Part 2: Reclaiming the Public Interest in Canada

The outline of both a sustainable ecological future and a more equitable political economy will only emerge when new collaborative approaches and public-spirited incentive systems replace the perverse, winner-take-all logic favored by those interests committed to business-as-usual policies.  In this regard, three policy and institutional changes are required if we are to dislodge the baleful grip of neoliberal financial and energy interests on the Canadian political system.  They are ambitious and represent a significant departure from our present path but, collectively, they embody the kind of change that is long overdue.

Do No Harm (Setting Economic Limits within Natural and Politically Agreed Ones):

‘Privatizing the profit, while socializing the cost,’ has become the accepted creed of the modern capitalist economy.  Business enterprises are accountable only to their shareholders, and hence narrowly pursue their own utility and profit, while paying little heed to the direct and indirect costs that they impose on society or the environment. In 1950, a far-sighted German-American economist, Karl Kapp, identified this deficiency at the heart of the capitalist model in his book, The Social Costs of Private Enterprise.  For Kapp, ‘social costs’ denoted “all those harmful consequences and damages which other persons or the community sustain as a result of productive processes, and for which private entrepreneurs are not held accountable.”   In practice, markets socialize costs to third parties, to future generations and to society at large. Governments have historically turned a blind eye to these ‘market failures’ arguing that high levels of productivity, technical progress or the flow of consumer goods resulting from commercial processes, justify this omission.

While some companies, needing a measure of ‘social license’ from the public, choose to embrace pseudo solutions such as the Triple Bottom Line or the increasingly empty notion of ‘sustainability commitments,’ many more are indifferent to the impact of their activities.  Political and corporate elites talk earnestly of the need to address social-environmental problems and crises – what they term as ‘dis-amenities’ –  yet do so by relying exclusively upon the constructs of neoclassical economics such as  ‘preferences’, ‘utilities’ and ‘opportunity costs.’  In other words, the attempt to quantify the so-called “externalities” caused by production or consumption of certain goods and services is embedded within a flawed framework of what some British writers have termed ‘economic calculative rationalism.’   This approach rests on the idea that, in order to alleviate these social or external costs, we need first to put a monetary ($) value on the injury, pollution or risk, and the cost of remedying such factors sustained, respectively, by the individual concerned and the firm or polluter responsible.  However, because the ‘cost-benefit methodology’ arbitrarily assigns market values to certain original human needs or environmental characteristics, Kapp asserts that it is not “cognitively responsible.”  In Kapp’s words:

The basically questionable point of departure consists in the fact that original physical needs for rest, clean air, non-polluted water and health as well the inviolability of the individual are being reinterpreted in an untenable way as desires or preferences for money income…These fundamental human requirements must not be articulated, nor are they to be satisfied, through the market mechanism.

Kapp makes the additional crucial point that individuals (victims) are never in a sufficiently informed position as to “ascertain the full range of short and long run benefits of environmental improvements” or to comprehend “the full impact of environmental disruption upon his health and his well-being.”  

The public in North America has only recently become aware of the trade-off between environmental/public health concerns and the unfettered expansion of business activities.  It was first raised in the U.S. with the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which brought to popular consciousness the concern about the excessive use of pesticides and other chemicals.  In Canada, we first became seized with environmental degradation in the mid-1970s, with the rise of the concern about ‘acid rain’affecting our own forests and lakes.  Since then, we have witnessed huge, system-wide market failures resulting in the pervasive pollution of the oceans with plastics, extinction of growing numbers of non-human species, exhaustion of the natural fertility of soil, and the treatment of the atmosphere as a giant carbon sink.  This is the predictable result, says Sebastian Berger (editor of a collection of essays on the economics of Karl Kapp, entitled The Social Costs of Neoliberalism) of: “forcing new facts of environmental disruption into the conceptual box designed for market exchanges” and thereby serving “to downplay the significance of the phenomena of social costs, making them appear more harmless than they are…”

To begin to address this problem, says Kapp, we must recognize the systems character of environmental problems and “to admit that environmental relations differ radically and in kind from market relationships.” Upholding the primary nature of original environmental and human needs, says Kapp, calls for “direct participation and the expression of preferences by all members of society” outside of either the market or effective demand.  He alludes to the idea of a majority expression of opinion deriving from a citizen’s ballot or referendum from which it would be logical to exclude market actors, corporate money and private advertising.  Prior to the plebiscite, the public would be furnished with objective data, evidence and facts along with comparative cost studies for alternative goals and outcomes, and the modalities for preserving a livable environment.  The public would be given the time to deliberate on the meaning and importance of this evidence and its implications for our collective future.  The result would furnish an ordinal ranking of critical environmental and human requirements – what he calls a set of social minima – immune from dispute by market rationalities and profit-driven logics.   This public referendum is necessary because, in the 68 years since he wrote his book, we have amassed substantial empirical evidence indicating that market processes cannot (or choose not to) see, measure or ameliorate damage to the Commons.  Kapp wisely recognized that something beyond the market has to be the final arbiter of the fate of our biosphere and the well-being of humans and other species. He describes the process as a “deliberate collective, i.e. (a) political decision.”  In his own words:

This means that we shall have to face the task of introducing to an increasing degree politically formulated norms into the socio-economic process.  In short we face the task of operating with objective, substantive, and socially acceptable criteria which have been politically sanctioned.

Berger underscores that Kapp is basically saying that “polluter pays” solutions, marginal utility economics, or recourse to tort law, are all wholly inadequate.  Certain environmental and human needs are primordial; that is they are not subject to market exchange value, must not be monetized, and sit atop the artificial construct of financial values, economic doctrine, and data points that make up the market.  Their satisfaction is the necessary precursor to all other human activities.  As current portents ominously suggest, the failure to do otherwise will amount in the long run to ecocide.

Banning For-Profit entities from Lobbying:

The public interest is hard to discern in Ottawa anymore because of the pervasive presence and tactics of organized for-profit interests and their lobbyists.  The resources at the disposal of private companies, which enable them to retain either in-house or external for-hire lobbyists, are of such a magnitude that they have created a serious asymmetry in the democratic process.  The actions of for-profit interests have begun to de-legitimize the very foundations of our ‘participatory democracy.’ As Guy Standing has noted in his book The Corruption of Capitalism, in its place we are rapidly creating a ‘commercialized democracy.’  It is evident that, as levels of disenchantment, perceived powerlessness and, ultimately, apathy, grow within the body politic, organized interests in the form of lobbyists step in to fill the political void.  As a result, the political decision-making apparatus in Canada is now too skewed towards corporate and commercial interests.  For our system to function in the service of ordinary Canadians and the public good, we need at this point to institute a far-reaching and radical reform that would prevent any form of lobbying by any for-profit or commercial concern either directly or through a designated ‘arm’s length’ affiliate.  This would not apply to not-for-profit organizations, charities, voluntary agencies, or other bona fide public interest advocacy organizations. Cabinet members, legislators and public servants, including employees of crown corporations, who have been entrusted with developing policy and taking decisions on behalf of the Canadian public at large, must be made immune from the profit-driven or commercially strategic entreaties of private firms. 

If we don’t get for-profit based lobbying and their associated political marketing and communication tactics, out of our political and governing processes soon, we run the risk of institutionalizing a form of rent-seeking ‘crony’ capitalism that is very far from benign.  We need a governing process that is free from the self-interested agendas of corporate entities and is grounded instead in the politically legitimate concerns of civil society.

Creating Public Interest Councils (PICs) or Citizens’ Assembies:

Mainstream political parties in Canada have been in thrall to corporations and wealthy investors for the last thirty years and the political system has essentially been hijacked.    John Ralston Saul remarked in Voltaire’s Bastards, that in respect of “North American business councils, their every intervention into public affairs has been intended to undermine the democratic participation of individual citizens.” Sadly, the failure of the Canadian political class to explicitly acknowledge this factional development leads them to ignore the real public interest evident in matters such as the alarming growth of consumer credit and its offshoot, the incipient debt crisis of many Canadian households, or the upturn in chronic and preventable illness that afflicts huge numbers of Canadians of modest means. 

As feared by Rousseau, the extreme reluctance of our politicians to depart from neoliberal economic orthodoxy, underscores the extent to which our current representative-based political system has been captured by elites.  It is no longer meaningfully responsive to either the needs of the greater mass of people or the natural environment.  A significant reason for this is that, given the perception of growing issue complexity, we have delegated the task of governing to a class of so-called professional experts or technocrats.  They, in turn, govern according to certain technical precepts or internal logics, largely divorced from the general interest.  As a result, the isolated act of casting a ballot every four years no longer constitutes adequate civic engagement.  Moreover, the current approach to elections, with its overwhelming emphasis on political micro-targeting & messaging, continuous polling, and obsessive media coverage of the ‘horse race’ dimensions of the contest, is substantially outmoded as a means of providing meaningful guidance or oversight to our elected Members of Parliament.  Informed consent, in other words, can hardly be said to exist within the confines of the voting booth.  Instead, our system essentially sub-contracts the citizen’s agency to an elected legislator who increasingly relies on technical experts, specialist advisors or pollsters who have previously focus group-tested various psychographic-derived messages.  The norm now consists of pre-digested policy being served up to individual voters and targeted demographic groups for a cursory ‘thumbs up or down.’ At the same time, our politicians and the senior echelons of the permanent bureaucracy have become highly deferential to corporate and financial elites and their accompanying neoliberal, market-worshipping dogma. Thoughtful deliberation and input on the part of the public – the essence of real democracy– is largely absent at this point.

The response demands a robust return to engagement with ordinary members of the public; a reassertion of public sovereignty through what we might term Public Interest Councils (PICs).   The PIC would comprise ordinary members of the Canadian public chosen at random through a process known as sortition; essentially drawing by lot.   We might conceive of the PIC as the representative of the broader Canadian population or as a sub-set of the group of electors in a given riding.  There are credible precedents for this approach.  We use a similar concept to select juries in trials.  The Irish recently created committees made up of MPs and ordinary people to consider revisions to several articles of their constitution.  They met one weekend a month for a year to deliberate.  However, sortition was most famously the basis on which public functions were assigned in ancient Athens and in the Venetian and Florentine city states during the Renaissance era.   In both cases, historians have noted the political stability that prevailed in these jurisdictions, with Athens, in particular, renowned for its notion of the ‘idealized citizen’ embodying qualities of civic virtue, fairness and commitment to the public good. The Athenian model is also celebrated for its public assemblies and elevated public discourse along with wondrous advances in literature, philosophy, art and architecture, upon which much of subsequent western civilization was based.

This proposal does not advocate that citizens drawn by lot replace our elected legislators but rather that they become, in democratic terms, co-equals.  I believe that we must urgently establish a PIC in every federal electoral district, consisting of thirty randomly drawn citizens.  There would be no pre-selection of any kind for characteristics such as gender, age, level of education, income status, profession/vocation, previous or current political involvement, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Nor would anyone be permitted to be there as a representative of a private, public or voluntary group or interest. The PIC would be endowed with an equivalent political legitimacy to the sitting Member of Parliament and would interact at prescribed intervals with him/her while leaving the casting of votes on parliamentary legislation and other public matters ultimately to him or her. Importantly, though, the PIC would meet independently of the MP, and each citizen member would be accorded modest time away from work with no loss of salary, a stipend to cover expenses such as travel (if necessary) and would be retained for a finite term of, say, two years.  The PIC would be provided with reports, research, data, factual evidence, expert witness testimony and recourse to outside specialist expertise as needed.  Their civic and political function would consist of meeting face-to-face as a group to discuss and debate salient environmental, economic, public health and other issues confronting Canada.  All of the 338 PICs would discuss the same issues, with, of course, some regional variation permitted, at roughly the same intervals in every federal riding.  They would become, in effect, a shadow policy group tracking the more fundamental or important issues that their federal legislators were grappling with in Parliament.  The MP would be obligated as a condition of parliamentary service to meet and consult extensively with the PIC is his or her riding, initially at least twice a month, during which time both parties would exchange views, opinions, findings and recommendations.

In a 2016 book, Against Elections – The Case for Democracy, David Van Reybrouck makes a compelling argument for genuine participatory democracy.  Van Reybrouck’s thesis is simple:

With sortition…you draft a random sample of the population and make sure that they come to grips with the subject matter in order to take a sensible decision.  A cross-section of society that is informed can act more coherently than an entire society that is uninformed.

We are at a point now in Canada where the public interest has been systematically ignored or undermined and our elected representatives, subject as they are to party discipline, whipped voting, the ongoing demands of the commercial media, and the ingratiating influence of lobbyists, can no longer be expected to serve it.  Van Reybrouck offers a way out of our present ‘managed democracy’:

Citizens chosen by lot may not have the expertise of professional politicians but they add something vital to the process: freedom.  After all, they don’t need to be elected or re-elected.

The deliberative process is no longer working as it should with disconnected elites ignoring genuine public interest concerns and elections having evolved to content-free popularity exercises. To varying degrees citizen despair, anger, and apathy/disengagement are pervasive now.  The virtue of the Public Interest Council concept is that it serves to supplement the period between elections with, in Van Reybrouck words, a form of “structured deliberation with a random sample of citizens (which) promises to generate a more vital, dynamic and inclusive form of democracy.” 

If implemented, the three proposed changes outlined above would quickly begin to radically transform the environmental, economic and social dimensions of Canadian life placing a renewed emphasis on ecological well-being, equity and societal cohesion.   

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