Montreal, May 15, 2008 • No 256




Martin Masse
is publisher of QL.




by Martin Masse


          I took part in a debate this past January on the television show Il va y avoir du sport on Télé-Québec, whose theme was "Is the left out of date?" (La gauche est-elle démodée?) I would like to develop here in somewhat more detail two arguments I presented briefly on that occasion, namely that the left (by which I mean the Marxist, Statist left as represented by the Québec Solidaire political party) is effectively "out of date" or obsolete since 1) there are no more "proletarian masses to liberate" and so their main preoccupation is no longer valid; and 2) maintaining government control over people's lives and economic choices is becoming increasingly difficult.


Ineffective Solutions

          The left's solutions to the problems of poverty have always been ineffective. The bureaucratic planning of production, the nationalization of resources, state intervention, the redistribution of wealth, high taxes, protectionism: all of these measures, which are still part and parcel of the left's ideological arsenal, have been completely discredited both in theory and in practice.

          It was nonetheless possible to concede a certain social relevance to left-wing talk insofar as it articulated an important preoccupation with the truly destitute members of society. But the (relative) economic liberalism of the Western world has solved this problem.

          We live in societies that are fabulously rich, historically speaking. Wretched poverty, which still existed here in our grandparents' time, has completely disappeared. There are evidently still some people who are relatively poor and destitute, but they at least have the basic minimum necessary to survive, and the source of their distress is most often a psychological or a social problem (often maintained by government programs, as in the case of welfare recipients or Indians living on reserves), not an economic one.

          As my colleague Michel Kelly-Gagnon at the Conseil du patronat du Québec mentioned during the television show, Statistics Canada notes that the number of low income individuals in Canada went from 16% in 1996 to 11% in 2005 (or more precisely, from 15.7% to 10.8%). Our opponents immediately tried to discredit these data by claiming they were Fraser Institute calculations, which is completely false. Readers will find the figures in this Statistics Canada document. In any case, the Fraser Institute's calculations (which evaluate the real poverty rate at 4.9% in 2004) are even more eloquent, since they take into account the actual absolute level of destitution, while Statistics Canada's "low income" concept describes a relative situation.

          But even keeping the less-strict Statistics Canada definition, we can see that poverty continues to diminish. It is even more insignificant when we realize that poverty is not a permanent condition and that even fewer people remain poor for any extended period, a situation which excludes temporarily poor students or those who recently lost their jobs or suffered a personal tragedy. Another Statistics Canada study on social mobility in the country shows that in fact only 3.3% of Canadians remained below the low income cut-off (LICO) each year for six consecutive years (from 1993 to 1998). Must we really nationalize the Canadian economy, increase taxes and massively redistribute wealth to address a problem that now touches just one in 33 Canadians?

A Patently Obsolete Discourse

          The fact that the left's discourse is obsolete is patently obvious in the sense that leftists have nothing to reply (apart from lies) to these observations and do not even recognize the reality of the situation. They are content to repeat their Marxist slogans, as Québec solidaire spokesman Amir Khadir did during the television show by affirming that the rich keep getting richer, the poor keep getting poorer, and the concentration of wealth is greater than ever before. Marxists have been repeating this since the Industrial Revolution. One can imagine, if this trend had actually been in effect for two centuries, that the entire planet would be on the verge of dying of starvation, with just two or three billionaires controlling all wealth!

          On the contrary, the reality is that prosperity has not stopped spreading, to the extent that capitalism and the free market have spread across the world. Barely a few decades ago, only some twenty Western nations made up the "rich" world and possessed a substantial middle class. Today, there are dozens of them, in every region of the world except Africa. Not only is wealth not more and more concentrated in a few hands, it is in fact more and more widely distributed across the planet. And this, as I mentioned on the show, is thanks not to left-wing policies but to capitalism and globalization.

          In the January 13 edition of La Presse, a series of articles about India shows us the magnitude of these changes. "India produces more new millionaires each year than any other country in the world. The official count last year was 83,000, up from 70,000 in 2005." A terrible thing, according to economically illiterate leftists: wealth is being concentrated! Yes, it was certainly preferable when almost all Indians were poor, since they were more equal in their poverty!

          This series of articles also informs us that the Communist Party still holds the reins in Calcutta. But as in China, these "communists" have completely abandoned their outmoded ideas and become converts to market economics (no doubt strongly tempered by constant State intervention, like here, but still):

          In the 1980s, driven off by ultra-militant unionism, the multinationals Bata, Philips and Dunlop all left this city that long epitomized Indian misery and still attracts the most destitute.

          But today, Calcutta is no longer missing out on the rapid economic growth that led to the metamorphosis of Bombay, Bangalore and Delhi. "Our priority is to develop Calcutta and the entire State of Western Bengal; to help the poor, not to establish socialism," says Mridul De [a communist leader].

          To arrive at these goals, the Communist Party is opening wide its arms to large, capitalist businesses it was shunning only yesterday, promising favourable conditions, tax reductions, subsidized electricity, quasi-free land and affordable labour.

          The same story could be reported from China, Vietnam, Brazil, Poland, and lots of other places. Once again, in the face of this global phenomenon, the left has nothing to say, besides shutting their eyes and denying that these countries are in fact becoming wealthier, as my opponents did during a debate on globalization on the same television show last year. Or perhaps by adopting the reactionary Malthusian discourse (as Amir Khadir did in this January's debate) that admits there is increasing wealth, but claims that the planet does not have sufficient resources to satisfy the needs of Asia's (and the world's) poor if they start to consume as much as we do. This assertion is not only false, it goes against the Marxist objective of allowing the poor to get richer, on top of being contemptuous coming from a citizen of a Western nation who himself benefits from all of that wealth but wants it to be inaccessible to others. But what's one more intellectual contradiction for the left-wing?

          We have entered an era in which absolute poverty and famines are rapidly disappearing from the surface of the planet, for the first time in the history of humanity. In a few years, barring some catastrophe, this lingering scourge will be nothing but an unpleasant memory. The Marxist left will seem as archaic, as disconnected from reality, and as ridiculous as astrologers and witch hunters. We will then be able to relegate them to the curiosities of history and ignore them completely.

“Not only is wealth not more and more concentrated in a few hands, it is in fact more and more widely distributed across the planet. And this is thanks not to left-wing policies but to capitalism and globalization.”

          The true threat to liberty and prosperity in the near future comes rather from the authoritarian and militaristic right (in the United States) and from interventionists of every stripe, those partisans of the Nanny State whose solution to every problem is a new regulation or a new government program. These are the forces that dominate intellectual and political life in Quebec.

Maintaining government control is becoming more difficult

          Besides the disappearance of the "proletarian masses," the second argument I proposed during the Télé-Québec debate to support the idea that the left is outdated is that maintaining government control over people's lives and economic choices is becoming more and more difficult.

          The policies proposed by the Marxist left are always essentially founded on bureaucratic control, protectionism, restrictions and prohibitions. My opponents during the debate are in favour of an absolute government monopoly over the health and education systems; they support the existence of monopolies like Hydro-Québec and the Société des alcools (SAQ), and wish the State would take control over even more economic sectors. In short, they want to prevent individuals from freely and peacefully exchanging goods and services, all in the name of an egalitarian vision of society.

          Government control has always been inefficient, and for a very simple reason, explained by the economists of the Austrian School: in the absence of market prices reflecting supply and demand for the various factors of production and consumer goods, it is impossible to plan production correctly. Bureaucratic planners simply do not have at their disposal all of the information that would allow them to make appropriate decisions, information that is in fact dispersed in the minds of millions of economic actors.

          This fundamental inability to adjust is such that those sectors controlled by government systematically suffer from shortages or surpluses, and we constantly hear talk of a "crisis" in one or another of these sectors. And when the control is too absolute and the difficulties to adjust create too much instability, the system can crumble altogether, as happened in the Eastern European communist regimes.

          If we disregard these difficulties inherent in planning, it is still possible for the government to maintain a monopoly over a specific economic sector as long as it controls production or distribution and as long as consumers are unable to turn to foreign suppliers; that is to say, concretely, when it can prevent all competitors from entering its market.

          A series of developments, however, is making this type of closed and controlled market more and more difficult to maintain: new technologies (especially the Internet), which allow one to get informed instantly on what is going on all over the world; economic globalization, which allows one easier access to goods and services from anywhere on the planet; the development of rapid transportation within reach of more and more people; and increasing prosperity.

Health, education, energy…

          During the debate, I mentioned the case of health care and the "medical tourism" phenomenon. Going abroad for treatment, in a private hospital in Thailand for instance, is becoming more and more affordable and easy to organize, and tens of thousands of North Americans and Europeans are doing it each year. Some foreign clinics even advertise in Canada. Long-distance medicine is also an up-and-coming solution, thanks to the Internet. On another front, innovations in the insurance industry allow one to circumvent Health Act restrictions. Insurance companies cannot insure the treatments themselves, but some are offering a new product that promises the insured party who receives a diagnosis for a serious illness a large sum of money that can then be used to seek treatment outside of Canada. Under such conditions, it is becoming impossible to maintain a monopoly.

          Other examples abound, the most obvious being the now manifest impossibility for a government to control all of the information within its borders. Since the invention of the shortwave radio, and even more the fax or the video cassette recorder, we have seen cracks appearing in the information monopoly of totalitarian regimes. But with the Internet, the government of a developed country will simply no longer be able to prevent its citizens from informing themselves. The most it will be able to do, as the Chinese tyrant does, is partially control the flow of information.

          Aside from health, education is the other big government monopoly that most significantly touches everyone's lives. It is unavoidable, from primary school to university, since even so-called "private" institutions are largely regulated and controlled by the State. But distance learning is starting to eat away at the foundations of this monopoly. What will happen when we can easily follow any course from any institution in the world? When we can "download" a professor to have him give his lecture as a hologram in our living rooms? Furthermore, now that we can easily educate ourselves on every imaginable subject thanks to the Internet, is the value of a formal, institutional education not already beginning to diminish?

          Finally, let us take the case of energy. Current technologies, like hydro power, are characterized by mass production and therefore facilitate a government monopoly on production and distribution. But imagine that in a few years, a device on the roof of your house may produce all the electricity you require. Solar panels already exist, but they are expensive and not very efficient. The technology is going to continue evolving at a dizzying pace, and this sector is going to be radically transformed over the next decades. State energy monopolies risk going the way of the mastodon.

          Of course, the fact that global developments are placing limits on the possibility of advancing socialist, interventionist policies in a given country is nothing new. In 1983, because of capital flight and currency devaluation, François Mitterrand's socialist-communist government had to adopt a "policy of rigour" and reverse several of the measures taken two years earlier. International financial markets simply did not allow France, a country closely integrated into the world economy, to pursue their disastrous experiment.

          What will happen in the future is simply a deepening and a broadening of this trend, which means that the left's obsession with control will increasingly become a fantasy disconnected from reality instead of a realistic political option. The State will of course continue to put its grubby paws on everything that moves, but it will no longer be able to do so with monopolies, and it will become easier to circumvent its prohibitions.

          And what do our great left-wing intellectuals think of these developments? It's hard to say, since none of them seem to be paying any attention to them. These thinkers are too busy debating the establishment of "Pharma Québec" (a new monopoly on pharmaceutical research proposed by Québec solidaire) or fighting against any new opening of the health care system to the private sector. Let them flounder in their illusions as the world passes them by.


* This updated article was first published in French in QL no 248 – January 13, 2008. It was translated by Bradley Doucet.