by Paul Harris
Someone made the mistake once of asking if I could write something for them and soon discovered that putting a keyboard in front of me is easy, but shutting me up is not. One of the good things about this is that writing has introduced me to some very interesting and talented people (including Vive's Susan Thompson).
Sometimes, people write back at me. They can be rude occasionally, and that is their right; some have entered into lengthy debate with me and, on occasion, have managed to alter my views at least a little; some have asked for information; some have simply said "thanks" because I touched them in some way. One such man wrote to me a while ago and he added a codicil beneath his signature that struck a chord with me. I'll call him Gerald, because that’s his name, and this essay has arisen in reaction to that codicil.
What Gerald wrote was this: "Society needs enough capitalism so as to maintain individual incentive - enough socialism so as to maintain individual humanity." It isn't profound, it isn't epiphanous, but it summarizes very nicely the way I look at the world. It also summarizes very nicely exactly what's wrong with the world.
I got to thinking about Gerald a few days ago in relation to what is sure to be a sooner-rather-than-later national general election call in Canada and I wondered how he would cast his ballot. Is there any party or individual on the ticket who would exemplify Gerald's simple summation of what the world needs?
A significant part of the world, in particular the part where most of the wealth lies, has developed from the stock of Judeo-Christianity, but more specifically Christianity. That is not to say that all those folks are Christian, but the basis of the laws and the societal standards they have developed over the centuries arose largely from that tradition. Unfortunately, Christ would find very little in society today that he would recognize and he would be quite surprised at the things said and done in his name. In fact, society has moved so far from the basic principles of Christian charity and caring that if Christ was to appear on earth today he'd probably sue for slander.
No matter what sect of Christianity you wish to consider, the reality is that Christ was a humanist, a socialist. He lived and breathed the Golden Rule, he cried out for the rich to take care of the poor and ill, he spoke of a brotherhood of mankind, he asked us all to play nice. It would take a very vivid imagination for anyone to believe that mankind has stayed even vaguely familiar with the teachings of Christ.
Indeed, that same sort of tradition forms the basic tenets of most of the world’s great religions and, therefore, the backbone of the societal structures built by the adherents of those religions. While the practices of the religions themselves may have declined in many places throughout the world, the basic fabric of those societies was still woven from those beliefs. And as much as I can say Christianity is hard to recognize in today's societies, the same is true for most other religious traditions.
Regardless of Gerald's background, religious or otherwise, he's got the idea right. Capitalism is a great incentive to people to produce, to get ahead, to make things and invent things; it can provide them with worldly rewards for the sweat of their brows, benefits they can see and touch without hoping for some promised post-mortal prize that doesn't pay off until you're dead. It is the necessary grease to move society forward. But abandoning along the way our basic humanity has almost become a mantra among those who have embraced the capitalist dogma. It seems that many among us think that any activity that smells evenly vaguely like socialism is the very bane of life, that it is necessary for us to make sure we get ours and that everyone else is on their own.
To be sure, there are nations where dog eat dog eat dog is not the norm. I think particularly of the Scandinavian countries who, better than most of us, appear to have grasped the idea that society should care for and nurture its members. They are amongst the most heavily taxed people on earth and much of their lives is regulated by governmental rules and regulations. But the average Scandinavian will tell you that the taxes they pay are well spent, that they are getting their money's worth. Are you? They will tell you that a caring society is a good thing, that they all benefit from it, that it is still possible to get rich but not if it means other people go hungry. To all the anti-socialists I would ask, what exactly is wrong with that?
The fact is, there is precious little to distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom, except that the animals are generally better people than us. We have at our disposal the tools, the wealth, the opportunity to put aside centuries of bickering and warfare; we are more than able to feed all of our species; we are quite capable of allowing for the drive of those who want to succeed in capitalist pursuits and for allowing them to prosper while they help others.
Surely it must be self-evident that a society which cares for its weakest, that prevents unnecessary hunger and illness, that ensures the basic necessities of life are available to all, is a society worth having. Surely it is self-evident that such a society takes away much of the impetus toward anti-social behaviour that has caused so much strife among us. Surely it is self-evident that removing some of the want from people and addressing the needs of the dispossessed, the refugees, the poor, is an act of self-preservation.
Establishing a society where the exploitation of one class by another does not exist shouldn't be a pipe dream. A capitalist system where entrepreneurs are free to develop their ideas and their enterprises - and to get rich - should not interfere with an orderly distribution of wealth within a society. But there are some basic needs that should be satisfied at the governmental level: potable water; electricity; heat; a minimum level of shelter. No one's access to these very basic means of keeping us alive should be constrained by an inability to pay.
I'm not talking about Robin Hood stealing from the rich to give to the poor, I'm talking about a fair system of distribution where the truly industrious can get as rich as their labours will allow, and where the less able or poorly equipped receive a boost to maintain dignity and basic living standards.
There doesn't seem to be any problem with filthy rich sports franchises redistributing gate receipts to benefit the smaller market teams but there is a strong aversion to giving the same sort of attention to common people. What is wrong with this picture?
Even arch-capitalist Adam Smith, the so-called "Father of Capitalism", wrote: "Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degrees of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and tolerable administration of justice."
Maybe we should seriously look at the way we order our priorities and the care we give to our species. We put a great deal of effort into managing everything except ourselves and we are the one creature on this planet desperately in need of a good slap upside the head. We are long past the point when we should have been able to stop acting like civilization was still waiting to be invented. And we are long past the time when we should have started holding our politicians accountable for the mandates we give them. I, for one, would like to see them measured against Gerald's yardstick. I would like to see a politician or political party come out solidly in favour of Gerald's plan and with a program to make it happen. Frankly, I would be quite willing to surrender some of my freedoms to make society a better place.
If you can accept Gerald's idea of what society needs, consider carefully the individuals or parties who are going appear on your next ballot. I think, for the most part, you'll have to wonder long and hard about where you can plunk down your "X" with any confidence of society moving forward. I suspect we in Canada won't find it easy to find many candidates who fit the bill although I am pretty sure we are a lot better off than our southern neighbours who are soon going to be facing the same choice.
Paul Harris is self-employed as a consultant providing businesses with the tools and expertise to reintegrate their sick or injured employees into the workplace. Canadian businesses can reach him at paul@working-solutions. He has traveled extensively in what is usually known as "the Third World" and has an abiding interest in history, social justice, morality and, well, just about everything. Paul is also a freelance writer and can be reached at email@example.com. He lives in Canada.