Any poll I might care to conduct would find that Canadians, virtually to a person, say they want homelessness eradicated, theenvironment protected and disparities between the richest and poorest reduced. How then do we explain the continued presence of the homeless in our midst? Or the systematic degradation of our environment and scarce resources? The stunning accumulation of individual wealth in the face of Third World poverty? Even more curiously, if this is the kind of society the public truly wants, why is there no hue and cry over the persistence and deepening of these problems?

The answer, it appears, lies in a disconnect that has developed between those things we value and the world we are prepared to tolerate. While huge majorities may give these call-for-action responses in polls, they rarely raise these sentiments in public debate or translate them into direct demands for action. Rather, what we find is a public that has come to accept that the homeless are just “there,” that the deterioration of the environment is part of the normal course of events, and the the wealth gap is just, well, something that exists.

Canadians still know what kind of community and society they want, but seem to have stopped asking for it. In direct parallel, it is no coincidence that poll after poll shows they have concluded that government is unable or unwilling to produce the results they desire anyway.

This analysis leads to a disturbing conclusion: that the electorate believes what government does has little bearing on its lives or impact on its communities. When this occurs, the people cease to make demands on government to address even the problems they clearly recognize. From there, it is a small step until we stop even asking what kind of community we want and value. In the end, we cascade toward a society of meaninglessness.

This process seems to have had its root in the late 1970s when the great experiments of post-war liberalism began to show some early cracks. The creation of a seamless welfare state failed to eradicate poverty; a collection of publicly owned agencies and corporations were unable to deliver services or compete effectively with their private-sector counterparts; and the limitless opportunities of the ’50s and ’60s began to dissipate at the same time as the public sector accelerated its interventionist activities. The public response was not (as many at the time believed) an ideological shift to the right but, more pragmatically and simply, to conclude “the old rules don’t work.”

An increasingly well-educated electorate became less deferential and more defiant toward traditional authority figures. An aggressive press, fuelled by greater emphasis on investigative journalism, routinely exposed the shortcomings, foibles and missteps of our elected leaders. By the mid-’80s, these two forces combined to generate a wholesale loss of faith in politicians and the political process. Where once prime ministers and members of Parliament were venerated, they became the source of jokes or disdain. Where once the electorate looked to government as the arbitrator and often the main provider of the public good, it now associated the state with waste, inefficiency and ineffectiveness. Rather than looking to government to guide the public interest, all the electorate demanded of it was more “efficiency.”

Whatever their failures, however, politicians and governments have never lost the ability to read the shifting public mood. Rather than paddle against the current of public opinion, government responded by scaling back the scope of its activities. For the past 15 years, where governments have made major changes to the status quo, more often than not it has been to undo the initiatives of past administrations.

The current health-care debate is a case in point. Instead of focussing on the optimum system desired to meet the needs of the population, the debate has too often revolved around the “sustainability” of the existing system and what services have to be dropped to meet this end. On issue after issue, the discourse fails to address the fundamental litmus test of public policy — namely, how do proposed changes meet the public good?

And has that mode of governing reversed the decline in faith in public institutions? Far from it. Instead, it has simply reinforced the notion that governments are incapable of acting as positive agents of social change. This point of view, of course, suits the interests of those who benefit most from the withdrawal of the state from the public sphere — the business community and the wealthy. The weak, too, have become convinced that government is an institution that “undoes” rather than “does” things. They see themselves as the group most likely to bear the brunt of dismantling and “cutting,” and therefore share the perverse perspective that the government that governs best governs — i.e., dismantles — least.

A new generation of activists, protesting against everything from child labour practices and environmental degradation to globalization and restrictions on gay rights, has also chosen to eschew politics, party and Parliament. The protest movement channels its activism into single-interest groups, non-government organizations and other vehicles of so-called “civic culture.” When I asked Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, the best-selling screed against growing corporatism, about (for me) this curious dismissal of government, her answer was devastatingly direct. In her entire adult life, she replied, she could not recall one government initiative that she admired and was proud of. In the eyes of voters under 35 who share her passion for societal improvement, the state not only fails to share their values but actively abets those who oppose them.

After the Canadians who grew up associating government with medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, Petro-Canada or Old Age Security comes a new generation of voters weaned on a diet of cutbacks, privatization, layoffs and retrenchment. Fifteen years of government responding to the lowered and cynical expectations of the public with even lower and more cynical performance have done little more than widen the chasm between it and the electorate.

Should we care? Are we not experiencing the triumph of the markets? Are we not marching triumphantly toward globalization? Has the inherent superiority of private efficiency over public sloth not been documented beyond dispute? We are told repeatedly by those who have a voice — our politicians, press and business leaders — that these forces are inevitable, these facts immutable. In a time of moral relativism where every idea, behaviour and habit is generally considered as acceptable as any other, any challenge to these “truisms” is deemed at best fringe, at worst delusional. Within this intellectual jihad, dissent is rare and silence has become consent.

This is precisely why we should be alarmed. For this is how we come (as our year-end poll in Maclean’s has shown) to support a measure such as the new anti-terrorism law, yet at the same time believe the authorities will abuse it and apply its sanctions to non-terrorist activities. This is the by-product of a society that has disconnected itself from public life. When we cease to see government actions as either good or bad, we no longer give any consideration to how society might be and, instead, come to accept society simply as it is.

The absence of moral discourse or ethical considerations as a central part of governing leaves both citizens and governmentwithout a compass or creed that defines a nation. Without a sense that government actions will produce “right” or “wrong” consequences, the fabric of society begins to unravel. Identity with the larger community of which we are part is overtaken by regional, religious or ethnic loyalties. Notions of the public good are sublimated to the pursuit of self-interest.

The fact is that, no matter how some may try to persuade us otherwise, the state has power. The political process maintains amonopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Parliament can, if it wishes, declare that men are women or that dogs can vote. Only through the state can we allocate society’s scarce resources. To make this case is not a polemic or wish on my part. This is an inherent part of the bargain we strike when we give up our unbridled, individual freedom in exchange for collective safety, stability and civic society.

This agreement gives the state the authority to do evil, as well as good. And because this bargain is the essential contract between the governed and those who govern, it means the state is not an abstraction and can never be irrelevant to its citizens. The state and government are not “them,” they are “us.” When we lose sight of or choose to ignore this fundamental tenet, we lose our capacity to organize society toward the ultimate ethical goal — namely, generating the largest good for the greatest number. We lose, in effect, a free and democratic society.