Couchiching Online
nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button
History Table of Contents
1992 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1992
Competitiveness and Social Justice: How Can Canada Have Both?

Panel: Competing Visions

GERALD CAPLAN, Media Commentator
DONALD COXE, Portfolio Strategist

Like an umpire introducing prize-fighters, John Harbron, senior research fellow, the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, presented the two contenders, Gerald Caplan, a well-known leftist commentator, and Donald Coxe, portfolio strategist and knockabout right-wing columnist.

Coxe was first into the ring.

"This is a debate, not a panel. Each of us is trying to convince you. Mine is a precarious profession, forecasting the future of economies and capital markets. We have to get it right most of the time. It’s different for socialists, who reject the idea of the market, so that they keep their cachet even if they almost never get a forecast right."

Socialism, he went on, had been a durable delusion, though the last five years had seen the destruction of the last illusions of socialism.

Coxe wanted to recast the terms of the debate as follows: Should Canada’s policy be the pursuit of social justice – which was really a code phrase for a cosmetic makeup job on the corpse of socialism? Or should we seek a strong, competitive, market-driven economy?

Coxe excoriated the Canadian left, linking it with the track record of socialism in other countries, from Cuba to China to the Shining Path. Would you buy a used canard from these people?

For Mr. Caplan to advocate these exploded theories was an arresting display of impudence. As the Caliph said of Hassan, his impudence had a monstrous beauty, like the hindquarters of an elephant.

The outcome in the last Ontario election had been a triumph for socialists. It was as if, when the Berlin wall fell, the West Germans had fled east.

Unless an economy was productive and competitive, it would lack resources to fulfil its caring goals. Newfoundland was an example. Coxe quoted from the U.S. Democratic Party’s platform, that an expanding entrepreneurial economy of high-skill, high-wage jobs was the most important family policy, urban policy, labour policy, minority policy and foreign policy America could have.

A sketch of well-intended blunders followed, showing what Coxe said was a Law of Unintended Effect.

Most public policy was based on the valid principle that if you want more of something you subsidize it, and if you want less you tax it. The CBC was subsidized because we needed a national communication system, cigarettes were heavily taxed because we wanted to cut back consumption. So subsidizing the unproductive and punishing the productive was a high-risk policy.

Because of misplaced "caring" Canada, once the most peaceful of nations, now ranked second only to the U.S. in the incidence of crime.

Caring could also be hypocritical. The dollar taxed from the productive to help the poor spends a night out on the town with the bureaucracy. It was only after the civil servants had raked off their pay, benefits and pensions that the money left over went to the poor. The point was that governments did tend to use taxpayers’ money to reward their supporters.

We were not debating the merit of caring; any government cared. But as Mrs. Thatcher had noted, if the Good Samaritan had not been prosperous, he could not have helped the victim of mugging. Yes, Canada had to be built on principles of justice to all. But not on the principles that built the Wall.

What would justice mean in the post-socialist era? It meant equality before the law. Programs that truly helped the poor to become independent. Protection of private property from governments and mobs.

Not all universal programs were harmful, though they tended to create entitlements. The Canada Pension Plan was a model of efficiency and fairness. Universal public education based on excellence was essential in a time when the economy was moving from dependence on resources to dependence on skills and technology.

But why ask our children to compete globally when the public educational system toiled beneath the weight of bureaucracy, union self-interest and pop psychologizing about self-esteem and multiculturalism?

Coxe went on to worry at Canadian public health care, concluding, rather surprisingly considering the line he was taking, that it worked better than the American system.

A test of any universal was whether it would improve the efficiency of the market system, and whether it would redistribute income from richer people to poorer ones. By this test one could perceive the unfairness of such policies as protectionism, tax breaks and subsidies for the well-to-do, closed-shop unionism and giving public servants the right to strike.

The approach argued for the merits of privatization, one of the more liberating trends of our time.

Market-oriented trends were the wave of the future.

But Canada was now the most heavily indebted industrial nation on earth, owing $400 billion to foreigners, who would move their money elsewhere if we tried to detach ourselves from global progress. Most of that gigantic debt had been incurred through governmental generosity of the kind urged by Mr. Caplan and his friends.

Coxe briefly indulged some nostalgia as he recalled how Main Street had given way to malls and supermarkets. And what had happened to Main Street was happening to the Canadian economy and would continue even if some reactionary future government tried to repeal free trade.

Mr. Caplan and his allies never understood the tidal forces ofour time and were still trying to hold them back.

We could give our children a chance to be productive players or we could shackle them in a socialist chastity belt.

Donald Coxe returned to his corner and Gerald Caplan came out fighting.

Donald Coxe had summarized everything he had wanted to say. It seemed to be Caplan’s fate to come to Couchiching to debate with right-wing ideologues. They were remarkable for never being right about a single prediction. Caplan wished he knew as much about anything as Coxe knew about everything.

He was reminded of a previous contender, who had evinced the same kind of crazed, fanatical self-righteousness that had led America to McCarthyism. McCarthyism was when you could throw Caplan and Ed Broadbent into the same group as the Shining Path.

He recalled the Reagan years, when the CIA had cooked its reports to suggest that the Soviets were growing stronger and stronger, even while they were on the brink of collapse. The disinformation had resulted in an arms buildup, subsidized by the U.S. government – something Coxe would have disappr6ved of.

Now Caplan cited the right-wing intellectual Fukayama’s The End of History who thought that the world was about to die of peace and security. We should be so lucky! The same kind of triumphalism and theological fervour had inspired Coxe. Right-wing intellectuals seemed to be madly in love with their own wit. Donald Coxe had spoken of the impudence of the left.

It was important to the right to depict those of us on the left as the Neanderthals, as Luddites and spoilers, and to a certain degree these smears had been successful. We were not talking about conservatism, but about a reactionary response, an attempt to return to a kind of Hobbesian world, a world of social Darwinism that generations had spent their lives fighting against. A world of Ayn Rand self-interest, a world of profit uber alles.

Who else but someone shameless would have the chutzpah to look around the world on this day and speak of the triumph of the free market system! There had never been a time of more insecurity. Mr. Caplan spoke of his eleven-year-old child’s bleak future. He spoke of unemployment, and its heavy cost. He spoke with rising excitement of the world’s ills, all in the wake of the market’s triumph. Then he drank a glass of water and waded in with more. We had lived through ten years of capitalist riot. Men had gone to prison for following the market values. The S&L scandals were the direct result of deregulating the banks. The losses would be taken out of the hides of the workers and ordinary people. Tens of thousands were out of work so that the pillagers could pay back what they had taken. These were paper entrepreneurs, they created nothing.

And Donald Coxe had the chutzpah to talk about the increase of crime, as the result of state generosity! And again to talk about African socialism, when the policies of the capitalist agencies there had resulted in the transfer of wealth from them to us totaling half a trillion dollars.

The free market in fact was like the free press. It was only free to those who happened to own it.

Caplan had had a vision all his life of an egalitarian world where the bottom line was human dignity, not profitability. He praised a number of left-wing prophets who had possessed an almost religious fervour. They had believed that there was something nobler to aspire to than the bottom line.

What the right loved to mock was the welfare state. But this was exactly what Caplan found admirable.

He acknowledged that socialism had not been as successful in creating wealth as in distributing it. Frankly, he did not know whether this defect could be overcome. Frankly, it had been easier in opposition!

The world did not feel triumphant to him. He wanted to do what he could to hobble and hinder the Hobbesian vision of the Donald Coxes of this world. It might not be good for the Wall Street Journal but it would be awfully good for the world. Even if the left never achieved the world of equality and justice they had once believed in, at least they could reduce the harm that the other side was doing.