National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

Citizens or taxpayers? Yes, it really does matter

Are we citizens first or taxpayers? Or does it even matter? Andrew Coyne seems to think not. He dismisses the debate as little more than a distraction from the real issues. I think the debate gets at something profoundly important in our politics, the implications of which are only now becoming clear—especially in the phenomenon of Ford Nation.

While Susan Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes has been the catalyst for much of the current discussion around “consumer politics,” the debate goes back at least to the 1970s, and it turns on an old distinction between needs and wants. (In the interests of transparency, Delacourt is my spouse.)

Wants are personal preferences. They are subjective in the sense that your wants may be very different from mine, such as which part of the city you’d prefer to live in or whether you think high-rises should be allowed in your neighbourhood.

By contrast, needs are (relatively) objective because they say something about the human condition—such as that we all need food, clothing and shelter—or about a particular group or community, such as that the City of Sudbury needs a new hospital.

Policymaking can be based on wants but, when it is, everyone’s wants should count the same. Thus, if some people want a swimming pool in their new community centre, but others want a hockey arena—and if this really is a matter of preference—the issue might fairly be decided by a plebiscite, because it gives everyone an equal say.

By contrast, the needs of a population have a very different status. Some needs are more important than others, so everyone’s are not treated equally. For example, food and shelter would normally be seen as a higher priority than building a recreational centre.

Nevertheless, establishing which needs government should focus on, and their order of priority, can be difficult and controversial. This usually requires debate and evidence, which, unfortunately, are too often inconclusive. For example, there may be only partial evidence that Sudbury really needs a new hospital. Traditionally, such disagreements are resolved by a vote in the legislature or an election.

Consumer politics seeks to change this approach to democracy by shifting emphasis away from discussing needs and onto counting wants. This idea comes from economics, where markets let consumers choose something they want, if they are willing to pay for it. If the demand for a product is high, its value rises—as does the price. Thus value is determined by demand.

Conservatives like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan thought this provided a better way to make policy. Rather than having messy debates over which needs mattered, it was simpler, fairer and more efficient to leave such decisions to market-like systems.

User fees are a good example. If people have to pay to use health services or a toll-road, they will only use them if they really need them. Further, the more they are willing to pay for these services, the greater the need.

Consumer politics thus rests on the belief that the best way to deal with needs is to identify the wants of individual citizens, count them (“aggregate them”), and then treat those wants with the biggest numbers as the most pressing needs.

This neo-conservative revolution changed our political culture. Many people embraced the view that counting wants (“maximizing utility”) was the best way to deal with needs, and that policymaking should take this approach wherever possible. This is where Delacourt’s book picks up the thread.

In the 1980s and ‘90s public opinion research (POR) pushed the basic idea behind consumer politics to a new level.  POR offered a faster, simpler, cheaper way to identify and prioritize wants. Rather than having to rely on a mechanism such as user-fees, it allowed policymakers to go straight to the source and ask people to state their wants in a survey. Decision-makers then used this data to shape policy.

As Delacourt goes on to show, data-mining is taking this to yet a third level. New technologies and techniques mean policymakers can now accurately identify the wants of very small groups and then use the data to make small, highly targeted policy decisions—“micro-targeting”—that respond to these wants. The more granular and targeted this becomes, the less need there is for dialogue and debate.

Looking back, we can now see that consumer politics has had at least two major consequences for politics. First, it makes the basic test of good government the same as for any market: Do the “products” it offers (policies and services) satisfy my wants, at the smallest possible cost to me (taxes)?

Second, the stronger the consumer culture becomes, the more suspicious people are of traditional talk around “collective responsibility,” “common good” or “community needs.” The idea that my wants should be set aside to address a “common good” has no place in the consumer model.

Such appeals sound more like rhetoric that someone is using to impose their wants on me. This creates resentment, division and polarization within the community. Increasingly, people regard such talk as undemocratic, elitist, manipulative and threatening.

I believe this goes a long way to explaining the culture of Ford Nation, as well as the growing rift between the suburbs and the downtown in the GTA.

In the old view, public debate is all about defining the public interest by establishing collective needs. This requires a very different view of public debate. Rather than seeing it as a chance to advance my wants, it asks me, as a citizen, to consider the needs of the community. This means I must listen to others, weigh their claims, examine the evidence, and make trade-offs and compromises.

When Delacourt talks about citizens having once had a sense of the common good or being willing to make sacrifices for it, we don’t need to believe there was once a golden age of civic participation to agree with her.

The real point is that, not so long ago, citizens had a much clearer sense of their responsibility—as citizens—to balance their personal wants against the public good. Rob Ford’s proclivity to treat citizens first and foremost as taxpayers—and Ford Nation’s inclination to respond—shows just how far we have strayed from this vision.


Dr. Don Lenihan is Chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team and Senior Associate at Canada’s Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. He is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and public engagement, accountability and service delivery. Don’s latest book, Rescuing Policy: The Case for Public Engagement is an introduction to the field of public engagement, a blueprint for change, and a sustained argument for the need to rethink the public policy process. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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