By: Joseph Nusse
It seems to me that many times the concepts of democracy and populism are misrepresented and misinterpreted. Often when a government in a democratic jurisdiction acts in an executive way, those who disagree with this direction quickly label the use of their executive authority as ‘anti-democratic’. “Public consultation” and “public input” are also misused. It seems the easiest thing politically would be to put everything up to referendum. This would truly be populism, but I would argue it is NOT democracy. Democracy is a government of elected representatives, chosen to serve and represent a voting population for a fixed term. What they do during that time is bound by laws limiting their executive authority. So the question many people may ask is “what would be wrong with having a referendum on every single issue?” Let me illustrate with a not-so-distant philosophical dilemma. If 50 percent plus one voted to re-instate the slavery of ethnic minorities, under populism, absolutely nothing says this wouldn’t be the right thing to do.
Now this may seem like a very extreme example, but this was not an abstract philosophical dilemma, this debate really occured in Western Civilization. Matter of fact, it was just in the 1960s when a certain young idealistic Attorney General of the United States named Robert Kennedy used his executive authority to declare and enforce that is was illegal for any school district in the United States to have an institutionalized policy of racial segregation. “Anti-democratic”, “autocratic dictator”, even “communist” – these were all real terms thrown at the young executive. So in this case, would justice have been better served if local referendums on the matter were held and the results upheld the racially-entrenched inequalities?
We need some form of executive authority. We need this authority to protect the environment, safeguard to rights of minorities from the overbearing majority, as well as to ensure that a focussed direction is achieved politically.
While the idea of a pluralistic government where everybody gets their say and has their needs met is a nice theory. In the end, each government only has a fixed quantitiy of resources, cash flow, staff and time. In other words, each level of democratic government must prioritize and attempt to maximize the effectiveness of the investments they choose to pursue with these public resources. How does this play out in municipal government?
Unlike federal and provincial governments, municipal governments have very few options on how to raise funds. Federal governments have all the authority in the world to print more money, thereby inducing some marginal inflation (which of course is simply a very hidden way of incurring some indiscriminate taxation on the entire economy). Both federal and provincial governments have all the authority in the world to issue bonds for sale, which is simply a way of burdening future generations with a debt while simply hoping and assuming the economy will expand large enough to eclipse the value of this debt when they are foced to pay off their parents’ debts. Municipal governments are left with only one option; raise taxes, and face the wrath of a voting public who literally lives next door, and suddenly decides to shoot your dog when it crosses their lawn.
Municipalities have few options when it comes to satisfying a multitude of agendas and desires. This is why, in my opinion, municipalities without a common economic and social focus often end up failing. There are simply not enough resources to please everybody, and there is no ability to simply enslave future generations to monetary debt just to try and gain as many short-term votes as possible.
This is not a satirical despairing train of thought. I will simply put it this way. Our town is in economic trouble. We have a certain amount of eggs. Which baskets do you think are MOST likely to bring economic returns on our eggs? While the thought of endless public input and constant referendums may seem appealling to some, it is not appealling to me. The idea of spreading our eggs out to make a very bland ommlette also does not seem like a good economic idea. We need to focus and soul search. We need some very good and informed executive authority. We need some economic realism. We need to discover our economic comparative advantage, and put every egg we can find in this basket. I am sorry if some people’s individual wishes do not fit in this model, but our town no longer has the luxury of a pluralistic, and therefore unfocused, existence. Hard work and focus lie ahead, but so too does huge promise of an incredibly bright economic future. So before making up your mind on who to vote for in the coming municipal election, let us come up with a direction, a focus, and then run with it. I for one will support any candidate with a positive, realistic and focused direction, and I am not interested in any candidate who says anything and everything, and by trying to be all-inclusive, ends up accomplishing nothing. We will leave this to politicians at higher levels who do not have to keep their dog from crossing to their disgruntled voting neighbour’s lawn.