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Frank Cunningham: Some Thoughts Inspired by “Toward a More Equal Canada”


Towards a More Equal Canada nicely summarizes three recent discussions about equality: the question of why people should endorse egalitarian policies, or, as I would prefer to put it,  why they should combat and try to reverse growing inequality; demonstrations of the nature and extent of inequality; and recommendations for equality-supporting public policies. In responding to Ed Broadbent’s request for reactions to the paper, I shall address a question it calls to mind put by the U.S. democratic theorist, Ian Shapiro:  “why don’t the poor soak the rich?”  (Daedalus, 2002. no. 1).

Shapiro’s answers to this question are: (a) that the poor believe they can improve their lot by their own efforts, and if they fail, this is either their own fault or the result of bad luck in the market (and the market is at least fair, since everyone can participate in it);  (b) that they compare their economic situation to themselves at an earlier time or to others worse off than they rather than to the very rich; (c) that combating other inequalities, such as of respect regardless of race or gender, is more important to the poor than combating economic ones;  (d) that the life-styles of the very rich are so different from that of the poor that they cannot imagine aspiring to it; (e) and (in tension with d) that the poor do not understand the enormity of the disparity between themselves and the rich.

There may be something to these responses, though I find some of them better suited to U.S. society than that of Canada.  Moreover, the last response – about failure to understand the extent of inequality – seems to me a crucial background condition for the persistence of  most of the other attitudes on Shapiro’s list, and it is exactly that failure that has been successfully challenged in the public mind by the Occupation movements and other recent exposures of grotesque disparities in wealth. Shapiro is also mainly questioning why there are not mass, collective movements against inequality. While sharing the view that building and supporting such movements is vital, this reaction to the “More Equal Canada” paper confines itself to electoral politics.  It asks:

How can those Canadians who recognize the large and growing inequalities be motivated to vote and otherwise participate in electoral politics in ways that substantively reduce inequality?

I do not pretend to have a confident and full answer to this question, but perhaps it will be helpful to sort out some aspects of it and to advance some hypotheses. It is convenient for this purpose to distinguish among three constituencies. 

First, there are those who understand the extent of inequality, find it wrong for all the reasons given in the discussion paper, and who are prepared to take action against it. These are the Occupation activists and others before the occupations as in the G 20 protest movements. The main challenge with respect to this constituency is how to engage them in electoral politics. This, in turn, requires confronting a not entirely unjustified suspicion on their part of parliamentary, party-dominated politics, and also requires self-examination by the only major party that does sincerely support egalitarianism of its relation to social movements.

The second constituency is comprised of those who recognize persisting and growing inequalities (it is hard not to) and also think them unjustified, but who are cynical and withdrawn from political action, even if just to vote. The challenge here is to break down cynicism about electoral politics. From Tommy Douglas to Jack Layton there have been some national political leaders on the left  who have succeeded in engendering the sort of enthusiasm that can counter political cynicism and apathy. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to carefully review their successes and to ask whether and to what extent these were only a matter of personality or there were other factors (mode of communication, substantive messages, unique features of the times, etc.) at work.

I wish to devote most of my comments to a third constituency: those who understand the extent of inequality, are prepared to grant that, other things being equal, it would be good to overcome it, and who do vote, but not for pro-equality candidates or policies. Moreover, this constituency is not made up of rich people who have a vested interest in sanctioning inequality, and they are not irrational or in any obvious way in the grips of false consciousness in their voting behaviour. I identify four categories of people in this constituency.

1. Maybe sometime wealth will trickle down. That the right-wing persists in repeating the trickle down theory suggests that it has appeal to a certain voter. Setting aside the crazed right-wing ideologue (who is not under consideration in this intervention) and  rich voters who appeal to the theory  in justifying their excessive wealth, this is the person who does not expect much from government – left, right, or centre – and therefore sees voting as a long-shot gamble. Demonstrations of the failure of tax savings for the rich to create jobs are always worth repeating, but to attract this voter it might also be worth framing some progressive policy recommendations in terms of being a “better bet.”  

One example that comes to mind is public works projects. These directly create jobs thus injecting money into the economy and, unlike what the rich do with their tax breaks, are subject to public scrutiny and direction. A serious challenge for making this an attractive bet is to provide assurance that such scrutiny and direction will, in fact, take place, and that public works will not get mired in gross overruns, shady deals, and the like (recognizing that these are not foreign to public enterprises). It would be most useful in this connection to have some successful examples to point to.

2. A bird in the hand. The thinking of this voter is similar to that of a person placing a bet. There is little confidence in political parties or government, so the voter is prepared to opt for whatever looks to yield the surest benefit, even if it is not in general as appealing as less sure ones. Conservative politicians are not at all averse to breaking campaign promises, but one that they very often do keep is to cut taxes. So, the thinking goes, why not at least profit from this benefit?  One reaction is to accompany announcements of progressive policies, such as the four listed in section 5 of “Toward a More Equal Canada,” with credible explanations of how they will be implemented. As well, at least one ready-to-hand bird could always be on offer. Examples might be Quebec’s affordable child care program, or the unfortunately not pursued proposal of the Ontario NDP for government-run auto insurance.

3. There, with luck (and hard work) go I, or at least my children. This is the attitude of those who think they (or, thanks to a basis they provide, their children) might make it, if not into the club of the hyper rich at least into the comfortable middle class, where they will not wish be burdened by taxes and regulations. In decrying the shrinking of the middle class, much rhetoric on the left plays to the aspiration to gain entry or re-entry to this class or to keep one’s precarious place in it. Whatever merit such an appeal may have for the large number of working-class people who sociologists tell us want to think of themselves as middle class, it can backfire by encouraging the attitude now under consideration and by diverting from efforts to explain to working-class citizens the structural, class-based sources of persisting inequality and obstacles to maintaining or improving the quality of one’s life and work.

No doubt antiquated revolutionary rhetoric should be avoided, but it seems to me that nothing is lost by also avoiding “up-the-middle-class” language. For example, in “Toward a More Equal Canada” it is unnecessary to begin the paragraph on page 22 about the need for changes in corporate governance, regulation, and so on with the phrase “Rebuilding the middle-class also means…”  The phrase on the preceding page, “Promoting a stronger economy and the growth of good middle-class jobs…” (p. 21) could just refer to “good jobs in all categories of employment” without loss of force or meaning.

4. Evil baggage. This category of voter reacts to the fact that party platforms constitute packages such that, even if one is attracted to almost all its planks, it only takes strong enough aversion to one of them for a party to be voted against. In recent decades this has been the case with voters who have strongly held moral, often religiously-based, opinions, on issues such as abortion or gay marriage. Weakening a platform to remove planks that might offend such voters seldom does more than alienate otherwise loyal followers, since the sincerity of a party that has usually included them is in doubt.

The more strongly held an aversion on some one issue, the less likely it is that (depending on the issue) any headway can be made with respect to people in this category. However, it is worth noting that, unlike those so far discussed, this voter is at least motivated by considerations of morality. This suggests that, without lapsing into the stance of a preacher, realpolitik dimensions of a pro-equality campaign should be supplemented by some specifically moral appeals, for instance, regarding the immorality of greed or the terrible and undeserved hardships caused by conservative economic policies. Perhaps some such appeal will resonate with morally-motivated voters, and the more thoughtful of them may at least realize that, from a moral point of view the choices are complex, thus combating a tendency toward knee-jerk, single issue voting.

There are other types of voters to whom attention might be paid, for instance, the strategic voter, who poses problems of a different sort than those discussed above, and much more could be said about each that was addressed.  Also, I do not mean for these comments to detract in any way from the project of which disseminating “Toward a More Equal Canada” is a part, as I strongly share the view that equality should be the corner stone of a progressive politics today. Nor should the specific recommendations in this intervention be taken as more than tentative suggestions, offered as examples. The intervention’s point is to urge that any critique of inequality or promotion of egalitarianism be integrated with the hard questions of how to put it into practice. 

Frank Cunningham is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto.