There’s been some kerfuffle in the cybersphere about “radical conservatives” over the past couple of days, specifically in the context of Toronto politics, the city budget discussions, and the overall philosophy apparently motivating Team Ford. (Caveat: that’s assuming that you can call whatever’s behind their approach a “philosophy” at all. I’m not so sure it’s sufficiently coherent or well-thought-out to merit such a description.)
It’s prompted some good discussion, both in the blogosphere and on the Tweeter. You could probably do an entire dissertation on the precise delineations among “conservatism,” “principled conservatism,” “and radical conservatism;” indeed, I’ve been wrestling with this a fair bit over the past few days, but to some extent it’s been overshadowed by real-time events. It’s certainly a discussion worth having (and @cityslikr makes a good start), but for the moment I don’t want to get too hung up on labels. Ultimately, there’s something more fundamental at stake here, and that’s the very notion of the public good itself.
By no means do I want to reduce the definition of conservatism to a pissing match about labels. I’ve been quite adamant (some might even say obsessive, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong) about the need for vigilance when it comes to the meanings of words, but it’s an argument I’ve made already. The last couple of days have made it clear that arguments over definitions are only part of the battle.
So, what are we talking about when we talk about “the public good?” I’ve been meaning to address this ever since running across this piece by Robert Reich last week on the Tumblr. A sample:
What defines a society is a set of mutual benefits and duties embodied most visibly in public institutions — public schools, public libraries, public transportation, public hospitals, public parks, public museums, public recreation, public universities, and so on.
God knows that’s been under attack, not just lately, but over the past three decades or more. Anyone with any appreciation of history can survey the intellectual currents dominating public discussion since the days of Reagan and Thatcher and draw the connections from those dark times to the current days of Harper, Ford, et al. And it doesn’t take much to discern the source for those currents, and whose interests they favour. (Anyone remember the so-called “tax revolts” of the mid to late 1970s? And their more recent echo in manufactured controversies like the “Tax Rage” so beloved of certain right-wing media organs, coupled with an unending drumbeat aimed at enshrining selfishness, insularity and resentment as civic virtues? You see where I’m going.)
Much as I love graduate-level seminars, though, there are more immediate triggers. The need for a spirited defence of the public good occurred to me again this past Sunday during an episode of the Josh Matlow show on NewsTalk 1010. (Yeah, yeah, I know. But Dave Meslin and Shelley Carroll were featured as guests. Disclosure: I didn’t listen to the show from beginning to end.) I won’t even try to recapture some of the arguments from people who called in, but I did post a somewhat intemperate message to @meslin and @shelleycarroll urging them to resist the contemporary framing and defend the public good. Easy for me, of course. I wasn’t there and I wasn’t on the spot. To his credit, Mez asked me to elaborate, and I followed up with:
the idea that public sphere, public infrastructure, public institutions need to be as cheap as possible.
While discussion of that principle has been pre-empted, to some degree, by the travesty visited upon the public library system by Team Ford over the past day and a half, that same travesty underlines the need for a reassertion of the public good more strongly than ever.
As is often the case, we can start by challenging the discourse, looking critically at the underlying assumptions, and changing the framing. For longer than anyone can remember, conversations about the public sphere have been dominated by relentless bashing of everything public per se as inefficient, wasteful, and corrupt — public transit, public services, public education, public infrastructure, public-sector unions, and so forth. Such bashing, accurate or otherwise, has invariably been coupled with the corollary assumption that the private sector is inherently better and more efficient. If the last couple of years have accomplished anything, they ought to have put the lie to that. The financial and industrial elites have been remarkably efficient at lining their own pockets (much of the time with our money), but at advancing the public good? Please.
And permeating this discourse, always, like a bad smell: the assumption that whatever we do in the pursuit of the public good must be done in as cheap, grudging, and utilitarian a manner as possible. Usually it’s wrapped up in empty sanctimonious rhetoric like, oh … Respect for Taxpayers (coincidence? mais, bien sur!), and we saw a good illustration of it recently when Councillor David Shiner complained about the cost of the Fort York Bridge. Matt Elliott’s discussed the intricacies of its revival, but let’s linger for a moment on the implications.
What kind of statement are we making when we insist that public undertakings have to be as cheap and mingy as possible? To some extent, I’ve telegraphed the punch, but for the benefit of the so-called “budget hawks” out there, might as well be as explicit as possible: we’re saying that they don’t matter, that they’re not important.
So, for instance, while in one breath we talk about the value of public education (there’s a whole subplot there about whether it’s supposed to be about job training or enhancing citizenship and teaching critical-thinking skills, but we’ll just leave that aside for the moment), in the next breath we convey our disregard for it by attacking teachers, cutting the funding for education at all levels, and leaving schools’ physical plant dingy, dilapidated, antiquated and poorly maintained. We’ve even elected governments determined to precipitate a crisis in the system, for Christ’s sakes. If those are the value choices we’re going to make, fine, but then we’ve got no right to complain about whatever conclusions our kids draw from those choices.
We can talk about the importance of maintaining public infrastructure, but in the next breath we’re attacking public-sector workers as lazy overpaid unionized thugs, looking for ways to contract their jobs out, and precipitating labour strife. And what do we get? Chunks of concrete falling off the Gardiner Expressway. Sinkholes. Ruptured sewer mains. Potholes. TTC vehicles held together with baling wire and chewing gum. Again, our choice, expressed through the ballot box, but then we’ve got no right to complain about the consequences of that choice.
Again, we’re back to first principles, specifically the whole “taxpayer versus citizen” dynamic. If we want to think of ourselves as nothing more than taxpayers, then naturally our whole relationship with the larger community is going to be shot through with resentment. If, on the other hand, we embrace the invigorating notion of citizenship, with its attendant rights and obligations, then we can reject the toxic demands of the race to the bottom. We can assert a preference for a healthy city wherein public-sector jobs carry decent benefits and pay a living wage, thus setting an example for the private sector to follow. Lord knows, that’s an example that needs to be held up these days.
(And incidentally, could we dispense with empty talk about “the market?” In the first place, it’s a rhetorical contrivance, because there are no unfettered markets in operation anywhere. In the second place, even if it’s not just a contrivance, when was it elevated to the status of an end in itself? If the precious “free market” can’t ensure a living wage and decent benefits and a healthy community, then what fucking good is it? It’s a hollow concept, long past its shelf life.)
It’s time to reclaim the discursive and intellectual turf by promoting and defending the public sphere as something having value in and of itself. It is intrinsically good — not because some well-connected insider can make a buck from it, not because it advances certain private interests, but because it benefits society as a whole. It enhances our sense of community, it facilitates our connections and the things that hold our society together, and it contributes to our collective well-being. It’s the concrete realization that we are part of something that’s greater than ourselves, that we can accomplish more by pooling our resources than we can on our own.
Healthy community or resentful atomized individuals? I know which way I’d go.