Walmarts and farmers’ markets—should people serve the economy or does the economy serve people?
Legions of political philosophers have written countless volumes on the subject of communities and their governance. The colours of their beliefs and theories put the brightest rainbow to shame, but one aspect on which reasonable political philosophers will agree is that a modern democratic political community cannot be organized around a single substantive idea of the common good. And yet, that is precisely the direction in which much of the world has been moving since British Prime Minister Thatcher’s infamous declaration in 1987 that there is no such thing as society.
Halfway through the 20th century, humbled by the experience of two world wars and a calamitous depression, governments had come to recognize that the purpose of the economy was to serve the needs of humanity. Thatcher’s declaration set the stage for a shift by many of the world’s governments to a single-minded focus on the economy to the detriment of all else. The most profound effect of Thatcher’s philosophy was a reversal of the priority relationship of economy and humanity. Today, governments everywhere are convinced that the purpose of humanity is to serve the needs of the economy. One way to appreciate the difference between the two philosophies is to compare the experiences of an hour spent at Walmart to an hour spent at the Farmers’ Market.
This shift in governing philosophy is not as evident at the level of local governments as it is at the federal and provincial levels. I am delighted that Terrace has (so far) resisted that trend, and remain focused instead on good governance. The evidence is in the municipality’s care and attention to community projects, directly and indirectly in cooperation with local organizations and volunteers. Good governance is not a natural consequence of good government. Government deals with the form and structures of council, committees, and departments. A community’s governance may leave much to be desired, even if its municipal government is highly efficient. Governance is concerned with how governments do the things they do. Good governance requires more than an efficient service delivery; it is concerned with how council decisions and the implementation thereof reflect and respond to the public interest.
The rapid growth Terrace has been experiencing in recent months presents a challenge to our municipal government. Demands for service adjustments linked to property development, higher densities, and new subdivisions are not limited to zoning and building regulations, they extend to garbage collection, street cleaning, snow removal, water and sewer services, fire protection, and much more. Development generates new taxable assessment, but the promise of more cash in the till is moderated by the cost of having to extend municipal services. The challenge is not only to deliver expanded services without negative impacts on the established community, but to also achieve a net gain for the community. The service and budget challenges run the risk of focusing the attention of council and staff on structural and organizational problems, away from the governance which made Terrace a welcoming and humanitarian community even as its economy was on shaky grounds.
Terrace is at an important junction. We the community – that is council, city staff and citizens – cannot afford to forget that good governance arises out of an attitude to governing. A shared vision, common values, open processes, networking and collaboration cannot be bought. Our reward for good governance, distinct from efficient government, is the abundance of trails, parks, and cultural, sports and historic venues that invite the events and experiences we enjoy, ranging from the music festival to the farmers’ market.
A surging local economy will bring many benefits to the community. Let us enjoy these benefits, but, as we do so, let us not abandon the philosophy which holds that the purpose of the economy is to serve the needs of humanity.
Andre Carrel is a retired city administrator and full-time grandpal.