One of the most unpleasant words in the English language is, “amalgamation.” It is a bureaucracy’s way of creating growth, by taking discrete things, such as municipalities—with their particular histories and political cultures—and putting them into an amalgam, under the effective control of higher authorities, of “experts” such as themselves.
Yes, the word came apparently from Arabic, “al-malgham,” like much of our medieval scientific vocabulary. But, as typically, the Arabic came from Greek: “malagma,” a softening substance. Our medieval alchemists, who’ve had a bad rap for several of their more speculative enterprises, did a lot of “useful” work, too, such as finding new ways to “amalgamate” mercury with gold, silver, and other metals, to make things like dental fillings. The very extraction of gold from ore was an amalgamative process; unspeakably dangerous and poisonous, but effective.
I often suspect that is an adequate definition of “empiricism”—the discovery of unspeakably horrible but very efficient ways to get results, also known as the “scientific method.”
The prestige of empirical science has fallen like a moral shadow over the activities of modern man. Bureaucrats seeking control over every aspect of human life have invoked science, and scientific vocabulary. In Ontario, as in almost every other jurisdiction of western statecraft, municipal affairs have become a kind of “science.” Almost everywhere, “amalgamation” has been the means to soften the hard particularities of place and time and person, and create instead some pliable substance that the bureaucrat can mould in his own image.
The words “Regional Municipality of” nicely summarize two generations of bureaucratic effort to strip the citizens of Ontario of any power they had to control the circumstances in which they live. Amalgamations of municipal governments, school boards, and planning agencies across vast areas leave the normal voter and taxpayer, who must work for a living, with roughly the same say over what happens in his own neighbourhood as over ice formations on Hudson’s Bay.
That is, incidentally, why the turnout in municipal elections tends to be so distressingly low. The citizens are not entirely stupid. They know their municipalities are little more than branch offices of Queen’s Park, whose fiscal arrangements are, in turn, with Parliament Hill. And so they show more interest in provincial and federal elections.
Tomorrow, Ontario goes to the polls. There are 444 municipalities, according to the website of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. That number is seriously misleading. Most of these municipalities are what is aptly called “lower tier”: that is, utterly powerless. The biggest are “single tier”—huge cities like Ottawa, Toronto and Hamilton that do not even have “lower tiers.” The very name of the ministry gives the show away by revealing that “municipal affairs” are themselves amalgamated with province-wide housing initiatives. The municipality is simply the “service provider” on the spot for grand universal schemes that have “progressively” replaced more ancient ones: in which charity was dispensed directly through family, neighbours, church, and from the pockets of the wealthy, without administrative elaborations. And in which generosity and gratitude——two native human qualities that once animated “municipal affairs”—were factors that had not yet been dispensed with.
At the time of Confederation, the provinces were the size of today’s “regional municipalities,” and the municipalities of town and country were their “lower tier.” As the country has grown in population, the elected authorities have become progressively more distant from the individual. They have also become progressively more powerful over the individual.
If “democracy” is something we want, be it observed that we have much less of it today than we had 143 years ago. And while we still have such democratic theatre as “all candidates meetings,” the chance that the individual voter has some personal knowledge of any of the candidates has become remote.
I think of my own first acquaintance with municipal politics when I was a child, nearly half a century ago, in an Ontario town of 10,000 souls. The mayor was Joe Gibbons. He was a barber. You might not have liked Joe (though he was extremely hard to dislike), but you had certainly seen him. Indeed, you had seen him many times, because the job of mayor kept him on the streets (when he wasn’t still cutting your hair).
Ditto the members of council: all familiar faces. People knew whom they were voting for, and these politicians were directly answerable—on the street—for the decisions they made, or were contemplating.
While “representative democracy” is inevitable, at the higher levels, it has never been necessary at the lowest level, where “direct democracy” has always been possible. As the old citizenship manuals made abundantly clear, power in a “democracy” travelled from the base up. Municipal government was the most important level, because that was where any citizen could participate directly in public affairs. Conversely, there was a word for alternative systems in which power travelled from the top down: “Tyranny.”