Introspection matters. It is important for the health of our democracy to occasionally consider how we see ourselves in our relationship with our elected representatives and how they see us. Are we consumers, taxpayers, or citizens?
Are we consumers? Consumer capitalism developed over many years and became the bulwark of our economic system by the 1920s. The prosperity of our nation became dependent on stuff being made and services being provided for us to buy. We, in turn, were paid for making all the stuff and providing all the services. It was a nice, symbiotic circle. We were in trouble when things stopped being made or became too expensive, or when we stopped buying. That’s what happened in the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008-’09. Our leaders understand. That is why after the tragedy of 9-11, the first advice President Bush had for Americans yearning to demonstrate resilience was to go shopping.
When our buying stuff became an economic imperative and patriotic duty, then it is unsurprising that some of our leaders began to think of us as nothing more than consumers. We consume Corn Flakes and health care. We consume iPhones and education. The thought becomes that because everything is a commodity, government exists only to provide things to be consumed that private capitalists don’t or won’t. Our leaders, therefore, promote themselves as providers and we look at ourselves simply as consumers of what they have on offer.
(Image: UGA Career Centre)
Are we taxpayers? American Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Taxes are what we pay for living in a civilized society.” I don’t much like paying taxes but I get his point. I pay for things from which I draw benefit. I benefit from living in a society in which there are assumed and enforced modes of behaviour. For example, I can go to a restaurant knowing the food is safe and the kitchen has been inspected and my card or currency will be accepted. I have never left a restaurant without paying. After all, I benefitted from the meal and service and all the government regulations behind the scenes. In the same way, I believe that I benefit from living in a society in which people are educated and healthy. So I may grumble from time to time but I pay my taxes to support public education and health care even though I don’t have a child in school and my last operation was when I had my tonsils out when I was four.
Are we citizens? Citizenship is more than both consumer and taxpayer. It is a more noble concept. It derives from ideas born in ancient Greece and seen in the Iroquois Confederacy. Citizenship suggests membership in something akin to a club or even, at its best, a family. It’s why we carry a membership card – a passport – sing the anthem and celebrate our founding each July. Some of us are born into the family and others can join and become equal members. We too can leave and become a citizen elsewhere. So, in that way, citizenship is not about birth and blood but choice.
As with clubs and families, citizenship involves rights and responsibilities. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms spells them out. They suggest that we not cherry-pick but, as citizens, respect and live according to them all. The Canadian Supreme Court exists to remind us of that fact even if, occasionally, we are infuriated by its decisions. Even when we disagree, in fact especially when we disagree, citizenship means that we are in this together with responsibilities to and for each other.
Buying stuff and paying taxes are only slivers of what it means to be a citizen. When political leaders rally us as consumers and call us taxpayers they cheapen the concept of citizenship. It tears at the fabric of who we are and places in jeopardy the core of our democracy.
It matters whether we see ourselves as visitors to a mall, the government’s ATM machine, or members of a national and local family. Perhaps as we move into muncipal elecctions this fall we should reflect the difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us by listening carefully to how those who lead or aspire to lead, speak of and to us. If among the greatest gifts the ages have bestowed upon us is the concept of citizenship, then let us respect and protect it and elect those who will help with that important work.
(I am running for Selwyn Township’s Lakefield Ward Councillor. Online and telephone voting begins October 11 and ends October 24. I hope everyone votes for the candidate of their choice in their community.)