Revitalizing the common good

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Figuring out what to do next preoccupies most political parties. Should we be on the attack? What issues can we raise to make sure our opponents defeat themselves? Most importantly, how should we be positioning ourselves building up to an eventual election?

If it were enough to look ahead, and recognize the next occasion to reach out, and build support, politics would be a manageable activity. But something more is required of our leaders than being good managers. Moving about constantly, meeting the key people, saying the right thing and performing well in the public eye is not sufficient for success.

Knowing what you are about, what you stand for, and what you want to make happen, certainly helps in formulating a plan, appropriate for each occasion. Political life requires more, however, than a strong sense of self, and a day-timer loaded with purposeful activity.

A political party needs to be able to articulate where it wants to take the country, and bring people along to make it happen.

Luckily, there is something that takes political leaders from where they are, and connects them to where they are going. It can even suggest what to do upon arrival. A conception of the common good gives political figures the political equivalent of a GPS to navigate the political highways, and lead people to a chosen destination.

Conservative forces dominate both the Federal Liberals, and the Conservative Harper government. Their conception of the common good is restated as the public interest. At least since the 1970s Canadians are supposed to maximize -- not just pursue -- their self-interest. Such "me first" activity, when aggregated makes up the public interest. In other words, undisguised greed is good.

Despite conservative authors, and politicians trying to convince us the combined action of selfish individual leads to the common good, there are millions of people suffering economic hardship, and who need help from the community, who would be right not to agree.

In these recessionary times "who gets what" is on lots of people's minds.

The chief economist from the TD Bank expressed anger about social conditions prevailing in Canada before an audience of his peers at the Canadian Economics Association Annual meeting in Toronto this past weekend. Media star Don Drummond not only agreed with fellow panelist, CCPA senior economist Armine Yalnizyan that our first line of defence, employment insurance, was inadequate; he found it intolerable that in his home province of Ontario, the second line of defence, the welfare system, forced people to become destitute before receiving a cheque. His genuine concern was almost enough to make us forget that he was a senior official at the Department of Finance when the "none shall be left wanting" Canada Assistance Plan for welfare was dismantled.

Provincial finance ministers pointed out last week public and private pension schemes are inadequate to meet the needs of the legions of baby boomers getting ready to retire in the next two decades.

The Canadian sense of fairness is offended by huge salaries and bonuses being paid to CEOs of failing companies while increasing numbers of our citizens do with out. This fairness is what Adam Smith called "sympathy" for others in his work the Theory of Moral Sentiments, which he meant to be read alongside the better known Wealth of Nations (often mistakenly taken as a free market tract).

Sympathy for others, fairness, a society of friends, these are important concepts in the history of the NDP. Politics is about more than besting your rivals in debates, or at the polls: it is about appealing to the heart, and the head, and getting people to participate in democratic life. Without getting people around a table to discuss NDP policies and plans, and encouraging them to join community political actions, the party will disappoint itself, and its supporters. Identifying how to make the common good a reality is one way to do that.

With the capitalist economy failing all around us, many are prepared to reject the idea of leaving things for market forces to decide alone. The NDP can help people figure out that economic questions require political answers.

What it takes to help some people take ownership over their lives, is the same thing that is needed to help others survive in difficult, uncertain times: a clear conception of the common good, and a political party to champion it.

To the economic question "who gets what," the socialist answer is "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs."

Is there a better definition of the common good?

Duncan Cameron writes from Vancouver.

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