I received a telephone call Monday afternoon from a reader who was looking at the post I’d done that day.
“It’s all about economics”, he said. “What about the moral destruction that’s unleashed? Why didn’t you write about that?”
Fair question. Excellent question, in fact.
So let’s take a swing at the subject.
Much of the discussion about the sheer amount of spending done by governments these days likes to point at the “entitlements”, or “welfare provisions”, that are so much of the budgets today.
It is true that if we go back to, say, the time of my great-grandparents, people tended to look after themselves — and each other.
Families lived close. There wasn’t much moving around.
Except, when you look a little more closely, that wasn’t true.
You see, if I go back to my great-grandparents, what I find is that three-quarters of that generation were immigrants.
They pulled up stakes, left their families behind, took ship and came across the Atlantic.
They settled in new places. Often, they were in small rural communities, or on farms. Isolated here, in other words, just as much as separated from their support networks.
A generation later, and almost everyone has relocated again, and are living in cities. Yes, those hives of anonymity.
Still, neighbours still knew neighbours, and did help each other.
Lodges and fraternal organisations did a great deal of the heavy lifting as well. You became a Mason, an Oddfellow, a Moose, an Elk, etc. in part because these had shared medical care, survivor care, people who’d look in on you, handle chores for you, etc., just as you did for them.
Also, unlike today, most not only belonged to some church community, but the churches were small extended families, and the hub of social life.
So what changed?
Mass entertainment certainly helped change things. People started to stay at home more. Where you might have been at a lodge meeting, or a church function, or in the church basement or Lions’ Club hall to play bridge, now you were home, listening to the radio. Fewer bonds in the community; fewer opportunities for others to see you might need a hand; and fewer times when you’d be there to lend a hand.
Since families typically could afford only one of the large console radios of the time, this is where we get the image of the “family all gathered around”. As, indeed, the family was all gathered around the radio.
The second of the big changes was the paving of roads for automobiles.
A paved road was one you could count on being able to travel even in the winter. It started to make sense to people to get a detached house with a bit of land around it. They could drive back and forth as needed.
Instead of staying in a neighbourhood with your siblings and other generations relatively close — perhaps a nickel streetcar ride away at most — extended families started to scatter. One branch would shift north, one east, one west, each seeking a “patch of grass” that was just right for them (and, of course, dealing with what was available at their price point).
The car made it seem like these distances didn’t matter. They didn’t, at first. But the frequency of visits started to fall.
Then, too, in the suburbs that grew up, things were built larger. The church built in the nineteenth century had been built for a country that wasn’t very populous. So it was small — cozy — comfortable.
The one built in a subdivision of five thousand new homes was scaled to that. It wasn’t on the corner, either: it was out by the collector road “for everyone’s convenience”.
It took more of an effort to get there. It was a lonelier experience once you were there.
Not all the social clubs followed, either.
Then, too, with ever-more transportation and communications options available, organisations started to grow.
When you — for instance — work as a buyer for a department store, and every town of reasonable size has its own store, there are lots of opportunities for you.
Smalltown’s is acquired by Bigtown’s, is acquired by Cityscape’s, is acquired by NationalBrand’s.
Suddenly, if you want to remain a buyer for a department store, you have to move to where NationalBrand is headquartered.
This is how two out of three Americans found themselves living in a different state than the one they were born in, and with their families scattered similarly.
Meanwhile, as some locales became very large, indeed, more time went into both the commuting and the ferrying of family members around far-flung regions.
Even less time went into being a part of community organisations; even more went into the television set after dinner. Now with more than one of them in the house, the family didn’t even gather.
Slowly the social fabric of extended connection fell apart. As it did, Yeats’ words in “The Second Coming” started to become visible:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The obvious answer was to provide services through the public sector, if they couldn’t be so readily provided by community groups.
Then, too, in Canada, there were worries about how the baby boomers would be employed. Growing the public sector created jobs.
So the modern welfare state grew.
As it grew, the need for community organisations fell away. A lodge didn’t need to use its dues to hire doctors who would provide medical care for members and their families: universal medical care (in Canada) was now provided by the state. The social fabric wasn’t needed.
Organisations that held on aged, taking in fewer young members. Many simply closed.
Meanwhile, the growth in commerical enterprises, and the scale of government operations even in a city, created a general idea: bigger is better.
Churches started down the path of seating 10,000, 20,000 or more at a service. Numbers were what was valued. Yes, these institutions had “outreach” and “service” committees and functions galore. But each felt a little impersonal, a little like talking to the bureaucrat in the government office. It wasn’t Sally helping Fred; it was Sally in her role as food bank coordinator granting Fred a handout. A very different, demoralising, and wearying thing.
There came a point when the demands placed on the state — both in terms of “need for” existing services and new services to be added — smacked up against some limits.
All that commuting, travelling, “upscaling” of properties, etc. required income. So did all the government programmes. They collided.
We chose to borrow the money rather than raise the taxes or set some limits.
At first it wasn’t much. But for a politcian or a civil servant, borrowed money is an addiction.
Just as it is for any of us, actually.
There are reasons to borrow. Canada would not be the country it is if the Canadian Government hadn’t borrowed to build the Canadian Pacific Railway, the National Transcontinental Railway, the Intercolonial Railway, the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, the Trans-Canada Highway, the Sir Adam Beck Hydro station at Niagara, the dams in BC, Hydro-Québec’s operations in Northern Québec, the St. Lawrence Seaway … the list is long. All of them were built not for current needs, but to create futures that couldn’t be done as and when these were done otherwise.
Borrowing to redistribute or consume, though, is a double-edged sword.
For the interest piles up, taking more and more money out of the taxes raised just to cover past consumption.
Meanwhile, the excess released into the economy makes us pull future consumption forward, denying opportunity in the future.
At the family level, we get used to living beyond our means. Bigger houses than we can really afford. More gadgets than we can sustain. Children who used to share rooms and toys now each have their own.
Newly-minted adults who believe they are entitled to granite counter-tops, sub-zero appliances, unlimited high-speed Internet and the like right after university, which they paid for with student loans.
Therein lies the heart of the destruction of families via the deficit state.
Today we’ve reached just about to the end of the cycle.
The interest on prior debt is becoming a very large number — a crippling number in terms of government doing its job.
The mania for “growth” has caused us to overbuild and to overextend ourselves.
Dormitory communities, no matter how flash, lacking even basic community sense or institutions, are disheartening “no places”; families, each in their own travel pattern, pass like ships in the night through their homes.
Sudden shocks: fuel prices go up, the company moves offshore and your job goes, etc. — there is no one left around to turn to.
If your children and siblings are close, it’s rare: keeping their noses above water has probably meant they’ve scattered to where they could do well.
We are going to have to reassemble the building blocks of our communities.
The paradox here is that it won’t come from the family. It’ll come from neighbours, and rebuilding neighbourhood institutions.
Without that fabric, families can’t stay close, either.
That’s the lesson of the twentieth century, and the way we chose to live.
We have the opportunity to start again here in the twenty-first. Not by turning to the state, but by turning away from it.