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Ginny Roth: Disregard citizen unhappiness at your own peril, leaders

Commentary

Public policy is about imperfect choices, and it can be hard to analyze the impact of those choices on people’s lives. Disaggregating the data, controlling for the right variables, knowing the causal direction, or even properly understanding when a given public policy choice might have made a meaningful difference (often many years down the line) can become a fool’s errand. 

Successful policymakers must have a broader measure in mind when they conceive of how to have a positive impact. An orientation towards creating the conditions for happiness is the right one.

Maybe that seems obvious, but to our current government, it’s far from it. The Trudeau government has undertaken a series of policy blunders, informed by an incoherent mix of blunt economic measures, disordered libertarianism, and trendy academic social policy—each of which has led them off the path of a holistic view of creating the conditions for human flourishing, away from long-term thinking and common sense, and toward a kind of technocratic disengagement from reality. They’re far from the only ones. It’s a common story for long-serving governments and a warning to aspiring leaders. 

As Sean Speer and Taylor Jackson note in their recent DeepDive, blunt economic measures often fail as proxies for the success of a given political programme. Gross domestic product and the government’s simplistic focus on boosting it as an end in itself is an obvious example. Other analysts, particularly in the U.S., have pointed to young people’s rising incomes to make the argument that young people ought not to be so unhappy. 

But this simplistic analysis (and policy orientation) misses regional disparities and personal preferences, rising inflation, and low housing supply. In North America, it fails to account for the difference between income and wealth, as well as the meaning humans derive from owning a home, starting a family, and providing for it. A government looking only at GDP and forgetting about happiness will increase immigration where there aren’t enough houses or family doctors, roll out one-size-fits-all-childcare to drive more women into the workforce full-time (even if that’s not what makes many of them happy), and try to pressure pension plans to invest domestically, even if it flies in the face of their responsibility to Canadian seniors. 

In sum, economic measures are important data points, but they’re weak as singular measures of public policy effectiveness and ultimate success. 

Working back from aggregate data points doesn’t work for public policy development, but neither does working forward from public opinion, consumer behaviour, or completely disaggregated individual preference. While the Liberals seem comfortable limiting choice to try to increase GDP, they have been intent on taking a hands-off libertarian approach to such serious matters as euthanasia, illicit drug use, and children’s mental health. 

When governments, Left and Right, lose sight of the goal of long-term happiness, particularly as they grapple with new technologies and the tough question of developing public policies to mitigate their potential harms, they revert to a faulty definition of liberty, one which puts pure individual freedom before human dignity. In Canada, losing the happiness lens has led to a 27-year-old with autism pursuing MAID, the funded legal supply of dangerous drugs to addicts in cities across the country, and an unwillingness to limit teenage access to social media and pornography that we know is causing them greater long-term unhappiness. 

Finally, and more recently, government decision-makers and others have been taken with faddish academic theories that, when applied to real-life policymaking, lead them so far away from enabling long-term happiness that they can’t find their way back on a map. Whether it’s DEI-driven university research funding creating the conditions for rampant antisemitism on campus or foolhardy bail policy leading to the catch and release of repeat violent offenders, senior politicians and public servants in Canada and elsewhere have allowed themselves to be captured by trendy social justice initiatives which seem only to serve the interests of the elites who espouse their philosophical underpinnings.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a baby as he visits the Seaport Farmers’ Market in Halifax on Saturday, April 2, 2016. Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press.

And worse, it is increasingly clear these are actually producing harm, especially for working-class people who feel the full effects of their consequences. In other words, these policies aren’t just neutral when it comes to happiness—they’re deleterious.  

It’s not easy to aim for happiness. Political leaders need to think of it as a lens and a measurement and work back from first principles, lest they be tempted to appoint a Happiness Czar, or something equally silly, aping the pursuit of happiness instead of creating the conditions for it. But just as the elusiveness of happiness ought not to deter individuals from pursuing it, its intangibility ought not to deter government from trying to create the conditions to enable it. 

Maybe I’m biased. After all, setting happiness as the barometer for success kind of rigs the game for my preferred approach. Indeed, as I see it, working back from creating the conditions of happiness lends itself well to a traditionally conservative worldview. One which advances a culture of laws, rules, and norms that protect against harm and guard against vice, and which pursues economic policy that creates the conditions for people to find dignifying work, upward mobility, home ownership, and the pride in providing those same things for their families. 

But that doesn’t mean conservatives are immune to looking to the same false gauges that the Liberals have chosen. It’s not at all hard to imagine a future Conservative government fixating on one blunt economic measure, defaulting to simplistic libertarianism, or being taken with impractical ideological theories. To avoid this, I think we ought to take a page from leaders past and aim for a kind of ordered liberty if we want to create the conditions for happier citizens. 

But of course, there may be a better way. And if there is, I would certainly encourage my political opponents to try it. After all, if we want to compare notes, we can always check in on a future World Happiness Report

Joanna Baron: It’s time to stop giving the pro-Palestine protestors the benefit of the doubt

Commentary

At a scrum on Monday morning, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was asked about the protests on Parliament Hill over the weekend where pro-Palestine protestors chanted “Long live October 7” and “October 7 is proof that we are almost free.” As Jews were preparing to celebrate our liberation from slavery at the Seder table, and with over 130 hostages snatched by Hamas still unaccounted for, Freeland could not muster a clear condemnation of those who would celebrate their murder, torture, rape, and kidnapping. “I wasn’t in Ottawa over the weekend,” she demurred. 

A few hours later, after gathering her talking points, Freeland issued a statement expressing “shock and disgust” at the protests. But the fact that she needed time to consult with her comms staff before doing so is evocative of a much bigger problem. Imagine a crowd cheering in approval of the lynchings of Black people. Can there be any doubt that Freeland wouldn’t have found herself similarly muzzled in her response?

As protestors were jubilantly celebrating the October 7 pogroms as proof of their imminent freedom in Ottawa, campuses in the United States have been similarly roiled with increasingly tense pro-Palestine encampments. The campus groups are nominally asking for amnesty for students who had been suspended for earlier protests, divestment from certain Israel bonds, and disclosure of how the university invests its billions in endowments.

Some of the happenings at the Yale and Columbia encampments seemed like standard university tactics. There were exhortations to bring toothpaste, dance shows, and zine workshops. There were Shabbat services led by anti-Zionist Jewish student groups and Muslim prayers. I have to admit, as someone who hasn’t studied on a university campus for over a decade, I have a wistfulness for both youthful idealism and the meaning-making impulse to join up with a cause bigger than one’s self.

But erstwhile defenders of the youth simply expressing noble, if somewhat naive, pacificism, are missing the clear lust for violence on display at these protests. As much as I support free expression, the level of support for terrorist tactics like October 7 at these protests is a threat to liberal democracies that cannot be dismissed as mere peaceful protests by naïve youth.

There were cut-and-dry legal wrongs being committed: assault, including where Jewish students and faculty who merely committed the sin of being visibly Jewish were encircled with human chains and physically blocked. There was a young masked blonde woman who carried a sign menacing a group of pro-Israel counter-protestors as “AL-QASM’s NEXT TARGETS,” referring to the armed wing of Hamas that led the October 7th attacks and arguably a direct incitement to violence and clear grounds for expulsion under Columbia’s code of conduct. A Jewish woman, Sahar Tartak, was poked in the eye with a Palestinian flag and had to go to hospital.

But the most loathsome aspect of the weekend’s horror shows on both sides of the border was the unanimity with which pro-war, pro-eradication of Jewish and Israeli life, and pro-terror slogans were embraced by the crowds. The whole crowd joined in on chants of “Go back to Poland,” and “Burn Tel Aviv to the ground.” 

Two weeks ago in downtown Toronto, a “ceasefire now” pro-Palestine protest let its mask slip when, upon hearing a loudspeaker announcement that the Islamic Republic of Iran had sent 300 drones and missiles to Israel, virtually all those present, including children, hooted and cheered in delight. 

And, of course, in Ottawa, practically the whole crowd went along with gleeful chants in support of October 7. 

These protestors are not for peace, they are for violence— seemingly even beyond the borders of Israel and Palestine. When they say death to America and death to Israel, I believe they mean it.

This truth which is apparent to anybody with eyes and 30 seconds to watch a social media clip is frequently being downplayed as a few bad apples. Special Representative on Combatting Islamophobia Amira Elghawaby tweeted that the “problematic speech” of a “few individual protesters” is unacceptable and contrary to our shared values but then added she was concerned about “deliberate efforts to smear all protesters with one brush. It’s difficult to square Elghawaby’s assertion that it was only a “few individual protestors” when clearly the hateful chants were coming from the whole crowd on Parliament Hill.

Pro-Palestine protestors take part in a demonstration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

Moreover, the pro-Palestine movement has repeatedly failed to purge itself from its continually prominent hateful elements. Not every Columbia student might have been onside with marking Jewish students as the Hamas Al-Qassam Brigade’s next targets, but there has been no public disavowal of this conduct, nor of violence against Jews and Israelis generally. As Bret Stephens noted in the New York Times a few weeks ago, “The mark of a morally serious movement lies in its determination to weed out its worst members and stamp out its worst ideas. What we’ve too often seen from the ‘Free Palestine’ crowd is precisely the opposite.”

This is no accident. It follows from the ideological foundations of the movement which are plain for anyone to see. The main student organization behind the campus protests, Students for Justice in Palestine, issued this statement after October 7th:

Today, we witness a historic win for the Palestinian resistance: across land, air, and sea, our people have broken down the artificial barriers of the Zionist entity, taking with it the facade of an impenetrable settler colony and reminding each of us that total return and liberation to Palestine is near.

In the settler-colonialism ideology, which was spoon-fed to the students at the same elite institutions now scrambling to contain its fruits, any critical assessment of the colonized’s means of resistance—apparently, up to and including rape and torture, and slaughter of innocents—is an unacceptable imposition of white colonizer standards.

Alarmingly, this ideological framework also extends to rejecting the basic premises of a free society governed by laws. Yesterday, Students for Justice in Palestine tweeted out “WE REFUSE TO BE SUBSUMED INTO A LIBERAL FIRST AMENDMENT FRAMEWORK!”

What they mean is that they don’t want to be accommodated within a liberal society, they want to burn it to the ground. We’d best listen and act accordingly.