In March, the Laidlaw Foundation in collaboration with Citizens for Public Justice sponsored a roundtable discussion of themes from the recent book Beyond Poverty and Affluence: Towards a Canadian Economy of Care by Bob Goudzwaard and Harry de Lange (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995). The centrepiece of the roundtable was an exchange between Dr. Goudzwaard, economist and former member of the Dutch parliament, and David Olive, editor of Report on Business Magazine in the Toronto Globe and Mail. The following is an edited version of that exchange.
It is the mark of the man who protests too much that he must insist on his bona fides before appearing to betray it. Very well. As the president of a nonprofit housing facility, and a director of a centre for teenage parents, I have been confronted with the grim reality of sudden, deep spending cuts. I participated in the firings of two very good, and seriously underpaid, social workers--and depending on what the Harris government has in store, we may be forced to cut back further in our staffing. And every staff person we cut is not only an individual who has been made to suffer a terrible trauma, but also causes the stress of disruption in the lives of some forty families with whom that staff person was developing a supportive relationship.
Having said that, as a business journalist I am perhaps more likely than most readers of Bob Goudzwaard and Harry de Lange's Beyond Poverty and Affluence to find fault with its attacks on the profit motive and its faith in organized labour and organized religion as holding more promise as agents of social progress than individuals or the market system. I have to fault it for its assumption that market forces are essentially and inevitably mean-spirited, and its insistence that human nature can be magically altered to encourage individuals to drastically reduce their expectations so that their claim on at least the hope of higher incomes and attainments might be surrendered to vague forces that will redeploy those surplus incomes and forsaken luxuries for the good of all society.
This book disappoints me. The authors seem to be trapped in a Club of Rome time-warp. In seeking to resurrect a "limitations of growth" dogma and impose it on our current age, they deny one of the most important aspects of the human spirit--the belief, the hope, that we all have in the promise of a more prosperous tomorrow for ourselves and our children by freeing ourselves of limitations. Human nature dictates that I should like to free myself from abject poverty, or political repression, to give full rein to my creative and imaginative abilities--not so that I would then accept to conform to a new set of limitations and strictures.
I am disappointed because our society is confronted with certain challenges regarding the disadvantaged which I am deeply concerned about. And yet the authors express that same concern, and issue prescriptions for dealing with it, which strengthen the hand of our enemy--of those who would tell the disadvantaged that they are on their own, and that they are perhaps to blame for their own problems.
Human nature dictates that I should like to free myself from abject poverty, or political repression, to give full rein to my creative and imaginative abilities--not so that I would then accept to conform to a new set of limitations and strictures.
Specifically, I refer to the authors' assertion that "if we introduce a public standard that sets a limit on private earnings, then we have introduced a means by which to extricate ourselves from the jaws of the `acquisitive society.'" Even if I believed that such a policy would be beneficial, which I emphatically do not, it would find absolutely no widespread support among rich or poor people in this country. Are the authors so fixated with the European experience that they fail to understand the North American preference to aspire to the wealth of the richest people in their society, rather than bring about a condition in which all citizens are more or less equally endowed in material wealth? Do they not appreciate that in a North American environment in which even seat-belt laws are met with resistance, the idea of automobile rationing or automobile-free days is completely unacceptable to the wide population of voters?
The authors suggest raising the GST on capital-intensive products, and lowering it on labour-intensive products and activities in the service sector. Do they not realize that capital-intensive industries employ those people in our society who tend to enjoy the highest incomes, and the highest satisfaction, in comparison with flipping hamburgers and operating the rides at amusement theme parks? Proposals of this sort mark this entire set of ideas advanced by the authors as dead-on-arrival in any forum of political or business decision-makers in this country. They are completely untenable in the current political context.
I'm disappointed, finally, that the authors credit market forces as the chief villain in the piece. In regard to developing countries, however, do they not realize that war, not economics, is the root cause of malnutrition, homelessness, low education standards and income levels, and rampant unemployment? And closer to home, do they not appreciate that prejudice against aboriginal peoples, women, persons of colour and other groups is a vastly more effective force in denying social equity than the market-economy system? It is the denial of equal access to that system which should trouble us, not the admitted imperfections of the system--a system which, as recent historical developments have shown, is a more effective creator and distributor of wealth, and the health-related benefits of wealth, than its collectivist alternatives in every instance in which collectivism has been attempted. And I am alarmed, as well, that the authors, who have a great deal to say about the need to encourage lifestyle changes in regard to consumer preferences, have nothing to say about North America's greatest undermining force in the quality of our lives--the lifestyle choice of breaking up a family.
We have technology to thank for life-prolonging drugs, cleaner-burning gasolines in our automobiles, and automated banking machines and Internet shopping that save us a motor trip to the bank or the mall.
The authors seem to be suspicious of technology, thinking that its sole functions are to render people jobless and to despoil the environment. Yet technology today, as in the agricultural and industrial revolutions past, creates more jobs than it destroys, and the new jobs created are better-paying and more intellectually fulfilling. We have technology to thank for life-prolonging drugs, cleaner-burning gasolines in our automobiles, and automated banking machines and Internet shopping that save us a motor trip to the bank or the mall.
The authors raise the spectre of "the dark abyss that society is now perilously approaching." Extreme rhetoric in the cause of social reform is no virtue. And in this case it is patently false.
We are, instead, at the brink of a great era of promise. We have the technological and human resources to solve our most pressing problems. And we have come, with each passing decade, to expect an ever higher standard of social conduct from ourselves--indeed, we are evolving towards an ever more collective approach to our problems and opportunities. What we lack is sufficient will to harness these resources to solve our social problems, and the knowledge of how that might best be done. But we can find the will, and the knowledge, without overthrowing the market economy. The market economy offers far more flexibility than any other system yet devised for implementing solutions to the obstacles in the path of social progress.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld