Trevor Hancock: The business of government in 21st century

In the past two columns, I have explored how ministries other than the Ministry of Health could contribute to our health and well-being. But I want to step back and consider the implications of this for the way we organize government more broadly.

Put simply, is the current structure of government fit for the purpose in the 21st century? After all, it is based largely on the management of a set of 20th- and even 19th-century issues.

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A recurring theme in my columns is the need to ask what business government is in. For some, those who are still stuck in the mid- to late-20th century ideology of neoliberalism, the business of government is business.

But if we look at what that has brought us — obscene levels of inequality and global ecological destruction, both of which threaten our personal and collective well-being — we can see it is a failed model. The last thing we need is more of the same.

Instead, we need to recognize that the “business” of government is — or should be — to maximize human and social development in a way that is indefinitely ecologically sustainable. That will mean building simultaneously four different forms of capital: human, social, natural and economic. It might be a good idea to organize government along these same lines.

Human capital is concerned with the level of human development of each individual. How can we enable each person to develop to their maximum potential, whatever that might be? This calls for education and life-long learning, the protection and promotion of health, the cultivation of creativity and innovation, and the creation of caring, supportive, compassionate people who respect and cherish diversity.

Social capital, on the other hand, is concerned with the collective, recognizing that humans are social animals. It is about the strength that is found in our connections with and responsibilities toward each other. There are at least three ways in which our social capital is manifested. The first is “informal” social capital, the social networks and bonds we all form through family, friends, neighbours and colleagues.

The second form of social capital concerns the formal social contract that we make with each other through governments and, to some extent, the non-profit sector. It manifests itself in universal free education, universal health care, employment insurance, social-assistance programs, disability and retirement pensions, and so on.

I call the third form of social capital “invisible” social capital; the legal, political, constitutional and diplomatic systems that we have developed over centuries of trial and error that provide the basis for peaceful resolution of our differences and disputes. One of the challenges we face today is how to bring these systems of peaceful democratic governance into the 21st century age of the internet, social media and artificial intelligence.

Natural capital is the third main form of capital; in a nutshell, it is the one planet on which we live, and which we share with myriad other species. It is the most fundamentally important form of wealth we have, as these ecological systems and natural resources are the ultimate determinants of our well-being.

The final form of capital is, of course, economic capital. Currently, it is the only form of capital that seems to matter. But it is, in fact, the least important, which is why I address it last. We need a certain level of economic wealth to pay for clean water, sanitation, education and so on. But building economic capital by depleting natural, social or human capital, which is what so often happens, is a good definition of insanity.

I suggest we need a government organized along these lines, with perhaps four super-ministries or cabinet committees, each responsible for tending one form of capital, and with cabinet as a whole ensuring they mutually support each other in doing so. Note that in this system, the minister of economic development is the least important, there to serve the other sectors, whose job it is to grow human, social and natural capital.

The role of economic development is subservient, there to enable and support human and social development for all, in a manner that is indefinitely ecologically sustainable. If it doesn’t do that, it fails.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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