Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why we Need to be Concerned With the Extent of Inequalities in Our Society

"Universality has been severely reduced: it is virtually dead as a concept in most areas of public policy... These achievements are due in part to the Reform Party..." - Stephen Harper, speech to the Colin Brown Memorial Dinner, National Citizens Coalition, 1994.
One of the foundations of Canadian democracy has been the move toward a just society, within the framework of our Welfare State.

Universality meant that the basic tenets of that just society, were common to all. Healthcare, education and justice, were at the centre of the debate. All Canadians were to be entitled to equal access to these things regardless of their financial situation.

The neoconservative movement has sought to tear that down. Their belief is that by providing things like free healthcare, pensions, equal access to education and justice, we are opening the door to communism. However, I believe they are necessary to repel communism, if that was really their fear.

Universality does not mean that citizens do not have the ability to rise above their station. Wealth distribution does not mean that we want to steal from the rich and give to the poor, as expressed by the corporate sponsored Tea Party gang. And equality does not mean an end to diversity.

But a society based on fairness is necessary for the safety and well being of all citizens, including the wealthy.

Andrew Armitage, in his study of Social Welfare in Canada, provides a compelling argument for the necessity of equal rights and universal considerations as the basis for government policy.

Equality and equity, as they relate to poverty and the concern with the extent of inequalities. What are "the minimum standards of living that are to be tolerated in the society?"

If you take the neocon view, that everyone should look after themselves; or the Religious Right view, that if you are poor, it's because God wants you to be poor; what would be the end result?

Massive social unrest.

Armitage provides the alternative that was the basis for the Welfare State.
The welfare of any individual cannot be maximized without consideration of the effects of his choices upon others; thus a theoretical rich man can increase his welfare by giving to a theoretical poor man. The benefit can take many forms; the poor man will be politically more amenable to the rich man keeping his wealth when he is not so desperately poor; the poor man will be better housed, clothed, and fed and hence, healthier - his health makes him a better potential worker and a less likely carrier of disease; the poor man will he a better consumer, increasing financial stability, and hence preserving, too, the rich man's consumption, etc. Because there is a real benefit conveyed to the rich man, he can be expected voluntarily to choose a greater degree of equality. (1)
A pretty strong argument for a fairer distribution of wealth. The "poor man" will feel less animosity toward the "rich man", when he doesn't have to worry about where his next meal is coming from.

But then the neocons have a solution for that as well.

They'll just hire more police and give them broader powers. Complain and "whack". They'll put military in the streets dressed in "urban camouflage".

And they'll make tougher laws for the theft of consumer goods, and build more prisons.

Problem solved. The rich man can keep his wealth without fear.

But what about disease? The end of universal healthcare means that many Canadians will not be able to afford treatment, and funny thing is, no matter how rich you are, disease is universal. It doesn't ask the size of your bank account. And while you may have access to the best treatment money can buy, you are still at risk.
"The test of a socially beneficial redistribution is that is should be voluntarily undertaken." The "voluntarism" referred to is that of the theoretical rich man who seeks his own greatest welfare. The poor man's only influences lies in the ways in which his life impinges upon the rich man's. (1)
So again, what are "the minimum standards of living that are to be tolerated in the society?"

They should be at least in part, an effort to prevent an epidemic, because it doesn't matter how posh the hospital is that you die in, you are still just as dead as the person in the pauper's grave.

Since the day that the wealthy rose up in anger over the Liberal Party's attempt to close up tax loopholes, they have become increasingly demanding. Tax rates for the wealthy have been cut in half while those of the working class* have risen. The richest one per cent of taxpayers are now taxed at a slightly lower rate than the poorest ten per cent.

As a result, by the end of 2009, 3.8 per cent of Canadian households controlled $1.78 trillion dollars of financial wealth, or 67 per cent of the total. (2)

And they were able to use some of that enormous wealth to buy up the media, who now try to convince us that such a disparity is a good thing. In fact they even claim that we should give the wealthy more money. It will be good for us they cry.

But as Murray Dobbin points out, this gross inequality has had dire consequences, giving Canada another black eye.
Last May, the OECD put out figures comparing infant mortality rates in countries around the world. Perhaps the biggest story of all the figures were those attributed to Canada. This country has always boasted of its social stats — life expectancy, infant mortality, university graduates, and other measures of our success as a nation.

But not this time. The numbers were “shocking” — a word used by half a dozen prominent commentators, including the Conference Board of Canada. We had slipped from sixth place in the world to 24, a virtually unprecedented fall for any country. We are now just above Poland and Hungary, with 5.1 deaths per 1,000 live births of infants less than one year of age. The actual tragedy beyond the percentages: 1,181 infant deaths in 2007. (20
The Religious Right will simply claim that it is part of God's plan, while the neocons will shrug and call us bleeding heart liberals for pointing out this national tragedy.

But the real test of this, is in what we will say about it.

Will we agree with Stephen Harper that the end of universality is an "achievement" or will we recognize that it is in fact a curse?

I guess it depends on the kind of Canada you want to live in. One that is 24th of 26 countries when it comes to infant mortality rates, or one that makes the welfare of all citizens a priority?


*When you're in the stores or restaurants it's difficult to imagine that Canadians are not doing as well as they had been, when we were deemed a just society. But there is another factor to consider. Canada's household debt has reached a new high.


1. Social Welfare in Canada: Ideals and Realities, By Andrew Armitage, McClelland and Stewart, 1975, ISBN: 0-7710-0725-X, Pg. 10-11

2. That Gap between Rich and Poor Is a Baby Killer: The deadly, unforeseen consequences of Canada's widening inequality, By Murray Dobbin, The Tyee, December 6, 2010


  1. Excellent post. This topic has been much on my mind these past few months. What vision are Canadians holding when they cast their votes? Increasingly, it seems self-interested and lacking compassion... and that terrifies me.

  2. We seem to have become a Police State.I'm fearful of even jay-walking.
    And I wonder has Stephen Harper promised Blair a Senate position?
    Parliament Hill is collecting ex Cops & Military to help Stephen with his "Stupid on Crime " agenda which he misnames as the "Roadmap to Public Safety"