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The Great Divide


Are traditional ideologies of Right and Left on the verge of a radical shift:?

Originally published in the Halifax Herald.


David Gratzer

 Author Notes

Student at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Manitoba, where he served on the university's Board of Governors for four years. Author of a weekly column for the Halifax Herald and contributor to over a dozen newspapers and magazines including the National Post, the Calgary Herald, the Ottawa Citizen, and the Toronto Star. Author of Code Blue (1999), winner of the Donnor Prize for outstanding books on public policy.

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Code Blue: Reviving Canada's Health Care System
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 Essay - 10/17/1999

My young nephew has already begun to show a warm, gentle sense of humour - more, alas, than I can say for the majority of writers with the Letterman Show.

In particular, my nephew loves knock-knock jokes. Perhaps he'll soon graduate to light-bulb jokes. But I'll wait with this one: How many intellectuals does it take to change the world? Answer: 39.

Where's the joke? There isn't one. In 1937, as communism and fascism dominated Europe, 39 economists and intellectuals gathered in Switzerland to discuss ways of promoting free-market ideas.

The group, who would call themselves the Mont Pelerin Society and which included future Nobel Laureate economists Milton Friedman and George Stigler, set out to change the world. Fifty-two years later, the ideologies of central planning, fascism and communism are historic footnotes.

But is communism's kissing cousin, Swedish-style socialism, enjoying creeping successes? Virginia Postrel, editor of Reason magazine, delivered an insightful lecture at the August meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society.

To start with, Postrel dismisses socialism. "Having spent some time recently in Sweden, I find it hard to imagine that Swedish socialism is creeping anywhere, except possibly under a rock to hide.

"The Swedish system is in serious trouble. The Swedish economy is no longer creating jobs - private sector employment has been shrinking for decades. . . . The country is facing a brain drain. A backlash is developing against refugees and immigrants, who once represented Sweden's commitment to human rights and now are increasing seen as outsiders consuming a fixed welfare pie."

Maybe socialism is fading, but government meddling hardly seems to be. Just this week, for example, the federal Liberals announced their agenda in the throne speech which was rife with market intrusions - expanded parental leave, targeted tax credits, new government investments.

Postrel suggests, however, that such initiatives aren't socialism.

"Pork-barrel spending is not socialism. Farm subsidies are not socialism. 'Corporate welfare' is not socialism. These programs are not ideological in nature. They are about competing interest groups."

Socialism, Postrel argues, is about "nationalizing assets, command-and-control regulations, and taxation and redistribution" all in the name of rearranging society's wealth to achieve a fairer allocation of resources. That goal, Postrel maintains, is dead.

Nevertheless, Postrel observes that attacks on economic freedom - the underpinning of the free market ideas - is increasingly strong. These attacks are not, however, easily broken into Left and Right.

It is, after all, right-wingers like perennial U.S. presidential candidate Pat Buchanan who rale against free trade. Moral conservatives fret about cultural decline, some go so far as to advocate censorship. On the Left, environmentalists charge that free markets poison the earth. Traditionalists suggest that "luxury fever" creates a selfish society interested only in materialism.

"The most potent challenge to markets today . . . is not about fairness. It's about stability and control . . . It is the argument that markets are disruptive and chaotic, that they make the future unpredictable, and that they serve too many diverse values rather than 'one best way.' " Stasists, Postrel's term for those who favour the status quo, include a broad coalition that transcends the traditional Right and Left.

And a potent coalition for "the most important challenge to markets today is not the ideology of socialism but the ideology of stasis, the notion that the good society is one of stability, predictability and control. The role of the state, in this view, therefore is not so much to reallocate wealth as to curb, direct, or end unpredictable market evolution."

But then, if uber-pundit Pat Buchanan seems to be agreeing a lot as of late with consumer advocate Ralph Nader, the new coalition favouring economic dynamism is equally diverse, including businessmen, artists, scientists, and technologists. All this is pretty different from the ideological divides that we all learned back in Can Studies. But if Postrel's forecasts are to be believed, the hot issues of tomorrow are distinct from those that dominated this century. Beloved Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau never spoke out on biotechnology or Internet governance. Western maverick John Diefenbacker didn't rally in favour of popular culture.

If you buy Postrel's argument, in a world of Internet gambling, genetically-manipulated tomatoes and shock art, people will divide themselves into those who crave stability and order and those willing to trust in the creative energy released by economic freedom.

There are some problems with this scenario. For one thing, it isn't entirely clear that economic redistribution is entirely dead as an ideology (witness federal government spending on regional subsidies and welfare). But what has become clear is the shakiness of old political coalitions. Perhaps new political parties will sprout up reflecting new fault lines and, one day, vie for my nephew's vote.

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