I’m reminded by Andrew Coyne’s column this weekend of a 1970s song by Stompin’ Tom Connors that gained particular reknown as the theme music for CBC’s “Marketplace” consumer affairs program. Tom was not given credit as a bard or for foretelling the future. About 40-years later, though, and Tom turns out to be more right than he could have imagined.
Andrew Coyne’s column was about the way that the political parties and the political process in Canada has now fully framed all 33+-million of us as “consumers” of government services and of the output of politics (and politicians). Despite his never responding to me–directly to the emails or indirectly when I reference his work, I like Mr. Coyne’s writing and, whether I agree with his position or not, how he arrives there. Usually. In this case, I tend to agree but think he’s been sucked in to the implicit premise that his column and the odious way government treats us is based. That is: We are consumers.
The argument, loosely, is this: the Conservatives and now the New Democrats are talking about how to treat their consumers (read: us) and how to best address our needs. It is premised on Mulcair’s charge against high prices, which warrants Mr. Coyne explaining fundamental economics and competitive structures. Mr. Coyne is right on both counts, and so the rejection of the politicization of the word “consumer” is complete. There’s a problem with all that.
By immediately moving to capitalism, laissez-faire, the value of competition and how successive governments make mockery of it, Mr. Coyne accepts and assumes the validity of us being “consumers”… of government and politics. I get where it comes from: the notion that good businesses that provide value to their customers are satisfying those “consumers” by putting their interests, needs, and desires at the forefront. (I would argue that this rarely happens at the best of times, let alone in politics, but that’s another blog.) So, this being an accepted truth of capitalism that applies without thought in every dark corner of society, it makes sense to assume it and get on with the hypocrisy of politicians and political parties putting the consumer front and centre, or so they say.
Last time I checked, I was not a consumer of the nation, of society, and of my own (social) existence. I am, as is Mssrs. Coyne, Harper, and Mulcair–as are we all–CITIZENS of Canada. As such and within a democracy, we have given to those we elect to administer on our behalf the right and responsibility to serve our (social) needs. It is not their place to treat me like a consumer; they are not making a profit. It is not their goal to satisfy my typically fleeting desires for X, Y, and Z, but to show some foresight and wisdom for not only my long-term good but for the nation’s long-term good. Consumer businesses exist, these days, in conveniently demarked 90-day reporting periods and respond to the fickleness of trends, fads, fashions, and evolutions in technology. One would hope that Canada is not and should not be operated on the basis of a persistently, creatively-destructively cycle of pandering to consumers. (Perhaps my real issue is that as consumers we have become idly, compliantly ready to be told what we need by those who have something to sell us–need it or not. Again, different blog.)
Good for Andrew Coyne for calling to task at least two political parties and specific politicians for their misleading use of the already insipid “consumer focus” meme. It’s just too bad, though maybe a constraint of a 700-word column, that he opted to accept something that is a bastardization of two parts of our life. To which, I say,