L'etat, c'est moi

Russell Wangersky
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I wonder, sometimes, how many people look at living in this country as a privilege, and how many expect it as a right.

I thought about that on an Ottawa street, looking at a black sedan with red diplomatic licence plates, an empty black sedan that sat under a sign that read "Diplomatic Loading Zone."

The car was impeding traffic on the street, the only stopped car on that side of the road, blocking a full lane of traffic, but never mind.

Its owner, wherever he or she was, obviously didn't care about that. It appeared to me what really mattered was not the effect their behaviour had on others, but what slender personal benefit they could enjoy from their particular status.

What does it matter if the street's blocked - or if the emergency room is full, for that matter, or if someone goes to jail under mandatory minimum sentences for manifestly unfair reasons? Just as long as it is happening to someone else.

It's an attitude that seems to be spreading throughout this country, not the least in its political culture.

Elections, at least from the point of view of voters now, are less about how we can make a better country for all of us, and more about what a potential government will do for me, me, me.

Somewhere along the way, we've become a culture where promises of tax cuts trump arguments about wise stewardship and future planning - where protecting our personal property is more important than building a country that's proportionally safer for all of us, and where the maximum number of Canadians can be helped to a fulfilling and hopefully satisfying life.

It's a sad message.

Because there should be more to a country than protecting and polishing one's own backside.

I'm not sure you could tell that from watching the last federal election - or the last provincial one, either.

The overwhelming themes of the last federal election were "protect my house" and "protect my wallet by paying the lowest taxes possible." (Lost in that combination, of course, was the fact that we still expected to benefit every bit as much in the way of public services as ever.)

It was a victory of the particular over the general: the particular, like oil and pipeline companies, should have less red tape to deal with. The general, like, say, the environment we all share, matters less. Tax back in my pocket, compared with supporting national health programs? Show me the money.

The last provincial election could probably be described as even more venal, with candidates willing to bluntly say, "Do you want the goodies a government member can bring, or do you want four years of nothing, regardless of what's needed in your district?"

Rough messages, both.

Lessons unlearned

You would think, after watching greed build and burst a financial bubble of absolutely mammoth proportions, we might have, as a people, sat back and asked the tough questions of how we could take personal greed out of the government equation as much as possible, and, to the extent that we do move forward with government, how can we best assure ourselves that the largest number of people possible see the highest level of services and benefits possible.

We didn't.

We saw precisely where greed could lead, but left anything close to altruism on the side of the road, choosing to go back to seeking personal benefit instead. How, exactly, does that a country make?

It's even tainted the way columnists are examined across this country: columnists who speak about anything to do with improving our social networks "have an agenda." Columnists - and there are far more of these, now - who trumpet the need for capitalism and financial benefits for particular individuals are "just speaking their minds."

To make matters worse, our politicians have recognized where the electorate was leaning, and pandered directly to it - accepting, along the way, that the end justified the means.

We're seeing exactly where that kind of thinking leads, in everything from the robo-call scandal on down. Politicians are only doing what their constituents are doing: putting themselves and their own benefit absolutely at the front of the line.

It is not, in the end, a workable philosophy for running something as involved as a nation.

But we will destroy a huge number of co-operative institutions and forward-looking solutions to human problems before we finally realize that a country united is stronger - and can do more - than an individual with a few dollars more rattling around in his pocket for a year or two.

The real problem is, somewhere along the way, we decided that what we really wanted to be was that street-blocking and privileged diplomat. In fact, we decided that person was who we were.

Things change, and worlds turn. Perhaps, somewhere down the road, we'll go back to remembering that we're part of a country - part of a greater thing - rather than being the sole and exalted representatives of the country of Me.

And until then, dammit, we'll probably park any place we like. And so will everyone else, while all the while, we'll complain vociferously about the gridlock that everyone else is creating.

Russell Wangersky is the editorial page editor of The Telegram. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.


Organizations: The Telegram

Geographic location: Ottawa

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Recent comments

  • Colin Burke
    March 11, 2012 - 12:19

    Working for and contributing money to a political campaign doesn't "make it happen." That sort of effort is only doing something in the hope that something else will happen, it is not actually doing the thing you desire to have done, unless you simply enjoy the process of engaging in a political campaign. We deserve the effects of what we actually do, not the outcome of something that just happens. Anything that merely happens which favours us is simply good luck, not what we deserve, even if we very largely contributed to conditions conducive to its happening -- through someone else's choice. The chief fault of our political and economic systems is that everyone in them is counting on good luck of the kind I've mentioned instead of doing what we want done.

  • Herb Morrison
    March 09, 2012 - 10:10

    Response To A Very Good Post. You do indeed have the right to do what is best for you. You do not have the right to exploit others in the process, which is exactly what you are douiing, albeit legally. While it appears that you have succeeded in business, from an ethical standpoint, your sense of what constitutes ethical behaviour appears to be wanting at best. Ultimately, you and others like you will, I suspect , find cold comfort in the fact that you are able to afford the most expensive plot in the local cemetery. however, the choice is yours. Your obsession with material wealth and power, reminds me of a poem I read many years ago. "Ozymandias I met a traveller from an antique land who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert. Near them in the sand, half-sunk, a shattered visage lies. And on the pedistal, these words appear. My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye mighty and despair. Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck. boundless and bare, the loan and level sands stretch faer away. Perhaps the greatest fallacy contained in your post is that this life, be it short or long, is all that there is.

    • another false accusation
      March 09, 2012 - 20:56

      I am not explioting anyone. I am paying what I believe to be fair compensation. I truly believe that the value of an unskilled uneducated worker is the lowest wage possible. I beleive that their lack of skill and educations makes them unworthly a company sponsored health plan or pension benefits. Heck, I loathe the fact that I have to pay CPP and EI for Canadian unskilled workers. These are the policies tht drive me to offshore jobs. THe way I see it, I am being explioted as I am being forced to pay added fees to hire unskilled uneducated workers in Canada....so I hire elsewhere. I would never treat someone who is valueable like this....not my engineer, accountant, VPs and so on...they are valuable becuase of their skill and education. Frankly, there is nothing that an unskilled uneducated worker can offer me that is worth more than minimum wage. So I do not pay more. You are wrong to say that I am explioting the workers because it is based on a false premise that they are entitled to something they are not getting. I follow all the law. Workers are entitled to minimum wage at the least, and safe working conditions. if I failed to provide these, THEN I would be exploiting. But for following the letter of the law to a T, and doing what Is see fit is not exploitation, it is called merit based compensation. If the workers don't like it, then can leave. As long as I follow the law, and as long as the workers are free to leave, nothing that I do can be classified as exploitation. WHy not blame the uneducated unskilled workers for being uneducated and unskilled? Did I tell them not to go to school? Did I tell them to acquire minimal skills. The blames lies with the workers themselves, or their parents, for the fact that the workers are of so little value to the marketplace. I was told to get an education, be frugal with money and work hard. I listened, and am now the maker of my own destiny.

  • Colin Burke
    March 09, 2012 - 08:14

    I can't see any objection in principle to a person's acting almost entirely in his own interest -- if those actions are entirely his and his alone, so that he does not need employees to be obliged, by circumstances he did not wholly cause, to work for him. But merely voting for a government which supports one's own interest is hardly an action at all, but only the expression of a wish. One deserves the effects of one's deeds, which is the principle government ought chiefly to enforce, but one does not deserve, just by wishing for it and saying so, what one wishes for.

    • thank you for a fair post
      March 09, 2012 - 21:04

      All I do is vote for how I want, help in the election campaign of the party that I want, and donate money to the part that I want. So I do certainly do more than wish for what is in my interests.....I make a contribution of my time and money to make it happen. But my motive are purely self interested.

  • response to herb
    March 08, 2012 - 13:45

    Herb, you are wrong for wrong is saying that I am refusing to pay benefits that blue collar workers are deserve to beucase it is my position that CERTAIN blue collar workers are not entitled to anything other than the lowest legal wage, and, again, for SOME blue collar workers, even the minimum wage is too much. Not every worker is worth of benefits. The way I see it, the only employees that I pay more than minimum wage or give benefits to are those I am afraid of losing. I am not afraid of losing unskilled uneducated workers, so I offer them the least and have 10 other unskilled uneducated people ready to work if they leave. In short, not of these people is worth a penny's worth of effort to retain. these are the jobs that get outsourced and offshored. SO yes, I can not only dictate what wages the get, I have the right to tell them that them whatever I want it includes advice to put themselves first as I have done. I do this because I do care about my family, but also because I desire, and have a right to put myself first. I specificy seek to acquire profitable companies with unskilled workforces because there are quick and easy profits to be made by either cutting the wages of the current workers, or by replacing the workers with cheaper workers. Also, unskilled blue collar work can be done anywhere inthe world, so I can plug and play labour workforces based on the tax rates and job creation grants that are offered by foreign states. In short, I try to only engage in business ventrues in which there workers are not capable having any leverage. Personally, I would rather not negotiate. Same reason I use temp. agencies.....to have a rotational workforce without any stability on continuity that would warrant a union.....Basically, I put my interests first by operating a company with 150 first line full time jobs, and I do not have any front line employees directly....rather I have a relationship with a temp agency.....I get people as I need, I can cancel them with 2 hours notice, I have no liability for wage increases, beneifts or employee rights. It is the solution that I have devised to put myself first. I certainly do agree that I have an an obligation to ensure that those around have the same opportunity to avail of things like health care, social programs, freedom of speech, to name but a few, and I meet that obligation by paying my taxes. Everytime I offshore a company, I increase my profits expotentially which int turn increases the taxes that I pay. Plus, because I envision a future where the middle class is comprised of white collar workers, looking out for number one is always an option for me. Herb, life is short, make the most of it and do what is best for you....that is what I do.

  • Herb Morrison
    March 05, 2012 - 08:07

    On Being Willing To Pay A Price The following is in response to the post written buy the person who signed themselves “A very good post The idea that a person should be considered as being weak because they are willing to be pummelled for what they stand for is both a misinterpretation or misrepresentation of facts. Being pummelled for what you believe is a sign of strength not a sign of weakness. How many people do you know who despite being p[pummelled by disease, injury, or their personal beliefs, continue to get up off the mast and stand tall for what they believe in. What right does a person who lacks the integrity and backbone to be accountable for what they post on this website, choosing instead to hide behind a pseudonym, to question the integrity of others in any situation? Does any, person who, by their own admission, is willing to exploit blue collar workers by refusing to pay benefits they deserve, so he/she can make more money, have any right to point a judgemental finger at anyone and tell them they should be ashamed if they don’t put personal interests first at all times? What is the real reason that you put your family’s interests first? Is it because you genuinely love and respect them or is your desire to put family first merely an extension of your self-proclaimed desire to “look after number one?” Your statement that minorities should not have rights because they are minorities and your interpretation of what it means to live in a democracy are so twisted as to defy description. It would appear that you believe that everyone else should be required to pay the price while you sit back and reap the benefits of living in a democracy by failing to acknowledge that recognizing that being responsible for the well-being of others is part and parcel of life in a democracy. The freedom, rights and comforts which we enjoy because we live in a democracy, comes with a price. Part of that price is in the form of having an obligation to insure that those around have the same opportunity to avail of things like health care, social programs, freedom of speech, to name but a few. Looking out for number one is not an option at all times and in all circumstances is not an option

    • Sara
      March 08, 2012 - 12:43

      Very well said Herb. I was too gobsmacked by "A Very Good Post" to write a comprehensive response. Thank you.

  • Maggy Carter
    March 03, 2012 - 17:11

    You have a shallow and naive view of the world Russell. You seem to equate a foreign diplomat blocking your lane on an Ottawa street with the decades of graft, greed, fraud, bribery and corruption in the halls of power and high finance that led to the near collapse of the world economy. If average Canadians are preoccupied with protecting their nest eggs, getting Johnny through college, and paying off the mortgage, it is because many of them have been hit financially by that near collapse and still live in fear that the rest of their hard earned savings will be taken away from them. They well understand that the banking and industry are way out of control - that outrageous profiteering and indifference to environment, safety and the law are fueling the rapid accumulation of wealth by a tiny fraction of the population worldwide. They know they can't look to elected officials to stop it. Every day they see more evidence that politicians are up to their eyeballs in it. Many don't bother to vote anymore - convinced that replacing one political brand with another achieves nothing more than a change of pigs at the trough. They don't use terms like "democratic deficit" cited by Scott Reid in your paper today, but they know when a political system is working for the ten percent not the ninety percent. And yes many have become selfish and opportunistic themselves but only because they see evidence every day in your media that the meek do not inherit the earth - they get the stuffing kicked out of them at every turn. They would join the Occupy crowd but they have become so jaded and cynical that they would rather curse the dark than light a candle. As for your notion that taxes should go up so even more money can be thrown at the health care system, you are badly in need of a reality check. Spending on health care in Canada topped $200 billion last year. The average expenditure for every man, woman and child is almost $6,000 a year and growing rapidly. Nearly 40% of all provincial spending goes to health care and that is expected to hit 50% before this decade is over. And if you think for one minute that we are twice as healthy as when we spent half as much, think again. The health care system is first and foremost a highly profitable, artificial and destructive money making machine. From the drug companies that peddle useless if not toxic chemicals to the manufacturers of dangerous radiology equipment, this is not about getting and keeping people healthy - it is about making gobs of cash on the backs of the taxpayer. Turn on your television any night and watch the 350 pounders complain that the health care system is ignoring them. Understand that those who are truly in need of medical attention are not getting it on a timely basis because the system is clogged by people who have no legitimate illness only a lousy lifestyle and a neurosis brought on by watching too many drug ads during their daily ten hour stint in front of the tv set. Our governments make a fortune from alcohol and gambling which in turn is spent on treating the associated medical problems and criminal activity. Hard drugs are a major curse in our society and yet two-thirds of every dollar spent on interdiction is aimed at harmless pot smokers, growers and sellers. Yes Russell, the world is screwed-up. But if you want to help fix it, then time you publicly butchered a few sacred cows instead of blowing your horn at the guy double parked in the street.

  • tometoe
    March 03, 2012 - 15:46

    I want to say thank you to BrianHodder for his column this weekend. it is very thought provking, and certainly speaks to the fact that there may be a social problem looming - it is a wake up call to all that there is another community about to emerge - the gray gays. Be prepared top welcome them

  • A very good post.
    March 03, 2012 - 13:24

    I am probably the poster boy for every one of the problems you cite, but I have no qualms about acting in my interest. It is after all, my life, my rights and my vote. I'll quote some points from the article. +++"what a potential government will do for me, me, me" /....that is me...I vote for my interests. I also volunteer for political campaigns...I go door knocking and I make large donations to support the party and candidate that is in my interests.++++ "where protecting our personal property is more important than building a country that's proportionally safer for all of us, and where the maximum number of Canadians can be helped to a fulfilling and hopefully satisfying life"....that is me again. My personal property comes above everything else except my family. SO I support tax cuts over social programs...I am a strong supporter over user fees....I don't feel that I have a duty to helping the maximum number of Canadians have a satisifying life. Even though my companies are profitable, I don't want to give my unskilled employees health care benefits or pensions, so I move their jobs our of the country...../ it is my personal vision to have a middle class of Canadians that is composed of white collar workers (not blue collar workers)....so I keep the white collar jobs in Canada and pay these employees well...health benefits, pension plan, expense account and so on. I could offshore these jobs too, but these kind of jobs - white collar jobs are the one I want to be around for my children....in contrast, I dont want blue collar jobs for my children...so when I acquire a company, i offshore the blue collar functions whenever possible. ++++"Tax back in my pocket, compared with supporting national health programs? Show me the money..".......Again, this is me. Not only do I want tax back in my pockets, but I support the government which will open more and more of the health care system to the private sector. I have my hand in private health care in the USA, so if Canada opens more of the sector to the private sector, I possess knowledge and experience that would allow me to succeed in the industry. So I oppose national healthcare for more than one reason. All I can say in closing is that we are all equal as people and as voters...I suggest that each and every one of you....even those that oppose my views....DO WHATEVER you can to support YOUR interests. IN THE end, decmocacy is based on votes, so stop worrying about your neighbour and start focusing on yourself. Use your vote to get the government that will act in your interests. In the end, as long as the majority's interests is serves, then democracy has succeeded no matter what the cost to the minority is. And then, outside of the election context, live your life in a way that supports your interests. Shame on you if you put ANYTHING ahead of what is best for your family.

    • Sara
      March 04, 2012 - 09:18


    • Chilling...
      March 04, 2012 - 13:52

      Chilling...perhaps....but certainly true.

  • Lane
    March 03, 2012 - 12:39

    A few problems with Wangersky's logic: First, the occupant of the car with the red diplomatic license plate was not a Canadian - he or she was a foreign diplomat posted to Ottawa, so his or her behaviour says nothing about Canadian culture. Second, Wangersky posits a false dichotomy. Lower taxes need not mean less government service to Canadians. The problem is that most of our spending, even on critical programs like health care, is inefficient. And many programs do not benefit the average taxpayer at all, but are instead targeted toward small special interests and entitled elites. We could easily have better services and lower taxes at the same time, if only our governments were not so inclined to grease every squeaky wheel.

    • Townie
      March 04, 2012 - 08:39

      Our Healthcare is cheaper than that of USA and we actually cover poor people. It is easy to say we can loewer taxes and not effect services, but much harder to prove it. So your logic that most of our spending is inefficient is false. And as for the squeaky wheels most of those come from business. Tens of millions are spent by the present Illegitimate government on advertising, while to pay for it we have to cut back on Search and Rescue and help for students to find a job. I guess you would call that a good allocation of resources.

    • Lane
      March 06, 2012 - 10:21

      @Townie: I don't know why you have to respond in such a partisan way to my completely non-partisan comment. My comment mentioned only one of the many topics you raise, and I'd like to stick to that topic. The USA's health care spending per capita is by far the highest in the world, so it means nothing to compare Canada's system with the USA's. A more relevant fact is that Canada's health care spending per capita is 6th highest out of the 34 countries of the OECD, and is increasing faster than any other country in the world. In fact, it is increasing at four times the rate of inflation. And yet medical wait times in Canada are much longer than in most other developed countries, and still getting longer. Hence my initial point that more money is obviously not the answer to our health care problems. We need systemic reform. And the same can be saif of other areas of spending. We can improve results by spending more wisely instead of just spending more.