You would have expected some results after 50 years

Might I interest you briefly in politics? Oh dear. What a rude word. Besides, if you follow public affairs at all, you are already immersed in the stuff. Which is odder than it seems. Why are newspapers so full of politics and government? Do you ask what else they would contain besides public matters? But there's the nub of my gist. Why does "public" so often mean "political"? Why aren't there more stories about our common life that aren't about government? Partly, political stories are fairly easy: a press release, three phone calls and a story. It's straightforward he said/she said, requiring no icky background knowledge of science or something. But mostly, government gets so much media attention because it's so big. The state nowadays not only spends nearly half of GDP, but also regulates every gol-durn thing in our lives.

In 1998, American conservative commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. sarcastically called meddlesome do-gooders "the shower-adjusters of this world." The joke's on him: Monday's Citizen said: "The British government is considering regulating the maximum temperature of domestic baths." It seems the public are too stupid not to scald themselves unless big nanny hovers over them as they bathe. While I'm inclined to think the state has no place in the bathrooms of the nation, if it's in there bossing people around I do want to hear about it. But I'm not done with my question about all this government news. Indeed, I've just gotten started.

The real question is not just why government is in our faces, bathtubs and playgrounds morning noon and night, but why it is so pushy, given that it is also so incompetent. Out in Vancouver, a government-funded program is trying to give free heroin to addicts and failing. And you're going to remake society? Oh wait. You already did.

Fifty years ago, cruelly neglected by a state that, until 1958, spent less of our GDP than those awful socialistic Americans, we might plausibly be said to stand badly in need of government help to eat at all, let alone eat a balanced diet. But since then, we've had a half-century of economic growth that has left every third person with an iPod dangling from their head and made lumpy tires a distant memory, and also increasingly generous retirement pensions, unemployment insurance, welfare, health care and who knows what all. Economic growth sure hasn't made us poorer, so if we really still face a poverty crisis, the bony finger of blame points ... where?

And another thing. Government hasn't just been giving us cash. It's been making us better people. And here the results ought to be even more dramatic. Relieving want is old news, so government intervention there should mostly have altered the scale, not the direction. It's in liberating us from pernicious traditions such as stable marriages, respectful youth and concern for the lessons of the past that social workers, sex education, day care, trauma counsellors and urban planners have been carrying out a true revolution in the last half century. Aren't we there yet? Shouldn't the state now be able to scale back its activities a bit?

Instead, there's a gathering assumption that we can do nothing without government. The lead letter in yesterday's Citizen complained, "It is so frustrating that the Parliament can be arbitrarily shut down for days, have a vote of non-confidence, which is lost, and now can still inhibit any advancement for our country." Don't panic: We may be incapable of nailing two planks together without the state, but the Liberal-NDP deal includes a new housing program.

It is, of course, possible that decades of state coddling have rendered us less self-reliant. For instance, ripping out dangerous playground equipment and putting in soft ground has reduced injuries marginally. But at what cost in courage and initiative? The politicians will be the last to know.

For it is also clear that public authorities are remarkably bad at monitoring their own performances. After his government squeaked through a non-confidence vote with the aid of two independents, a turncoat and the Speaker, Paul Martin told his caucus: "We didn't just vote for a budget. What we voted for was a vision of a Canada, dynamic and leading the world. We will set the standard by which other nations judge themselves." Someone less fatuously disconnected from the public mood, such as Marie Antoinette, might say if that's what he thinks he just did, I don't want to know what he thinks he should do next.

Including adjusting my hot tap. So I'm hoping for a headline "Canadian washes without state help."

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson