Another View

Achieving virtue through stinginess

Charles Gordon February 3 1997
Another View

Achieving virtue through stinginess

Charles Gordon February 3 1997

Achieving virtue through stinginess

Another View

Charles Gordon

As Canada’s neoconservatives dig in, and even flourish, it is not surprising that they would seek to develop a philosophy of sorts, something with a bit more sophistication than the Ayn Randisms they learned at prep school.

The impulse behind philosophical neoconservatism, clearly, is to make neo-cons feel justified in keeping their money from being taxed. Government action is what causes money to be taxed, so the neoconservatives must attack government action; the philosophy must be, in effect, a defence of inaction, which is not exactly a concept to set the pulse racing.

In the absence of a lofty-sounding justification for keeping their money, neo-cons are vigorously attacking in the media the values and intentions of those who would spend it.

You might have noticed that neo-cons, whatever their other attributes, are not likely to be drawn from among the less fortunate areas of society. In the old days, when liberals and worse were running the country and dominating its media, people who had money were made to feel guilty for that. Now, neoconservatives own the media, and every day we see attempts to make that guilt go away.

Remember the notion that homeless people actually prefer to be homeless? What a great excuse not to expend effort and money helping them. More recently, with the Liberal government gearing up for an attack on child poverty, there are attempts on the right to redraw the poverty line, so that fewer people are under it. If Statistics Canada sets the urban poverty line at $32,000 and you, the neo-con economist, set it at at $18,000, that’s quite a few of your tax dollars that don’t have to be spent helping the poor.

“If we are asking how many children are likely to be hungry or ill-housed, as opposed to lacking some social amenities, then we don’t have nearly anything like the official rate,” says one report published by the neo-con idea bank, the Fraser Institute.

You recognize the key words there. “Some social amenities”—a lot of people officially classified as living in poverty are really just lacking some social amenities. Visions of social amenities dance in neo-con heads: color TVs, golf memberships, VCRs, ballet lessons. Should we call people poor, they ask, just because they can’t afford golf memberships? Should we spend our tax dollars to help them? A good philosophy can make a person feel positively virtuous about refusing to help at all.

This philosophy of stinginess is most dramatically illustrated in the recent attacks on the Chrétien government’s attempt to mount a mission in aid of the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Zaire. When many of the refugees returned to Rwanda before Canadian troops could be of any assistance to them, commentators, without even pausing to be happy for a peaceful resolution of the situation,

gleefully declared the mission a failure. More significant, we have begun to see attacks on aid itself, with the intriguing suggestion that the blame for disease, starvation and genocide should be attached to those, particularly aid organizations, who are trying to heal, feed and protect.

Following upon that logic, of course, the less we give to help the unfortunate, the greater contribution we make. What a comforting philosophy for those who don’t want to help. Not only do you get to keep your dollars; you get to feel superior for doing so. The neocon dream. In technicolor.

Those who espouse such views like to think of themselves as realistic and hard-headed, but a stunning naïveté accompanies them. Witness the horror expressed by government critics that “political motives” were behind the Chrétien rescue mission. Yes. Political motives are what politicians have. And what is behind those political motives? The desire to be elected. And how do you get elected, or re-elected? By doing things people like.

Chrétien, in his Zairean initiative, stands accused of trying to do something that people liked. That is the way the political system works in democracy. Politicians try to do things people will like. Is this cynical on behalf of the politicians? Well, for 129 years in this country it has got the job done. Recently, politicians have tried to do things bankers like, and economists like, and the Fraser Institute likes. We will see how that works.

It may not. In fact, it can be argued that Liberal governments always do best when an election is near and the thought of trying to do something popular intrudes. Without a looming election to concentrate the mind, they become muddled and blunder into things like trying to cut the deficit.

That is only half-flippant. In the case at hand, deficit-obsessed governments all over the developed world have been cutting back on development assistance to less fortunate countries, though such assistance could help forestall the Rwandas of the future. In the meantime, the applause of the neo-con community goes out to the aid-cutters and only scorn greets the aid-givers.

That doesn’t sound like us, does it?

In Chrétiens case, he acted hastily, in the face of what appeared to be an emergency. Certainly, no one at the time was disputing the fact that it was an emergency. He wanted to do something—anything— and many people applauded him for it. It was a human impulse. When the thing derailed, people began adding up the costs, to set a dollar figure on the amount “wasted.” This too is part of the neo-con approach—to measure everything in terms of what it costs. As the years go on, these people can take more and more comfort in being able to count the money we are not spending. That spirit is not what made this country great.

According to neo-con logic, the less we give to help the unfortunate, the greater contribution we make