John Maynard Keynes famously defended government intervention in the economy, preferring the short-term advantage over the long-term cost. He rationalized that "in the long run, we are all dead." In his keynote to last week's Conservative Policy Convention in Ottawa, Stockwell Day critiqued Keynesian approaches to present economic challenges, noting wryly, "Unlike Mr. Keynes, I have grandchildren." On this one, I'm with Mr. Day. The long run does matter.
However, as I was listening live to Mr. Day last Thursday, I began wondering about what really constitutes the long run in politics.
Sitting beside me at the Conservative convention was my 20-year-old son, who involved himself in the recent federal election campaign quite independently from his political pa's influence. He worked in a riding an airplane-ride away, and attended this convention at his own expense. He is now writing his own political story, building his own contacts, and being driven by his own passions.
I proudly watched my son's enthusiasm with nostalgic memories of my own first convention, thirty years ago. The intervening years have been ones of significant engagement, working as a partisan and as a professional. Most of my campaigns have been losing ones. I've contributed a few original ideas that have made their way into policy platforms. There is even a provision in one Alberta law for which I might reasonably claim a significant part, but apart from those involved in construction labour relations, few would really notice and care. In the 27 years during which I have been eligible to vote, I have exercised my franchise on every occasion, even showing up on one occasion to decline my ballot as there was no one on the list I could vote for with a clear conscience. But I voted. I am following through on a commitment I made as a teenager, after hearing some first-hand stories from World War II. Today, I am even more resolved that democratic freedom is a privilege bought with such a significant price that to neglect it is ingratitude and disrespect.
So thirty years later, what is the legacy of my political effort? Has it all been worth it?
If Mr. Keynes' formula is right, the answer is "No." Many of my ideas are those shared by only a minority in Canada. Democracy being what it is, they are unlikely to be adopted in the short term. Since I am likely to benefit neither from the perks of power nor from the satisfaction of having remade the country in the image of my ideas, it might be argued that the political energies I've spent are a waste. I can do what I am doing for another 30 years and not much impact will be had. In the end, I'll be dead anyway.
As I listened to Mr. Day speak about his grandchildren, however, I glanced over at my son. He was listening intently. His ideas are still being shaped. Over the weekend, I heard him listen and debate, make new connections and strengthen bonds with those he already knew.
He and his generation are better off, not because we succeeded, but because we tried.
Even when we do succeed politically, the gains need to be defended and new challenges faced tomorrow. No political outcome is static or secure, which can be a source of both encouragement and discouragement.
We can prognosticate as to whether the political success my son might achieve will be greater or less than that which I did, but that would be to buy into Mr. Keynes faulty logic. Talking about outcomes is a grave business. It's hopeless, selfish politics that measures outcomes in terms of today and disregards the long term.
I prefer the politics of hope; the belief that what we do today matters also for our children and grandchildren. This is not simply a pious rhetorical pronouncement but shapes both the motivation and substance of our politics. It means that we need to pay attention to the legacies—economic, environmental, and social—that our policies will leave. It has concrete implications for the institutions that we participate in and shape, recognizing they need to be built to last but also flexible enough to evolve. Most significantly, it shapes our motivations: if you are in politics for yourself, you have missed the basic point.
This whole tangent in my mind took only a few seconds. I glanced at my son, who remained oblivious to the tear that I wiped away. But it was a tear of hope.
Sign me up for another thirty years.