Along with the word “iconic” we should be wary of the promiscuous use of the word “balance.” Both convey feelings of perfection or authority that discourage light-hearted conversation and reasoned debate. Their use, in this listless time in Western politics, is unhelpful.
The hint of gravitas which accompanies the use of “balance”, of course, is exactly why it’s sexy in political discourse. It is intended consciously to calm unruly passions.
However, having the word beside your idea is valuable. A “balanced” idea likely won’t offend. It feels as if it takes far more into account than an idea that’s merely clear. Indeed, it invites you to believe that only what can work is left in the proposal—that the proposal is not merely a proposal but the only workable outcome. Democrats, policy professionals and dreamers, there is your problem.
The process of weighing and judging—balancing—the evidence before taking action is the essence of enlightened behavior. However, the best answer and necessary answer is not always balanced or a balanced package of half-measures heading off in opposing directions.
The virtue of balance has clouded several policy areas. Indeed, it has been used effectively to kill coherent reform. Electricity reform in Ontario is a classic example. The oxymoron, the “commercial crown corporation” exists to balance public accountability and market discipline. “Balanced” federalism has become a euphemism that allows each level of government to do bits of the other level’s job while spreading the blame.
In the “Art of War” Sun Tzu advised those who live by their wits that defence is usually the best way to deploy your resources. But, when it is to your advantage to turn to the offense you must be ferocious.
If you’re an activist and your government is nearly broke, it’s tempting to go for numerous little measures and say they represent a “balanced” approach. However, if you’re a serious reformer or even a serious conservative when the status quo is untenable, than whole-hearted reform should be undertaken. And balance left for sunnier times and lesser players.
Fellow speech writer and old friend, Senator Hugh Segal is wedded to the word. He also takes delight in thinking of politics as a heroic adventure. Segal concludes his most ambitious book, however, by straining balance and boldness to the breaking point.
“The time is ripe for a White Paper that discusses what a North American Assembly would look like, how its members could be elected within three founding countries, and what initial advisor, consultative and auditing role it might play, as the European Parliament did in its early days.”
Hugh Segal, The Right Balance: Canada’s Conservative Tradition, Douglas & McIntyre, Toronto, 2011, p. 224
He insists Canadian sovereignty would be enhanced in his North American Community. His North American Assembly would “not be unlike” the early European Parliament. It operated for some 30 years without direct elections; its members were assigned by member parliaments. Everything from income distribution to drug safety and continental security would be on the assembly’s agenda.
Political integration—jointly legislating the people’s business—is not an affectation or habit you acquire incrementally hanging around auditing and advising and consulting fellow North Americans. There is no slippery slope that will eventually take down the border and create a true North American—or, realistically, a Canada-US—political community. To make a difference, Segal’s White Paper would have to challenge the national sovereignty of the constituent parts. Otherwise, his North American Assembly would be only another “constructive conversation” largely attended by political staffers.
The first expression of a big idea is less a matter of calculation than of conviction. Quebec’s Rene Levesque and France’s Jean Monnet were candid and effective. One spent most of his career trying to create a separate Quebec, and the other worked even longer to unite Europe. Both were self-described gradualists and probably liked the word balance. Yet, early in their public utterances they were clear about how far they’d like to go. In 1950, in negotiating the European Coal and Steel Union (initially between France and West Germany), Monnet wanted it publicly understood that its binding joint authority was only a first step toward European federation. His idea was a union of peoples, not merely co-operation between states.
Let’s not get started in North America by going back 60 years without a roadmap. This century, like the last, demands far more than balanced responses.