How do we begin a dialogue about inequality with conservative Canadians?

As someone who spent a career in social welfare, I have often been a sounding board for conservative acquaintances, particularly those who are advanced in years. “I say, let them starve,” one of my relatives declared to me at a family dinner. What he meant by that is:

“Why don’t these people behave? Why don’t they just do what they’re supposed to do? I went out, I worked hard, why shouldn’t they work hard? And if they don’t work hard, then they should starve.

In pondering how to respond to sentiments like these, I have been much aided by Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.[1]  Haidt himself is a liberal social democrat. But he has successfully analysed why conservatives and the conservative mindset wins in our current political climate.

In a chapter called “The Conservative Advantage” Haidt compares the “moral palette” of conservatives and of liberal, progressive, social democrats.He says that people who are liberal, progressive, social democrats have a moral palette comprised of two great concerns. The first is care, care for others. We think about people who are less well off than we are. We think about people who are making a lot more money than we do. We are always thinking about equality. We want everyone to do well. He says that the other part of our moral palette is fairness. Our greatest concern is having a society that’s based on fairness and equity.

The moral palette of the conservative also has caring and fairness in it, but caring and fairness come at the bottom. Four other components of the conservative moral palette come first:

  1. Sanctity
  2. Loyalty
  3. Liberty
  4. Authority

Most people tend to see equality solutions as an issue of proportionality between groups as opposed to equality overall. This is a fundamentally conservative mindset. Some people work hard, why shouldn’t they get more money? How about people who really make an effort compared to somebody who doesn’t make any effort? If Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, is a good executive, why shouldn’t he make $378 million a year?

My elderly relative is not thinking that some people have a different starting line in life. He just thinks about the kind of society he lives in based on certain moral values, on sanctity.

Haidt tries to explain why, in the U.S., people would vote for policies that would do them harm, unfair policies that would give lots of money to people who are not like them and that would actually make them worse off. The electorate votes for the interests of the rich and powerful (the 1%) because those policies are based on liberty. As George W. Bush noted, “It’s your money. It’s not the government’s money.”[2]

This more conservative moral palette is not exclusive to older people, but senior citizens do tend to be more conservative. They worry more about authority than fairness. They are concerned more with loyalty and sanctity that they are with equality. Frank Graves of Ekos Research Associates has noted that the median age in Canada was 26 in 1967; it is now 42. He uses a new word that I had not heard before: the gerontocracy.[3] The term refers to the large bloc of voters in their senior years who have a history of turning out to vote and who mostly vote for conservative candidates.

The current generation of seniors have generally done very well. If you take today’s seniors between ages 75 and 95, these are people whose children got a university education that didn’t cost much, in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, during a time when student grants were generous. They were the first generation to collect Canada Pension, even though they had not paid into it all their lives. They paid far less for services and infrastructure of higher quality. They lived — and more importantly, saved — through a period of phenomenal market rises. Their homes took on great value, a point ably made recently by blogger Paul Kershaw.[4] In addition, with the introduction of the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) shortly after CPP was implemented, Canada appeared to ensure that almost all future seniors would escape poverty.

But you can’t tell an older person, “You really lived through the best years.” Their reply will be, “Oh no, I didn’t. It was hard.” And they will certainly be right, at least about their formative years. They grew up during the Great Depression and the Second World War. They raised large families by today’s standards. These are people who value sanctity, loyalty, liberty, and authority, not just caring and fairness.

They may not be aware that the economy, during their middle and later years, greatly rewarded them, in comparison to what today’s younger people are facing.


A new dialogue with the gerontocracy

Those of us who are not yet seniors have to pitch to the gerontocracy. Progressives see the erosion of social assistance as a bellwether for an uncaring and unequal society, but we fail to make traction in our current political environment. If we continue to hector an unbelieving generation of conservative seniors about fairness and caring, then we will continue to talk to ourselves.

What we really need to do is think about engaging those whose lens on this takes into account what Haidt calls a wider moral palette. For let us not forget, today’s generation of seniors, as conservative as they are now, were also the people who voted Lester B. Pearson into power, ushering in an era of huge expansion in Canada’s social programs.

Any of us who wish to reduce inequality will have to tackle the policy dilemma of turning the negative abstraction of ‘inequality’ into a positive and concrete course of action. We will have to recommend lasting, publicly acceptable ways in which equality should be achieved.

We will have to pay attention to John Kenneth Galbraith’s dictum about successful social policy’s kinship with conventional wisdom. It has to be simple, understandable, and in a frame that most people can understand. And it has to be something people feel good about. It has to give people self-esteem.

We could start the conversation by reminding the older generation that the protections they are voting to dismantle today are the same ones that they voted to build as younger people. Let’s ask them if they expected these protections to be temporary. Surely, we can ask if they believed many years ago that they were only building it for themselves.

We can say that they need not be seduced by the thinking that calls for dismantling programs today so that we will be able to afford them tomorrow. We can tell them that it’s far easier to maintain a program than to disassemble what we have now, on the faint hope that we will rebuild sometime later on.

With these thoughts in mind, today’s gerontocracy may begin to see that they have traded a robust reality for a hollow ideology. If we ask them to recall their days of early adulthood, they just may begin to understand what we stand to lose.