In the quest to maintain economic growth and ensure its benefits are widespread, can we find answers in arguments made in past decades?
In 2017, Policy Options published a series titled “Inclusive Growth in an Age of Disruption,” discussing how governments could address social inequality with more inclusive policies to respond to the populist backlash in the US and Europe. France St-Hilaire, vice-president of research for the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP), quoted the World Economic Forum and the International Monetary Fund in calling for “inclusive growth” and for the benefits of economic growth to be more broadly shared to mitigate income inequality. IMF deputy director Jonathan Ostry addressed the impact of economic policies on inequality and income distribution, noting that higher inequality has led to shorter growth periods. In a separate Policy Options feature, former IRPP research director Stephen Tapp wrote about a more inclusive “bigger picture” approach to trade policy, in which policies that help companies and workers would achieve the “grand bargain” needed to build support for trade agreements.
In reading these critiques, I was struck by how similar they are to arguments made in previous decades by thinkers from a group that is often ignored or derided today: Canadian nationalists. Writers such as Eric Kierans, John Ralston Saul and especially Mel Hurtig are frequently viewed as hating trade because of their criticisms of trade agreements like NAFTA and of globalization more generally. However, a closer reading of their works suggests that their views are far more nuanced.
Mel Hurtig was known for the inflammatory titles of his books, such as The Betrayal of Canada (1991), Pay the Rent or Feed the Kids: The Tragedy and Disgrace of Poverty in Canada (1999) and The Vanishing Country: Is It Too Late to Save Canada? (2002). He wrote in The Betrayal of Canada that, for big business, “money is pretty well all that counts. Their…concerns about the economic, social and cultural environment they might leave behind, are minimal to nonexistent.” But he also said: “Nothing I know of leads me to believe that there is a better system than a free enterprise society regulated by an aware and intelligent government, with some public participation where necessary…mostly private, some public.”
Pay the Rent or Feed the Kids and The Vanishing Country analyzed rising inequality and poverty. Hurtig observed that raising the standard of living for the poor and pushing toward full employment would help create jobs and reduce social assistance payouts. He also cited the benefits of pragmatically opening Canada’s economy, and of businesses looking out for people’s well-being and rights, as well as profits. And, contrary to his anti-trade image, Hurtig supported Canada’s involvement with the World Trade Organization (WTO) and was an early critic of provinces that opposed free trade within Canada.
Eric Kierans was a good friend of Hurtig. In Wrong End of the Rainbow: The Collapse of Free Enterprise in Canada (1988; co-authored with Walter Stewart), Kierans wrote that “every nation of sense will try to reduce international barriers to trade to the maximum extent possible, first to keep its own corporations from soaking the consumers and growing slothful, and second because there is a degree of greater efficiency obtainable through the free movement of goods.” Kierans also fiercely criticized those who focus on economic and corporate growth with no consideration of growth’s impact on society, reminding readers that a nation “must take, as its fundamental priority, responsibility for the welfare and standard of living of its people.”
John McDougall’s biography The Politics and Economics of Eric Kierans: A Man for All Canadas (1993) quoted Kierans as saying, “Adam Smith was a moral philosopher…Self-interest and individualism must be integrated now in the search for a true and generous community.” Kierans’ recommendations included repealing corporate taxes and multilaterally lowering Canada’s tariff and nontariff barriers as much as possible, through systems such as the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. However, he also cautioned that these actions need to be done pragmatically, and in a way that ensures that accountable nation-states are capable of ensuring the public’s welfare.
Among John Ralston Saul’s books are Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century (1997), The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World (2005) and A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada (2008). In The Collapse of Globalism, he wrote approvingly of the WTO, saying that “nothing could be more useful to world trade than an international arbitration court.” Saul differentiated between positive and negative nationalism, writing that the former is tied to “self-confidence and openness, to a concept of the public good,” while negative nationalism is “dependent on fear and anger, and a desperate conviction that one nation’s rights exist by comparison with another nation, as if in a competition that produces winners and losers” — a comment that many critics of Donald Trump would find disturbingly prescient.
In Reflections of a Siamese Twin, Saul commented on the Canadian idea of individualism, which he called “a search for balance for opportunity and results.” In A Fair Country, he wrote scathingly that “the provincial trade protectionism and desire to tax some goods that cross their territory…stand in the way of our internal economy” and called the tension between the individual and the group “an essential element of our ethic of fairness and inclusion.”
Hurtig, Kierans and Saul share several traits. They strongly advocate for a pragmatic opening and development of Canada’s economy, tempered with a strong commitment to the public good. They support considering economic development in a larger framework, including its impact both on the environment and on communities suffering from increased poverty and job loss. They also advocate for increased national ownership of the Canadian economy.
All three thinkers were raising many of the points that commentators from institutions like the World Bank are making now, decades before “inclusive growth” became conventional wisdom in such circles. Their comments on interprovincial trade and open markets show that they cannot be pigeonholed as anti-trade protectionists, either.
As we search for means of maintaining economic growth and ensuring that its benefits are as widespread as possible, we may find some of the answers we are looking for in the writings of Hurtig, Kierans and Saul.
This article is part of the special feature Inclusive Growth in an Age of Disruption
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