As I Please

Saturday, September 30, 2006

A Review of Bob Rae’s The Three Questions
[Former Ontario premier Bob Rae is generally regarded as one of the top three contenders for becoming the new leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. I wrote this book review for university back in 2000 when Mr. Rae was still professing to be a social democrat though no longer a member of the New Democratic Party, with intelligent if derivative notions about public policy. As columnist Richard Gwyn has commented recently, "he now sounds almost hostile to ideas"].

While Bob Rae’s book The Three Questions is certainly about politics, it is hard to agree with the publisher’s classification of it as a book of philosophy, unless it is philosophy in the broad sense of a statement of principles. It is not a book of political theory, if anything its tone is decidedly anti-theoretical, but concerned as it is with the practical responsibilities of government rather than an examination of first principles this is not a drawback. The chief significance of the book is not that it has anything new to say about politics, because it does not, but that it comes from a former Ontario premier and leader of the province’s New Democratic party. For that reason alone its message to Canada’s left is important.
Rae begins his book with a definition of social democracy:
The essence of social democracy is its belief in the equal right of every person to enjoy the good things of life, its commitment to freedom, and its recognition of the enduring value of human solidarity (8).

This definition is vague enough to be endorsed by social democrats, left-liberals, and red tories alike, and Rae gives no indication that he would have it otherwise, quite the reverse. Its very vagueness is an indication of his bias toward pragmatism and moderation throughout his book, not for their own sake, but rather driven by what he believes to be true about human nature. He bases this understanding on words of the great ancient rabbi Hillel, which form the broad framework for his argument:
“If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” The first question points to the enduring value of self-interest, which we ignore at our peril; the second to the need for generosity and justice in a world that values greed too much; the third speaks to a need for action and the danger of doing nothing, a vice to which we are all, in our private and public moments, too prone (9).

The “enduring value of self-interest” is something that Rae refers to constantly through his book, presumably to drive the point home to those on the left who believe politics can be based primarily on altruism. It is self-interest that is the basis of the market economy that is “the surest way to economic growth” (20). If what Rae is proposing can be described as socialism, it is socialism as the amelioration of capitalism rather than its replacement, which can be said to be what separates social democrats from radical socialists.
The most powerful recent manifestation of capitalism is the phenomenon known as globalization, “the economic reality of our time” (ibid.). Rae does not try to explain the main causes of globalization, beyond vague statements about technological change, but one thing is clear, and that is that he believes it is unstoppable and irreversible. The inevitability of globalization is of course the conventional wisdom of those who either stand to benefit from it or are free market ideologues, but it is unfortunate that Rae unlike other thinkers on the moderate left does not challenge it. He does at least make some recommendations as to how the worst aspects of globalization can be dealt with, touching on the “need for more effective international groupings of labour to match both the reach of transnational companies and the emergence of stronger intergovernmental agreements” in policing labour practices in different countries (a job that can also be done to some extent through television and the Internet), as well as arranging consumer boycotts and with other organizations doing research and education (43).
According to Rae the advocates of government spending face two problems. The first is “globalization itself, the end of capital controls, and the fact that virtually all industrial economies are more or less open. The second is the end of inflation” (64). In one of the more informative sections of the book, he points out how tax increases were “concealed, or at least buffered, by inflation”. However he does not satisfactorily show how “sustained tax fatigue in a number of countries has coincided with a dramatic reduction in inflation” (66). The more likely cause was a sustained attack through interest rate increases by countries’ national banks, an attack that in Canada’s case was particularly harsh in its consequences for the economy. In any case Rae (alluding to personal experience as Ontario premier) is correct to state that raising taxes is, with inflation over, political poison. However he does appear to be cautious about cutting taxes, as he rightly rejects the notion of a law against government ever running a deficit (66-71).
After outlining the problems facing social democrats in Canada, Rae makes an effective attack on the right. While for him the ideas of the radical left are unworkable and impractical (as well as electoral suicide), the ideas of the radical right are entirely selfish and inhumane. He correctly points out that private philanthropy, George Bush Sr.’s “thousand points of light”, are no substitute for the welfare state (91-2), and quotes some of the figures showing the increase of poverty and decrease in real income for most Canadians (ibid: 95). He dismisses workfare as “a return to the Poor Law philosophy of 1834”, unless it includes meaningful job retraining and education (103). He claims that the founding father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, “has more in common with modern social democracy than he does with the libertarian excesses of the Progressive Conservative government in Ontario” (181). Putting aside Burke’s reverence for the free market (which C. B. Macpherson among others has documented), there is in Burke something in common with social democracy, namely opposition to political radicalism and extremism, “the importance of a strong civil society, efficient government, and a respect for mutual obligation” (181-3).
There are, Rae believes, better approaches:
Devolve as much power to local governments as possible, but insist on co-ordination. And governments, in turn, should devolve as much power to the community as possible. Governments steer better than they row. Focus whatever tax relief can be afforded on the lowest paid, and give people every incentive to work, earn, and learn. Reduce the work week and working time. Reward patient capital. Discourage speculation if it re-emerges. Don’t punish success, but give every incentive for private generosity. Don’t reduce taxes to the point where the public sector can no longer provide decent health care, vital infrastructure investment, and education. Canada can ensure its competitive advantage through its strengths in health care, infrastructure investment, and education. (98)

There are additional policy prescriptions. He supports the European idea of employee and union representation on corporate boards (58). The localization of health care at regional and municipal levels (114), and that Liberal promise, federal pharmacare (115). Above all he stresses what apparently for centre-left political leaders is the main policy mantra, education, education, education. He advocates government programs in early childhood education (119), and more teacher involvement in school curriculum reform. As for the environment, he recommends a largely stick approach for consumers (user fees for garbage bags, toll roads, fuel price increases; 126-7). For all his talk about moderation and pragmatism, Rae seems to be quite the progressive after all. The question is how these laudable policies are to be pursued in the face of opposition from a business class whose values are largely if not entirely American, and therefore unlike in Western Europe (excluding the British Isles) antagonistic toward unions. Reducing the work week and working time and discouraging financial speculation seem particularly difficult goals to attain in a country that is next to one where democracy has been and is being undermined by moneyed interests. The best course appears to be “more co-operation and co-ordination with other countries, more international rules that are based on more than just the convenience of capital” (200). In short, an attempt at least to globalize social democracy as Rae has defined it.
While “prosperity and the public good” (to quote the subtitle of the book) are Rae’s main interest, he is also concerned with Canadian federalism, particularly as it relates to Quebec. He states that Canada has no absolute rights of self-determination for any province (148) and that there is no one type of federalism (154). Not sharing Pierre Trudeau’s antagonism toward Quebecois he appears to lean toward an asymmetrical federalism without saying so (154-8). Rae is as much a pragmatist in constitutional matters as he is in economic ones, saying, “constitutions…are always messy processes that are easier to knock down or tear apart than they are to construct” (158).
In the concluding part of his book, Rae undertakes a defence of politics. The remark he makes about government bureaucrats who feel that they are “the permanent government” is nicely put: “Administration on its own is a dangerous thing. It has to be led and informed by politics” (173). He rightly attacks “the greatest witch doctors of them all, the pollsters”, and the advocates of a laissez-faire philosophy of government (175). He even addresses however briefly television’s role in the trivialization of politics and the “dumbing down” of society (176-80). The choice for Canadians is stark:
We are now faced with difficult questions. Do we want to live in cities where there are streets and neighbourhoods where not everyone can go? Do we want to live in communities with rising levels of crime in which the answer to social problems is to incarcerate more and more (and more) people, and build bigger jails? Do we want to live in communities where those who have anything at all have to hire security dogs and create walled cities and communities around them? Or do we want to live in a community which is strong economically, with healthy markets and a strong sense of innovation and growth but an equally strong commitment to a sense of community health, to equality, and to a sense of inclusion? (185)

Or to put it another way, do we want to live in the United States or do we want to live in a social democracy? Rae does not say so, but the state of politics in the U.S. would appear to indicate that the only viable form of democracy is social democracy, at least in Rae’s sense. His arguments while not profound are largely correct, and set the course that a Left serious about political power must follow.

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