Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Fallacy That Government Is A Business

Don Lenihan writes that Canadian politics has been corrupted by a powerful fallacy. Simply put, that fallacy is that government should be run like a business. And, because successful businesses identify and fulfill consumer wants, politics has transformed citizens into consumers -- who expect to be satisfied, and who feel no responsibility for the health of the country.

The problem with this model, Lenihan writes, is that

consumers do not own or run the businesses they shop in. Nor are they responsible if a business fails, anymore than they should take credit if it succeeds. Their role is focused on purchasing and enjoying the products and services.

So, in this view, if the public is increasingly disengaged from politics, this is due in large part to the political class, which has encouraged them to see political participation more in terms of costs and benefits than rights and responsibilities.

From Lenihan's perspective, the Roboscam scandal takes on new meaning. If the only decision facing voters is to buy or reject what the government is selling, then citizens simply don't see or feel the danger that a corrupt government represents. The methods a government uses to deliver or to shut down a service are less important than the service itself.

There is a way out of the morass, Lenihan writes. But the solution rests with our political class:

It starts with recognition that the role of political debate is not just to hold government to account or even to inform the public. It is also to engage the public. How our leaders speak to citizens affects how they understand their relationship to government and, ultimately, their role in democracy. The first step in turning things around is to speak to citizens as citizens, rather than simple consumers.

Ultimately, though, things will only change when citizens stop thinking of themselves as consumers.


thwap said...

you rarely hear friends and neighbours talking about their country as if they were citizens.

"Politicians are crooks." is supposedly some brilliant, truthful insight.

Yet, we let these "crooks" govern us and expect them to do a good job of it. Only when they don't, if they're Liberal of Conservative, we shrug our shoulders.

We've been infantilized. Just as when we watch idiotic commercials where people act like dip-shits, falling all over some stupid product.

Owen Gray said...

We have willingly been sold a bill of goods, thwap.

And, as long as we continue to think of ourselves as shoppers, our democracy will be diminished.

karen said...

My shiny new mayor, Rob Ford in a skirt, bleated about being open for business throughout her very well funded and slick campaign, as well as her ability to cut the fat without layoffs.(sound familiar, thwap?)Laid off 28 in a workforce of 350 just 2 months later. Then hired herself a personal assistant at an undisclosed rate, a fancy-schmancy advisory committee made up of local business thugs and a consultant at $300,000.

Open for business. Take everything we have for your own profit, then get the hell out of dodge. Same difference.

Owen Gray said...

The word is that the same thing is happening at the PMO, Karen.

While 20,000 civil servants are losing their jobs, the prime minister's folks are receiving "performance bonuses."

Apparently, it's good business to look out for number one.

Anonymous said...

We do need to stop thinking of ourselves as consumers.

It would help if they stopped treating us as consumers.

I realize this is a chicken-egg problem of sorts.

I think one step in the right direction would be to "force" citizens to act as citizens more often. More government decision making functions should be performed by citizens, chosen by lot, in the same way we supposedly choose members of a jury.

Allow people to refuse. Give them the resources they need to participate if they wish to participate.

Then... watch things change. (Or not... we need some scientific experiments...)


Owen Gray said...

Some jurisdictions make it illegal not to vote. I wonder if there is any research on how wisely those who are forced to vote actually vote.

thwap said...


That's the way the Ancient Athenians did it. People were chosen by lot to be jurors or administrators.

The groups they were in were pretty large. This was to prevent being stuck with a jury that had been randomly composed of the city's biggest simpletons. The argument was that most citizens were capable, intelligent people.

Don Lenihan said...

Hello Owen:

Thanks for linking to my column in your blog post. If your interested in this subject, I thought you might want to know that Susan Delacourt, a journalist with the Toronto Star, is doing a lot of work on consumer politics. She is currently writing a book on this that will trace the history of it in Canada over the last 50 years. Very interesting stuff. You might want to check out her blog at:http://thestar.blogs.com/politics/

Don Lenihan

Owen Gray said...

Thanks, Don, for the comment.
I enjoyed your piece. It offered real insight into what appears to be genuine voter apathy.

I've been following what Susan has written recently about political advertising.

When consumers expect to be lied to, they generally feel no sense of outrage.