From Morningside To Market: Are We Throwing The Baby Out With The Bathwater?

Posted on Sunday, July 10 at 23:12 by JaredMilne

 

 

In a discussion of Brian Mulroney’s political legacy on the forums of the Canadian political website Vive Le Canada, a conservative forum poster by the screen name of “Individualist” decried what he called the “Morningside Consensus”. Basing the name off the political panel of Eric Kierans, Dalton Camp and David Lewis on the long-running CBC radio show Morningside, Individualist decried what he considered to be the broad political consensus of an era going from the 1960s to the 1980s for what he considered to be its statism and economic egalitarianism. Individualist considered the Liberals, the Conservatives and the NDP to have adopted nearly identical ideas, and vastly prefers the current Conservative party, which he views as truly believing in individual liberty and a competitive market economy.[1]
 
In contrast to the old Morningside Consensus, Canadian political commentator Rudyard Griffiths noted the rise of a new political consensus in the 1990s, one that was based on a neo-liberal agenda to reduce the size of government, become economically and politically integrated with the U.S., emphasize privatization and market deregulation.[2] Much of the rhetoric seen today derides government as somehow not being capable of doing anything right, and touting “free markets” as the source of prosperity and freedom.
 
It seems, then, that we have moved from the Morningside Consensus to what I would refer to as the “Market Consensus”. But, as someone who’s grown up witnessing this transition, and the social changes that have come with it, I’m left to wonder…
 
…Are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
 
In the era of the Market Consensus, while we’ve seen important and useful changes in society, most notably the rise of the Reform Party and the essential service Preston Manning did us by helping to restore fiscal sanity to Canada, and many of the useful bread-and-butter reforms enacted by Stephen Harper’s government since the Conservatives’ taking power in 2006, I’m very worried about the long-term trends that the Market Consensus seems to have brought in its wake.
 
More and more we see rising inequalities in society, with more people living in poverty and much of the new wealth staying in the hands of the wealthy, without a lot of it “trickling” down to the rest of society. More and more people, particularly youth, are having a hard time finding stable, long-term employment. Unemployment rates continue to rise as manufacturing jobs are outsourced to foreign countries and companies are bought up by foreign enterprises. The social safety net is continually reduced, as more and more of the onus for social support is placed on individuals and charity to support those who have trouble making ends meet on their own. We seem to be returning to an era similar to that of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when classical liberalism was king.
 
Unfortunately, much of the wealth generated, for all that it contributed to the nations that acquired it, did not in fact “trickle down” to the ordinary people, most of whom remained in low-paying jobs. It’s not entirely certain how “free” most people were when they had to work 12-hour days in dangerous conditions at low salaries, and had little opportunity to pursue other interests. It’s worth noting that this era also saw the rise of Marxism in response to classical liberalism, and that enough people found it appealing that it was able to gain power in numerous countries around the world, setting the stage for the horrors of Stalinism, Maoism and the Khmer Rouge.
 
But in their own way, I would argue that government social programs, when they’re done well, have dramatically increased the liberty of many more people than classical liberalism did on its own. Pierre Trudeau illustrated the situation when he cited the case of a young child from a poor family who might have had the talent to be a Mozart. It would be that much harder for the child to exercise his talents if he didn’t have the opportunity to do so, most notably through being able to access good schooling. Government support would actually give the child a much better chance to develop his abilities.[3] A more concrete example in Western Canada might be how government aid benefited the farmers and ranchers who settled the West, given that they benefited from government-constructed railways and the distribution of free land.
 
It applies much more broadly, too-government-funded education has freed up the talents of countless people, allowing them to much more easily access high-paying careers suited to their abilities. Government health programs saved many people from having to pay huge sums of money for treatment and allowing them to spend that money on other goods and services, to say nothing of allowing patients the ability to continue living their lives the way they wanted to. Welfare payments and Unemployment Insurance allowed people to continue participating in the economy and pay their bills even when they lost their jobs due to market downturns or illness, oftentimes through no fault of their own. Workplace regulations have made jobs safer, and minimum wage laws frequently increase the purchasing power of people on the lowest rungs of society.
 
By contrast, British journalist Johann Hari questioned just how much liberty a man in Harlem with no health insurance and a son with cancer would have, given how much of his money he would have had to spend on cancer treatments, even if he could have afforded it.[4] Political scientist Rand Dyck has also pointed out that such programs were not necessarily opposed by the wealthy elite, given the role they play in maintaining social stability and even increasing the purchasing power of the poorer parts of society.[5] Conservative icon Robert Stanfield, while simultaneously supporting free trade with the United States  and criticizing the Trudeau Liberals for what he saw as their trampling on regional interests, particularly in the West,[6] also stated that conservatives should not be doctrinaire supporters of private enterprise or afraid to use the power of the state for positive ends, including support for the legitimately disadvantaged.[7]
 
Conservative politicians and pundits that one would not normally associate with the Red Tory tradition have arguably done or supported this more than you’d think. Calgary writer and planner Bob Morrison once claimed that the provincial government of Ernest Manning actively collaborated with the oil industry to “encourage greater market growth than would otherwise occur”, allowing for the creation of jobs that would not have come in standard free-market conditions.[8] Pundit Diane Francis, widely vilified by Canadian nationalists like Mel Hurtig, once noted how the federal- and provincial government-financed Syncrude initiative was instrumental in generating what she referred to as a “world class industry” that brought economic benefits to all its partners.[9] After Stephen Harper won a majority government earlier this year, Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith urged Harper to rethink his party’s decision to end the federal accelerated capital cost allowance program for the oilsands.[10] More recently, the Stephen Harper government wisely blocked the sale of Saskatchewan’s PotashCorp by BHP Billiton when the province made it clear that such a takeover would not be in its interests.
 
The question of citizens “getting our money back” through tax cuts, and the freedom that is said to come with it, isn’t as cut and dry as it first seems, either. After all, one could easily argue that we are “getting our money back” every time we drive on a road, use the healthcare system, watch shows like Hockey Night in Canada or The Red Green Show, or benefit from the skills someone learned through government-funded education. The people who pay school taxes today are helping to educate the next generation of skilled workers who will keep us competitive in the future after the current generation of workers retires, and that next generation will be paying the pensions and health benefits of the current generation, who are in effect getting their money back through various social support programs.
 
Hence my wondering if, with the trumpeting of the marketplace as the be-all and end-all of liberty and prosperity, and the demonizing of government intervention and support, I’m wondering if we don’t run the risk of losing the positive aspects of government intervention and support as well. After all, marketplaces themselves can be just as inefficient and bureaucratic as any government department, as the American health care system has shown all too clearly. Similarly, if capitalism automatically leads to political freedom, then why does China continue to suffer under the tyranny of the Communist Party?
 
Please don’t get the wrong impression here-I don’t intend to criticize capitalism or the marketplace by themselves. History has repeatedly shown that capitalism is far and away the best system for generating the wealth and technological progress that have allowed us to develop the way of life we enjoy today. However, I believe that markets are only one half of the equation, as by itself the wealth has historically not “trickled down” to society at large without government support programs, programs which in turn increased the liberty of a greater part of society. Even with these taxes and programs, many of our wealthiest citizens have still been free to use their talents to make their fortunes. How can Canada possibly be seen as a socialist haven when we have pharmaceutical gurus like Eugene Melnyk and Darryl Katz, insurance tycoon Dominic D’Alessandro, newspaper barons like the Asper family, frozen food giants like the McCain family, broadcasting magnate Pierre-Karl Péladeau and multi-industry titans like the Irving family of New Brunswick?
 
The problems with both the Morningside and the Market Consensuses could in my mind be seen as two sides of the same coin. If the Trudeau era went too far in terms of government spending and attempting to establish a “perfect society”, leaving us with serious tax and debt problems, then in the current era we have a tremendous risk of increasing poverty and instability, which the move towards increased privatization and deregulation have not solved, and indeed have only made worse. In getting rid of the worst excesses of the past Morningside era, we also run a serious danger of eliminating the positive gains that came from it as well.
 
It’s completely naïve to think that the government can solve every single problem in the world, but it’s also absurd in my mind to think that the marketplace can somehow fix everything instead. Rather, I think that governments and markets can frequently reinforce and complement each others’ strengths, not to mention keep one another’s worst tendencies in check. Individuals acting on their own can frequently solve their own problems, while collective action allows us to achieve many things that we can’t on our own. Private charitable donations and government programs can, at the best of times, combine to support a greater number of those in need than either one could on their own. Private citizens with their own sources of power and wealth, independent of any government, can act against the type of government encroachment seen in Communist Russia or China, while government regulations and laws, when they’re properly implemented, can support the liberty of the less powerful.
 
The social safety net obviously can’t get solve everyone’s problems for them. Rather, I see it acting as a cushion to soften the blows that people suffer, oftentimes again through no fault of their own. There’s a difference between losing your job through laziness or incompetence and losing it because your employer is forced to downsize when the economy tanks, or because you suffer medical problems ranging from broken limbs to a heart attack or a stroke.
 
But these programs can be taken too far-if too much money is spent on them, and if taxes end up being raised too high to try and pay for them, how are businesses supposed to make any money? Demonizing the rich as a whole is just as bad as accusing the poor as a whole of being lazy and simply not wanting to work. National Post managing editor Jonathan Kay, in his review of Linda McQuaig’s and Neil Brooks’ The Trouble With Billionaires, expressed surprise at how reasonable he found many of the authors’ proposals. The problem for Kay was the broad attacks McQuaig and Brooks aimed at the wealthy as a class, which gave him the impression that they disliked rich people on a “gut emotional level”, as he put it.[11]
 
Hence why taxes and spending can and should be raised up or down as needed. Hence why the tax and spending cuts advocated by Preston Manning and the Reform Party and later carried out by Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin in the 1990s were necessary, and why tax increases may be needed to deal with some of the increasingly serious problems we’re facing right now.
 
Sadly, in today’s polarized political environment the idea that you think a tax increase might be necessary frequently leads to accusations that you’re Vladimir Lenin reborn, while defending tax and spending cuts frequently leads to accusations that you’re Milton Friedman reborn. The truth is much more complicated, most notably in the sense that there’s considerable opportunity for balance between raising and lowering taxes as needed so that the economy can function and the social safety net can be maintained.
 
Otherwise, we ‘re going to end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to the Morningside Consensus, something that will only leave Canada worse off in the long run.   


[1] “Individualist”, posting on the Vive Le Canada forums in a thread titled “The Deplorable Legacy of Brian Mulroney”, on March 4, 2011. Available online at http://www.vivelecanada.ca/forums/editorial-discussions-f113/the-deplorable-legacy-of-brian-mulroney-t94688.html
[2] Rudyard Griffiths, writing an afterword in Charles Taylor’s Radical Tories: The Conservative Tradition in Canada. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2006.
[3] Pierre Trudeau, The Essential Trudeau, ed. by Ron Graham. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1998. Pages 15-16.
[4] Johann Hari, “Don’t Give To Tsunami Victims: The Message of the American Right’s Philosopher-Queen.” The Independent, December 25, 2005. Accessed online at http://www.johannhari.com/2005/12/26/don-t-give-to-tsunami-victims-the-message-of-the-american-right-s-philosopher-queen
[5] Rand Dyck, Canadian Politics: Critical Approaches, Fifth Edition. Toronto: Nelson-Thomson Learning, 2008. Page 168.
[6] Richard Clippingdale, Robert Stanfield’s Canada. Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008. Pages 22-24 and 49-54.
[7] Quoted in Taylor, Radical Tories, page 195.
[8] Bob Morrison, “Provincial Tories Invite Harper’s Interference.” Edmonton Journal, October 6, 2008. Page A18.
[9] Diane Francis, “Stephen Harper: Get Smart Quick.” Financial Post, December 8, 2008.
[10] Quoted in Jason Fekete, “Western Canada Can ‘Breathe A Lot Easier’: Harper Maps Out Path For Tory Majority.’ Calgary Herald, May 4, 2011.
[11] Jonathan Kay, “The Rich Are Bad For Your Health: Why Income Inequality Is A Serious Problem For All Of Us.” The Literary Review of Canada, December 2010. Accessed online at http://reviewcanada.ca/reviews/2010/12/01/the-rich-are-bad-for-your-health/  

 

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