Moderation, the “elusive virtue”

Nice reflections on moderation and compromise by Kenneth Dewar:

…Canadians have taken some satisfaction from having avoided the worst aspects of this movement, at least so far. Moderation sometimes seems to be built into our national character, expressed in the understated celebration of the 150th anniversary of Confederation and the belief among some that it would be better not to celebrate it at all. It has often seemed that Canada’s history is downright dull compared with the drama of, say, American, French and Russian history, and recurring efforts are made to enliven it.

But it may well be that dullness is what makes Canadian history interesting, even if it sometimes masks varieties of populism, radicalism and revolt. Craiutu quotes Adam Michnik as saying something to the effect that the strength of democracy is its greyness, echoing Crick and striking an evocative chord in Canada: “Democracy is a continuous articulation of particular interests, a diligent search for compromise among them, a marketplace of emotions, hatreds, and hopes; it is eternal imperfection, a mixture of sinfulness, saintliness, and monkey business.” Compromise and monkey business have been features of Canadian democracy since the time of John A. Macdonald, though in recent years the extremism that Craiutu points to elsewhere has manifested itself as hyper-partisanship in Canada.

In retrospect, the golden age of moderation in Canadian national politics was the quarter-century following the Second World War, even if at the time it might have seemed otherwise, with the Pipeline Debate and the personal animosity between Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker dividing the country. It was as a result of moderation that the welfare state, and the prosperity arising from it, emerged in full in the 1960s and early 1970s. The political challenges were significant. For example, some provinces had already introduced health insurance in one form or another, offering competing models ─ notably the Saskatchewan model introduced by the CCF government of Tommy Douglas, and the Alberta model favoured by Ernest Manning’s Social Credit government. In Ottawa, Diefenbaker appointed a royal commission, the traditional instrument of compromise and conciliation, which smoothed the subsequent passage of universal public health insurance by the Pearson Liberals.

The fact that some regard this as a triumph of social democracy and others as the implementation of managed capitalism is an indication of the differences that had to be negotiated by Pearson’s ministers and officials. Walter Gordon, Judy LaMarsh, Allan MacEachen and Tom Kent (behind the scenes) faced criticism from opposition parties and interests within their own party, as well as federal-provincial jurisdictional obstacles. They succeeded in introducing a national contributory pension plan (CPP), Medicare and a national social assistance program (Canada Assistance Plan), but not without hard work, political skill and courage, illustrating the truth stated by Isaiah Berlin and quoted by Craiutu: “The middle ground is a notoriously exposed, dangerous, and ungrateful position.” It didn’t hurt that during this time the country was basking in the glow of Centennial Year celebrations and Expo 67.

Berlin was also fond of quoting the philosopher Immanuel Kant, on human nature: “Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can built.” The idea of the crooked timber of humanity provided a foundation for Berlin’s moderation. Perfect solutions were beyond human ingenuity, as likely to lead to suffering as to failure. This offers little comfort to anyone seeking simple remedies, or to those who think they are in the absolute right and their opponents in the absolute wrong. It is a salutary thought, however, as one contemplates the domestic politics and international relations of the present day, and it highlights the need for a good dose of moderation in the coming year – the “elusive virtue” so shrewdly noted by Craiutu.

via Moderation, the “elusive virtue”

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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