Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Everyday Socialism

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 02, 1998

Posted to NewsTrolls November 3, 1998

Buried in today's Winnipeg Free Press, in a tiny three by three article, is the latest missive from the nation's provincial governments. The provinces, it seems, are concerned that the Federal government in Ottawa will reduce funding for disaster relief.

1997 and 1998 have been tough years in Canada. Nothing like the recent hurricane in Central America, in which thousands of people died and entire nations reduced to rubble. But tough years, nonetheless. The flood of the century left southeast Manitoba under water. The Ice Storm paralyzed two major cities and their hinterlands. Floodwater from burst dams in Quebec raged though peaceful valley towns.

In each of these instances, the federal government was there with money for emergency supplies and money for rebuilding. It was money which was expected, and it was money which was necessary. It is simply not possible to buy flood insurance in the Red River Valley of Manitoba, and it didn't occur to anyone to insure against a paralyzing ice storm, the like of which has never been seen in history.

Winnipeg, Manitoba's capital, was spared the worst effects of the flood by a massive dike and floodway, which channelled floodwaters around this city of 800,000. The floodway, build by the provincial government after the devastating flood of 1950, more than paid for itself as it saved the city and the province from billions of dollars in damages and costs.

To the south, the North Dakota city of Grand Forks was less lucky. Money had not been available for flood protection, and when the Red overflowed its banks, the downtown core was shattered, first by the rising waters, then by fires which raged unchecked while helpless firefighters could only watch. Without Federal funding, Grand Forks will never completely rebuild, and will never be protected from a repeat disaster.

Disasters by their very nature are infrequent events, and typically events which exceed by an order of magnitude the capacity of a community to deal with them. The civilization of Atlantis is rumoured to have perished in a disaster, and the Minoan civilization of Crete certainly did. The city of Pompeii was wiped from the map in a volcanic eruption, the cities of Miletus and Corinth through war, Jonestown by flood, Tingshien by earthquake.

In cinema, 1998 has been the year of the comet, with the apocalyptic films Armageddon and Deep Impact. A disaster of that scale - nicknamed an ELE, or Extinction Level Event - would be one beyond the capacity of the global community to deal with. Scientists, with due prudence, advise that early detection and warning systems ought to be maintained in case of such an eventuality; the existence of dinosaur bones - but no dinosaurs - around the world lends credence to their warnings.

If, in the face of an Extinction Level Event, a tax was raised, one which would preserve life and limb, would the response of the populace be a high level of support? Or would the anti-tax demagogues raise the Red Scare, denounce the Socialist Hordes, and protest this form of government interference? One suspects that it would be the former, that people, faced with the choice between socialism or certain anihilation, would choose socialism, understanding that by collective action humanity might save itself, while through individual action every man would perhish.

It is, indeed, an instantiation of that old slogan, "We must hang together, for otherwise, most surely, we will hang separately."

Similarly, it would have been prudent for governments to raise the funds necessary for volcano evaluation in Pompeii, better defenses in Miletus and Corinth, flood protection in Jonestown, and earthquake proofing in Tingshien. Just as San Francisco would have preferred better fire protection in 1906 and the governments of Nicaragua and Honduras would like to have enjoyed hurricane preparedness in 1998.

It is only common sense to pool at least some share of the common resource to prevent Extinction Level Events or even everyday disasters as are felt in all corners of the globe. It is only common sense to raise these funds through taxation and to administer them through government operation, both to ensure that all people pay a share of the cost, and to ensure that funds are spent on their intended purpose.

(This is not to say that government administration is foolproof. One small town in the Red River Valley spent its money on a golf course instead of dikes, and paid for its foolhardiness with ten feet of water over the fourteenth green).

The maintenance of the common wealth is the first and primary purpose of taxation, and the just grounds for the imposition of taxes and governance, whether voluntary or not, for it is the duty of any community first and foremost to preserve itself, whether with or without the acquiescence of all of its citizens.

And thus it is not with surprise that we note that every society through history has taxed, to more or less a degree, its citizens for the purpose of common safety and preservation. The raising of an army, the building of moats and fortifications, canals, seaports, emergency food stores, evacuation routes and other roads, the engines of industry and commerce: all these have been seen throughout history as the legitimate domain of the state at one time or another.

Although people may have complained when rationing was introduced and industry appropriated for military purposes, citizens during the Second World War understood that a common effort was necessary, a choice much preferable to death and destruction at the hands of the Axis powers.

So too governments today raise revenues in the form of taxes for the protection and promotion of the common wealth. In the United States, a large proportion of each citizen's tax dollars is expended on that nation's renowned military might. A somewhat lesser proportion is expended on disaster relief. Other money is spent on the space program, emergency food and oil reserves, transportation infastructure, and the remaining elements of a civilization which deems its own survival not only desirable, but essential.

It is in the light of this reasoning odd to see the very existence of government, much less the power of government to levy taxes and raise public works, decried as socialist and lampooned as unnecessary by anti-socialist politicians and citizens.

These very people, who would be among the first to demand government aid in the event of an asteroid impact, flood or volcano, or even a traffic accident, consistently resist measures which would save their own, and their neighbours', lives.

The course of everyday socialism hums silently, often behind the scenes, as an insurance against the day it is needed. The police are never required except in an emergency; they appear, except when actively combatting crime, to be a needless expenditure, but let them be absent when called upon and hear the howls of protest from even the stingiest taxpayer. Firefighters may appear to be a wasteful expense when they are arresting the flames in someone else's home or business, but let them tarry when one's own chimney catches alight and the letters of indignation will shower City Hall with abuse and rebuke.

Education appears to be something which can be handled by that other kid's parents, but let the uneducated vote foolishly in an election, or ruin one's business through sloppy cash management, or turn to crime because they have no other means of support, and then let the plaints of the nation's poor education system let loose. Oh how ironic it is that the people who moan the loudest about the nations's education system are also those least willing to invest in it, even while at the same time they know that a strong educational system is the premium one pays to ensure a safe and secure future.

Everyday socialism in fact functions most effectively, like insurance, when money is paid out, but never collected. Just as we would prefer to pay for a dike, rather than collect flood relief payments, so also we would rather pay for health care premiums, than lay in the ditch hoping to collect some of those health care expenses everyone compains about.

Everyday socialism, really, is like wearing a raincoat during a storm, bringing paddles in a motor boat, or buying extra flashlight batteries. It's just common sense.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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