Fraser Forum

William Watson: Who’s fighting capitalism? On CBC, who isn’t!

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You may have heard me last week on CBC’s arts, politics and good-jazz show, Sunday Edition, pitching my new book, The Inequality Trap: Fighting Capitalism Instead of Poverty. Michael Enright, the host, is a quick and attentive interviewer with whom I suspect I disagree on almost everything, except perhaps taste in music. But it's always fun talking to him, which I think is reflected in last week’s interview, available here.

In one of his first questions, Michael flummoxed me by asking just who was fighting capitalism, thus implying I’d built up a straw man, the easier to tear it down. Capitalism is like Christmas, he suggested, no one opposes it. Well, some civil liberties lawyers do oppose Christmas, or at least its celebration in any manner, implicit or explicit, in public institutions, and maybe they’re right. But it seems to me capitalism has many more opponents than that.

The book takes a couple of pages to try to establish that fact. It’s true not a lot of people in the West are proposing traditional socialism, with the state owning the means of production. On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn, Britain’s new Labour leader, who is very much an Old Labour leader, favours re-nationalizing the railways and maybe some other industries. True, he doesn’t seem to be doing so well politically. But he hasn’t been fired as leader yet.

More generally, you hear a lot of talk about communitarianism, the co-op movement, non-profits, the NGO economy, localism, the social economy and so on. It’s all pretty free-form and not strictly anti-capitalist—though it’s uniformly anti “corporate agenda”—but almost any weighted average of these movements would lead to a much more heavily regulated, de-globalized capitalism than we have grown accustomed to in recent decades.

The French have an expression, “l’esprit d’escalier,” meaning that your best responses always come to you as you’re leaving the building after the dinner party or, in this case, interview. My best response to Michael Enright’s question about whether people are fighting capitalism would have been to ask him when was the last time anything unreservedly nice was said about capitalism on his program or on similar general-interest CBC programs. You may hear the odd good word on CBC’s business shows, which are a relatively new thing for CBC and a welcome innovation. But on the mainline general-interest CBC shows, my very strong, though admittedly unscientific, impression is you almost never hear praise for markets.

Take the Massey Lectures, which run every year on Ideas, CBC Radio’s flagship intellectual program. Here are the last 10 lecturers:

Adrienne Clarkson
Lawrence Hill
Neil Turok
Adam Gopnik
Douglas Coupland
Wade Davis
Margaret Atwood
Alberto Manguel
Margaret Somerville
Stephen Lewis

Granted, not all talked on issues that lent themselves to a left-right divide. But how many could reasonably be categorized as conservative thinkers? By my count, just one: Margaret Somerville, who works on the ethics of reproduction.

If we go back further, Robert Fulford did make the cut in 1999, for talks on narrative. But so did Michael Ignatieff and Janice Gross Stein, a foreign policy expert who talked about health care, education and “the cult of efficiency.” The 1990s also featured John Ralston Saul and Robert Heilbroner, who was a great writer about economics but hardly a market man. The 1980s saw Gregory Baum, Eric Kierans and Noam Chomsky himself.

John Kenneth Galbraith lectured (in 1965), also C. B. Macpherson (1964) and Barbara Ward (1961). You can listen to the lectures on the CBC website. It’s a wonderful experience. They all have interesting things to say. But the big intellectual news in the last quarter of the 20th century was the resurgence of free-market thinking. You wouldn’t know it from the Massey Lectures.


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