Once again the news is full of the story of a politician who thinks the rules don’t apply to him. Literally. Every politician elected to Parliament is expected to put his business in a blind trust, in at least an attempt to keep conflict of interest to a minimum. But not Bill Morneau, who is the finance minister. Oh, no, he didn’t have to. And then his government tabled legislation that would earn his family business a whole lot more money. And he still didn’t think he had to distance his income source from his position of power.
It boggles the mind; it stretches the imagination. But it is no surprise. Literature has noted, since Shakespeare’s tragedies and even earlier, that people who get too much power soon abuse it. And now scientific studies have shown us why. The richer people are, the less they care about the feelings and ideas of others.
Why is This True?
Jumping from the scientifically demonstrable to unproven supposition, we might assume that poorer people need the help of their neighbors. Because we need their help, it’s a survival technique to watch those around us carefully, so we know how they think and feel, so we can help each other. Thus we develop empathy.
However, having more money makes us freer of the need for the help of others, so we retreat from worrying about them. And we stop caring about them. We spend our time in the company of greedy people, and we lose track of the level of greed that is acceptable to most people. Because, Presto! We are not most people. We have become the elite, and the rules don’t apply to us. Arrogance.
I suppose a certain amount of error could be forgiven in Mr. Morneau. Speculation was rife when he was chosen, what would come of giving such an important post to a non-politician. And now he’s only acting like the more experienced politicians around him. The Liberal Party of Canada.
It is worthwhile to note that the elder Trudeau, legendary in Canadian politics for his arrogance, usually showed his disdain in personal ways that did not affect his political decisions (giving people the one-finger salute, using the f-bomb occasionally). His son seems to have inherited his father’s arrogance. but he demonstrates his elitism in disdain for the electorate, remarkably by going back on an election promise to change the electoral system because, in his own words, “we don’t need that now.” Oh, yes, and thinking he can treat fellow parliamentarians like recalcitrant students, and physically push them into line like a group of Grade 3s (which, BTW, teachers are not allowed to do to Grade 3s, either).
This problem is even worse in the United States, typified by Donald Trump’s statement that he is “better than the elite.” He went to better schools, he got better marks, and he lives in a better apartment than “they” do. Which is the ultimate irony of course, because he is the ultimate example of the selfishness and lack of empathy that the elite supposedly are cursed with.
The Source of Myths
Given evidence of this sort of behaviour in politicians, we don’t find it surprising that the myth of the political elite has grown up. If you study myth and legend, you will find that these apocryphal stories may not be factual, but they have maintained their stature because they contain a germ of truth about the human condition.
“Avoid the Appearance of Evil”
This old bit of advice from my maternal grandmother would be a good motto to place over the entry to the Liberal Caucus meeting room. As their policy in 2015 stated, it’s not good enough that you just follow the rules for asset disclosure. MPs must avoid any action that might have the appearance of a conflict of interest. And while this policy might sound superficial, in order to accomplish such an appearance, MPs are thus encouraged to take into account the feelings and ideas of the people they are appearing before. Namely the electorate. I would not be the first commentator to notice that this is one of the first planks of the Liberal election platform to show signs of rot.
I’m afraid the only solution to this sort of abuse of power is to keep those in power from having so much of it in the first place. A minority government, one that has to keep looking to its neighbors for support, is far less likely to develop elitist tendencies. Let us remember that in the next election.