Friday, June 18, 2004

Politicians Struggle to Evade the Taint of Morality

Apparently we're not supposed to discuss moral issues during an election campaign. Which only leaves immoral ones, I suppose. Or perhaps amoral. Would it be wrong to ask why?

Once, politicians feared the taint of immorality. Now they fear the taint of morality. It's not completely clear to me whether they're trying to persuade us that they don't know right from wrong or just that they don't care. But they do seem determined to convey that in any event it's not going to matter; when politicians in any party are caught holding moral views they hasten to assure us they wouldn't dream of acting on them.

It's not completely clear what a moral issue is either. A headline in Monday's Citizen said "'Moral' issues blow Liberals, Tories off track," and the scare quotation marks suggest the headline writer wasn't sure. At first I thought it meant sex, since the story started with the topics of abortion and gay marriage. But then it threw in the death penalty, so we had the end as well as the beginning of life. And when it added bilingualism into the mix, I became completely confused.

Then I derived inspiration from marijuana. Indirectly, I hasten to add: I read a news story about a Fraser Institute study by economist Steve Easton arguing that if marijuana were legalized governments could rake in a cool $2 billion a year in taxes. As indeed they might. But I'd rather see the issue discussed primarily in terms of whether, first, the community is morally justified in using force to protect people from harming themselves and, second, if it is, whether marijuana meets the threshold test for sufficient harm to trigger intervention.

My opinion is no and no, so I would legalize it. You need two yesses for a principled ban on the stuff. Yet Anne McLellan, who opposes legalization, recently said the suggestion of counselling women on abortion "as if we are children, as if we are not able to make our own decisions about our health and our bodies, is to me, at the beginning of the 21st century, profoundly disturbing and, dare I say it, very frightening."

Let those women seek to inhale pot smoke into their own personal lungs, or just agree to work where there's second-hand tobacco smoke, and see how much Ms. McLellan respects their right to make decisions about their health and their bodies at the beginning of the 21st century. How do you reason with such people?

Then it struck me that the Fraser Institute study was speaking precisely the government's native language by putting aside principle and dangling a sack of cash in front of it. At which point I saw that what unites the banned "moral" issues is negative: None allows politicians to attract support from a broad spectrum of likely voters by promising boodle from the treasury. They require debate on what's right or wrong rather than what's lucrative. Not fun.

Even the Conservative Party is campaigning on spending promises even more lavish than those of the Liberals, claiming they've detected a huge bag of money in Ottawa that the Liberals are dishonestly hiding because they're meanies who don't want to spend. Which frankly insults my intelligence as well as my morals. But this campaign is not about me, it's about directing the last available tax dollar to the last available suburban swing voter.

Please don't think I'm one of those dolts who considers wealth immoral. When people talk about mere money or mere things I wonder how long they think they'd last without mere food, mere water or mere air, a material mixture of some 78 per cent nitrogen, 21 per cent oxygen, nearly one per cent argon and traces of other chemical elements made of shabby protons, neutrons and electrons. Jesus said man did not live by bread alone, not that he did not live by bread. If you think combining material substance and moral purpose was a silly way to design the universe, you'll have to take it up with a far higher authority than me.

My concern is whether the material things will be put to good use or bad. And so I'm all for people being paid what they have earned. (I wish everyone who doesn't think it should happen to doctors could be forced to earn their own living exactly as they would require medical professionals to earn theirs.) But I'm against people taking money they haven't earned, whether through armed robbery or through politics. You see, I think it's wrong.

Evidently that's the sort of question we're not allowed to discuss. Which suggests an uneasy conscience about how the discussion would go if we were.

CENTREBLOG Volume 29
John Robson ©
(John Robson is a writer and broadcaster based in Ottawa. This column first ran in The Ottawa Citizen June 11, 2004, p. A14.)
Reprinted by permission.