Low-level discussions

Does anybody remember policy? We used to spend a lot of time not discussing it. But today it seems we've just lost interest.

No really. In the glory days of the 1980s and early 1990s we actually bickered about things like free trade and tax reform.

We weren't discussing policy; rather, we hurled insults with some fairly clear connection to the substantive matters we were avoiding. Whereas today policy ideas seem to wander about in an intellectual Tartarus, barely recognizable shades of their former selves, without memory or purpose, gibbering inanely.

Consider social programs. Back in the day we thought about pondering their shortcomings, possibly even mentioning aloud that they might be making people's problems worse not better. Which I mention not from nostalgia, but because the Institute of Marriage and the Family Canada just brought a very important speaker to Ottawa to try to raise the topic.

It was Iain Duncan Smith, who used to lead the British Conservative Party and is now Chairman of the Centre for Social Justice. And as he explained to me in an interview on Wednesday, the Centre for Social Justice has had considerable impact in Britain because it has produced a mountain of research on what's wrong (including the massive, frightening 2006 study Breakdown Britain) and also on what could be done better. In the process, Duncan Smith and his colleagues have silenced the more abusive among their critics by piling this research on the table and asking "What do you know that we don't?"

If you're at all interested in the topic I recommend their website (www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk). But be very sure you type it correctly because their idea of "social justice" is not like a lot of other people's, in that it is well-informed rather than shrill.

Duncan Smith explained to me that his centre's approach is to survey existing research and then do its own, both statistical analysis and one-on-one interviews with actual humans caught up in various social pathologies from addiction to debt to crime. As a result, Duncan Smith is able to make a convincing case that serious problems really do exist in identifiable forms, including the harmful effects of family breakup on children.

Will anyone here care? I'm inclined to doubt it. If Bill Clinton were in town bloviating about building a better world, the press would be all over it and the smart set would be lining up to shell out ticket fees that would embarrass a rock band. But when the Institute of Marriage and the Family Canada brings in Duncan Smith and other experts to address a conference, no one even bothers shouting "Booooring."

True, John Ivison interviewed Duncan Smith then wrote a fair and intelligent piece in the National Post. But it focused on whether the Centre for Social Justice approach would work politically for Stephen Harper, which strikes me as somewhat less important than whether it would work for the poor.

To define a problem accurately is not to dictate a solution, of course. And frankly I find some of the CSJ suggestions damp while others are positively soggy. (Sorry, that may be a British joke, because over there Duncan Smith is what they call a "wet," roughly corresponding to a Red Tory in Canada.)

When I spoke to him in Ottawa this week, he made some very good points about the existing welfare state asking the wrong questions from the wrong angle, starting with a top-down "What can the government do?" instead of a bottom-up "What's really wrong with people's lives?"

Too often existing programs address problems in isolation, from unemployment to alcoholism to single parenting to poverty, that usually form a tangled mess in actual individual lives. But he put forward solutions I find quite moist, about the state funding private agencies that have shown themselves to be good at preventing rather than patching up problems at a personal, human level.

I think Duncan Smith and his colleagues underestimate the structural tendency of government funding and regulation to create perverse incentives for any people and any private agencies that become dependent on state help. But I'm pretty sure his response to that criticism would be to put a mountain of research in front of me about places where this approach is working in various countries. Then we could have a discussion.

We might even have a debate. But it would be courteous, constructive, intelligent (on his part, anyway) and no one would turn purple, bluster, jab fingers at anyone, yell, make barnyard noises or substitute abuse for analysis.

Unfortunately it's very hard to see how politicians could be drawn into such a conversation. If you don't agree, watch Question Period and then tell me what you know that I don't.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson