structural forces outside of our control. 

If one aggregates these individual expressions of identity politics across the broader economy and society, it may help to explain the stagnation and sense of a diminished future that permeates the modern age. If no one controls his or her fate—if talent and effort do not ultimately matter—then what’s the point? No wonder we’ve thrown ourselves into the virtual worlds of online video games and pornography. Those virtual mediums at least provide a fleeting if not false sense of control over own’s choices and actions. 

Now one can anticipate the criticism that to challenge these ideas is to default to a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” mentality that ignores the presence of privilege or discrimination in our society. That’s not the case at all. There are of course limits to human agency and personal responsibility. No one doubts that there’s such a thing as what Warren Buffett has called the “ovarian lottery.” There are often invisible yet powerful forces—including those sometimes perpetuated by government policy—that can make it difficult for certain individuals to overcome their disadvantages. 

At its best, the structuralist tradition forces us to think about how government and civil society can help people prevail over their disadvantages. At its worst, though, as we’ve increasingly seen, it can cause us to be defined by them. 

It would be a fundamental mistake to throw in the towel on human agency and personal responsibility. It’s not only harmful at the individual level in the form of what’s sometimes called “learned helplessness” but it can also have profound effects at the collective level. Our horizons can become necessarily limited, a sense of powerlessness can overcome our politics and culture, and a zero-sum polarization can take root. We can cease seeing ourselves as drivers of history and start to view ourselves as mere observers or even oppressed victims of a self-perpetuating History with a capital “H”.

One gets the sense that the mainstreaming of the latter viewpoint may eventually come to reshape our ideological and political divide. It might precipitate a shift from a conventional Left-Right spectrum to one instead based on these competing views about human action and its influence over the world. 

On one side, you’ll have the structuralists who emphasize the immutable characteristics and structural dynamics that place constraints on individual and collective agency. On the other side, you’ll have those like Friedman and Shellenberger who may disagree on a whole host of issues but who fundamentally believe in what Friedman described as a “more expansive, more optimistic view of the possibilities for human choice and human agency.”

One has to assume that in such a political contest, the human agency side of the spectrum has a built-in advantage over the structuralists. Their message is not only more positive and aspirational but it’s rooted in an understanding of the equitable distribution of human dignity. 

Contrast that with the inherent negativity and divisiveness of a worldview defined solely by race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. It’s not only a broadly wrong frame for thinking about human actions and choices, but it’s such a corrosive idea. What are we supposed to do with that? What will give people meaning and purpose if they’re told that they essentially have no control over their lives?

We’ve had a window into such an environment during the COVID-19 pandemic. People have been forced to give up control over various parts of their economic and social lives and the consequences have been profound. We’ve seen a spike in opioid deaths in Canada, a massive rise in homicide and violence in American cities, and a growing sense of anxiety and despair across our populations. 

These are the tragic consequences of a set of circumstances that have caused people to feel like they’ve surrendered their sense of individual agency and in turn succumbed to a collective aimlessness. The Hub published polling in September 2021, for instance, that showed that nearly 50 percent of Canadians said that they didn’t know what the future holds. That means that roughly half of our population feels like it has relinquished control over their lives to the virus and the public health bureaucracy responsible for managing it. 

As readers will know from The Hub’s founding essay, we are troubled by these developments precisely because we subscribe to the Friedman-Shellenberger school of thought. We believe in an expansive view of human agency and regret that a diminished sense of personal responsibility has come to manifest itself in lowered expectations about the future. 

We’re buoyed, however, by an abiding confidence that there exists a broad-based coalition of people for whom the idea of human agency still resonates. These people will doubtless recognize that some of us are luckier than others or that systemic issues still disadvantage too many in our society. They may even disagree about how best to extend opportunity or address the disadvantages that stand in its way. 

But they can still come together around the basic idea shared by the odd pair of Friedman and Shellenberger: the history of the future is written by people, by us, and our individual and collective choices.