Freedom in the Balance

"The central issue of our time is . . . whether we shall give up liberty of thought ... for a promise of security"

BRUCE HUTCHISON November 15 1943

Freedom in the Balance

"The central issue of our time is . . . whether we shall give up liberty of thought ... for a promise of security"

BRUCE HUTCHISON November 15 1943

OUT IN the countryside of Vancouver Island, where I live, the last crops are harvested, the cordwood stacked, the young cabbages and tulip bulbs planted for the spring, and the snowdrops are sprouting. Now we have time to pause and talk. People are talking thus all over Canada, now that the winter is near—in the white fishing villages of the Maritime shore, in snug habitant farmhouses along the River, in the general stores of Ontario, around the prairie drum stoves and in the bunkhouses of British Columbia.

All Canada is talking at this time of year, the true season of communication between men in a lonely land. Mostly the talk is about one thing in its many aspects. It concerns what, in the easy jargon of the time, we call the World Revolution. Everything from the war in Europe to the jam ration at home is comprehended in this rolling phrase—the Revolution.

It comprehends everything and usually means nothing. But it sounds good. Why, many men about here, in Saanich, have gained a reputation for profound wisdom just by talking about the Revolution. Many men have been credited with liberal opinions and elected to public office as reformers because they agree that a Revolution is under way (as it has been since Watt invented the steam engine).

This, I suggest, while safe and innocent enough in easier times has become highly dangerous now. For, as I shall try to show, Canada faces a very great decision which cannot be made intelligently or safely in sucn a hazy, dank and soft climate of thought. We cannot have our revolution born painlessly and without preparation and delivered to us, complete and breathing, like a new baby at the door of the maternity ward. We cannot resolve to have a Revolution as one might resolve to have a larger family. This is a very complicated business, the business of rebuilding our society, and is not to be achieved by vague talk and fuzzy thinking. Somehow we have got to understand it and master it. The Revolution is coming all right. It is under way and has been under way for a century; but it is now entering a most acute phase, a risky stretch, where it can go completely off the tracks if we don’t learn to control it.

Because we have fallen into the habit of thinking in vague abstractions and general slogans like Social Security, Planned Economy, Full Employment, Monetary Reform and World Revolution, most of us have failed on two counts. We have failed, first, to distinguish the greatest issue of all which we must face and settle. We have failed, secondly, to tackle the actual and practical problems which must be tackled and solved in this country in the immediate future.

Let us consider these two failures separately.

Some time ago this reporter asked Mr. Coldwell, of the CCF, a series of 33 questions and set down his answers in this magazine without comment or argument. Since then I have waited to see whether the public has understood what Mr. Coldwell meant and what his great plan for Canada would do to the country. I am thoroughly satisfied that the public has not understood it. Nothing written all across the nation about Mr. Coldwell’s blueprint of the Co-operative Commonwealth—nothing, at least, that I have seen apart from a paragraph or two in Charles W. Peterson’s articles in Maclean’s for October 15—touches Mr. Coldwell’s main point.

This is not another article about Mr. Coldwell or the CCF, but Mr. Coldwell’s main point brings to convenient focus the first and primary issue that we propose to consider here. Mr. Coldwell proposes, in brief, to put the control of our entire Canadian society under the state. Or if he does not propose this outright, or admit it, his plan of economic management, if attempted, would lead straight to this result.

Immediately—in our muddy state of thinking—the critics of Mr. Coldwell pounce upon the economic aspects of this proposal. They argue that Mr. Coldwell’s socialized economy could not produce as many goods as privately managed economy. They object to his plan to seize people’s wealth by capital levy. They deplore his threat to reduce interest on Government bonds. They talk in terms of money and goods.

Outside Economics

THIS IS not the main point at all. The main point is outside economics and does not concern money and goods. Mr. Coldwell asks us, before we make any economic decision whatever, to make a supreme political decision, a philosophical decision—in fact a moral and spiritual decision. It is, of course, a universal decision which the human family faces everywhere and it would face us today even if there were no Mr. Coldwell and no party called the CCF. We are asked, in a word, to decide whether we should trust supreme power over our lives to anyone.

Mr. Coldwell has raised this question, perhaps without realizing it, but many others are raising it in many other forms. It will resound throughout our politics, under many disguises and in many economic theories, during the rest of our lives. Therefore we had better understand it now. To understand it we must understand the present society we are asked to abolish—not just its surface, but the real anatomy of it, its bones, its inner organs and its mind.

This is something we seldom do. We take our society, with all its complicated mechanisms, its advantages and disadvantages, its virtues and its ills, largely for granted. We seldom stop to consider that it has been built up, step by step, through years of considered choice, with much trial and error and not a little bloodshed.

This society is not based primarily on any economic concept. It is based on philosophical principle, a principle directly opposed to that of those who propose to manage us from the top for our own good. The basic principle of our society is the danger of complete power.

Our fathers found long ago that complete power could not be entrusted to anyone. No matter how virtuous the king might be, no matter how wise the Government, no matter how democratic the elected parliament, our fathers refused to give any of them supreme power to rule us, even for our own good. They had found that “all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” They preferred to make their own choice and live their own lives and repeal their own mistakes even if they were not as wise as the king, the Government or parliament and even if they could be richer as slaves.

A society was devised where complete power could not exist at all except, temporarily, during war and then with safeguards. They created a system wherein society existed apart from the Government, with power of its own to resist the Government. They were not satisfied with brakes on the Government within the framework of the political system. They created brakes completely outside politics by creating a whole series of powerful groups apart from government, each operating on its own, and each conflicting and struggling from time to time against the others None of these groups could get on top.

Thus we have today the power of the Government. We have also the power of the capitalist, but against that the enormous power of labor. We have, in this country especially, the great power of agriculture. We have developed in modern times the new power of the engineer and, still newer, the power of the political technician, the top-rank civil servant whose influence on government is incalculable. And, of course, we have power of the individual citizen to keep his own property, to be tried by his peers, to be protected from any illegal process, even by the king—and even if the king is right in a particular case.

Our system is based on the assumption that we can produce the most goods and create the most prosperity through the constant competition of such groups and many smaller ones. Yes, but that is only the superficial part of our theory of life. We have something more important to preserve than the chance of making a good living. Our society is built on this principle of competing powers primarily because we know by experience that personal freedom can never survive otherwise, and has never survived under any other system.

Freedom or State Control

We know that in every society, ancient and modern, where one group gained complete control of everything personal freedom disappeared. We know that this happened even when the dominant group started out solely with the intention of improving the lot of the people. In some places their physical lot was improved, though generally it was worsened. But in no case where the principle of divided powers disappeared did personal freedom live.

It could not. Once a single power—the state, or the capitalists or the labor unions or any other group—undertakes to run everything according to a central plan, and guarantees by that plan to produce certain specific results then, of course, it can brook no interference which would undermine the plan; for if the plan collapses, the guaranteed results are aborted and the rulers have lost their only claim to power.

In our society no group makes such a guarantee. No group undertakes to run everything and no group is permitted to try. Consequently, since there is no single, absolute and inflexible plan but a whole series of competitive plans and competitive interests, it is always possible for one group to resist any public policy and often to alter it. It is possible for any section of the community, like the labor unions, to seek and secure a larger share of the national income without upsetting the whole system. But once the state undertakes to decide what share of the national income every group shall have (which is the very core of state planning) then interference with the plan threatens the whole structure and must not be tolerated. Everyone must take what the state decides and no one must be permitted to compel a different arrangement which would bring the whole plan down in confusion.

We know this is so by the experience of all the centrally planned states. We know that it is deliberately intended to be so in our democratic countries by the assertions of the best of the central Planners.

I cannot imagine that anyone will deny that George Bernard Shaw, G. D. H. Cole and Harold J. Laski are three of the most distinguished Socialistic Planners of our age, professionals at the job who were practicing long before Mr. Coldwell or the CCF were ever heard of. Observe what these three thoroughly honest men have said—three men, be it noted, who do not have to seek votes and can tell the whole truth.

Mr. Shaw wrote in The New Statesman and Nation, of London, not long ago that under a socialist state the British Parliament must become a mere debating society while the “qualified people” run the country. In fact he has discovered in his old age the rather obvious fact that “the world is round and the extreme Left is the old Right with its nonsense and corruption cleaned off.” In other words, the extreme Left, like the extreme Right, proposes to let a few qualified people run us with absolute power from the top—run us for our own good, run us better than we can run ourselves.

Mr. Cole, in his “The Intelligent Man’s Guide Through World Chaos,” says, bluntly, that the Socialist Party, when elected to office, must “break up and destroy the organization of its rival in order to put it permanently out of action. This has happened in both Italy and Russia; and opposition to the Communist Party or to the Fascist Party is regarded in these countries as treason to the state.” We are asked to imitate them and extinguish the opposition, extinguish the right of protest, extinguish all chance of liberty of thought.

Mr. Laski, in his “Democracy in Crisis,” candidly informs us that Parliament would have to be abolished by the socialist state unless the opposition parties agreed never to change or repeal the great socialist plan, even if it were rejected at the polls.

Shaw, Cole and Laski have put their fingers on the central issue of our time, in this country it is generally lost in a pink and pleasant haze. The central issue of our time is whether we shall accept this proposition and permit any group, however qualified and virtuous, to take control of us, or whether we shall continue to run ourselves as best we may. The issue is whether we are to abolish the many-sided and decentralized system established by our fathers because they wanted liberty and establish the old, old system of a single power which promises us security.

This is an issue far more important than the size of the national income, or the efficiency of government or private managers. For economic losses can be absorbed, economic mistakes corrected (whether of government or business), methods of production and distribution changed; but when freedom, the right of protest and the right of change, is lost it is not easily re-established and usually not without civil violence.

Let us never forget, however, that our present system does guarantee the right to change and compels us to change with the times. Mere resistance to any proposed plan, mere assertion of the right to change while refusing to change, a simple negation, will not serve Canada in this crisis of its life. If we are to meet this crisis we must show that the right to change does create change when change is needed, that freedom is not a bottleneck in progress.

No Easy Way

This brings us to our second failure—the failure to confront the subsidiary questions, which will remain even after the fundamental decision in favor of freedom has been made. We fail to confront them because we try to confront them the easy way. We don’t think, most of us. We mutter.

Thus we have on one hand the CCF mutterers in Parliament (Mr. Coldwell is not one of these) who insist that any economic process must be wrong if it is privately owned, and that we can expect no prosperity until all private enterprise has been extinguished. On the other hand we have the mutterers of free enterprise, who insist that if the Government undertakes any economic process it must immediately become uneconomic and probably dishonest.

The socialist, shouting his slogan and ignoring the facts, forgets that many private enterprises have been supremely successful and humanitarian in Canada and have developed this country, created its wealth, added to the national income, put men to work and benefitted all living Canadians. Indeed, private enterprise is largely responsible for building in this country one of the highest living standards in the world and, I believe, the best life for most men.

There is equal blindness among some of the other side. The private enterpriser who insists that the state must never interfere in business forgets that the state in this country has always interfered in business, from the very beginning. Always private enterprise has had to depend largely on the intervention of the state in order to progress or to survive at all.

The state underwrote the construction of our railways, which are our chief organs of economic life. It built our great St. Lawrence canal system, which is the breathing lung of the Canadian economy. It made possible our shipping industry and foreign trade by building our ports. It made possible our private automobile industry and our huge tourist industry by building our highway system with public money. It made possible our future aviation industry by building our airports and weather services.

Today the state owns one of our two national railways, our transcontinental aviation system, our chief radio stations and their national networks, many of our electrical power plants (through provincial or municipal authority) and is even preparing to operate a synthetic rubber plant after the war.

And all through our history private enterprise has sought, and secured, the aid of the state to protect it by tariff's, regulations, subsidies and other mechanisms, which absolutely violate the theory of business independent of government.

What is the use, therefore, of trying to tell us that the issue between state and private enterprise which we face now is black and white, that we must take one or the other? We have been taking both all our lives.

Our method in this country has never been to follow one theory or the other but to do what seemed wise as each new problem arose. The black-and-white, either-or theory is not a Canadian, British or American theory. It is a European theory which produced Marx in the last century and, inevitably, Hitler in this.

Our theory was less logical but more practical. We simply dealt with things, as they turned up, by the method which seemed best at the time and in the circumstances, to be changed when the time and circumstances changed. Where private enterprise could do a job, we let it go ahead. Where the state seemed better able to do it the state went ahead. Thus gradually we have built up an inextricable combination of state and private enterprise which can grow and expand in either direction as the need arises—and which cannot be untangled if we are to avoid the central plan and the all-powerful state.

Preserving Liberty

Our superficial lack of logic always annoys the logicians of both sides for our system is neither one thing nor the other. But, actually, a deep logic governs it—the logic of men who put freedom first and will do anything necessary, however contradictory, to preserve it. According to this logic we have insisted on settling each problem as it arose, on its merits, instead of solving everything by a single theory which was bound in the end to extinguish our liberty. We never put our eggs in one basket.

You might call our approach to all problems a healthy empiricism, a willingness to experiment, to learn by trial and error. By this system we have made many mistakes, but also we have corrected them. We have never frozen our mistakes under a great central plan or under an all-powerful government or an all-powerful class of any kind. We have maintained a maximum of individual liberty.

Today it is obvious to all men that we are entering a new phase of our national life along with the rest of the world. We must adopt new remedies in many fields, new economic experiments, a new conception of man’s responsibility to society and society’s responsibility to man. And now, for the first time, we are seriously asked to abandon our practical empiricism, our deep logic of free choice and embrace the superficial logic of central control, the impractical freezing of our future, and the surrender of our old freedom. Where we have tackled our problems individually and solved them, one by one, we are asked to lump them altogether and hand them over to “qualified people,” like a bundle of dirty laundry.

This invitation is dangerous today and attractive to many people because of our muddy thinking, not only on the issue of freedom but on detailed problems of daily life. Assuming that we shall make the main decision against the all-powerful state, we must stop talking in generalities, catchwords, slogans and mere catcalls about the Revolution, the counter-Revolution, Capital and Labor, Socialism and Reaction and get down to cases on the business of the day. We must consider the specific problems in front of us, one by one, instead of gathering them up under one name and handing them over to our betters for solution.

We must consider, for example, what we should do about social security, in the form of pensions and insurance; how we propose to pay for it and how much we can afford—not according to the classical theories of Socialism or laissez faire, but according to our desires, our circumstances and our capacities.

We must consider whether the Government is better able to buy and market our wheat than the private traders who have been closed down for the duration, and also who shall market our other great exports.

We must decide how fast we can relax each of our wartime government controls over business, prices, wages, foreign exchange.

We must face all over again the constitutional and financial problems raised in the Rowell-Sirois Report, which we have evaded so far.

We must decide whether we are to scrap our wartime arrangements by which our economy has been inter-graded with that of the United States; and this does not mean considering some general theory like free trade and protection but means considering specific tariffs and their effect on specific industries and populations and the nation at large.

We must review the future of our trade with other parts of the world, the amount of government borrowing we can safely allow, the amount of taxes we can hope to collect and countless other specific questions which do not fit into any pure theory.

Partnership Called For

Most of us have stopped thinking in such terms. We prefer to mutter about the Revolution and the Terrible Days Ahead. For the sake of convenience and because thought is too laborious we conceive of the ultimate solution as a single thing, whereas it must be a million separate things with a million separate answers, all the way from Ottawa to our municipality of Saanich. The solution lies, no doubt, in large federal public works after the war; but it lies also in letting my neighbor, George Pudbury, get water cheaply enough on his land to grow more strawberries. The solution all along the line, from top to bottom, lies in the partnership of the state with private enterprise on conditions suggested in each separate case.

The real political problem of our time—assuming we have decided on freedom and against the all-powerful state—lies in drawing the line between the state and private enterprise. It will always be a variable and wavy line, frequently changing, but unless there is some such line—unless we are prepared to guarantee private enterprise in some fields where it can operate without the threat of confiscation and ruin—then, of course, private enterprise will die, since it depends on the willingness of men to risk their money for a chance to profit. If we draw no line to protect the state’s enterprises, if it were conceivable that private enterprise could overwhelm the state, then we should have to abandon many of our modern social gains.

Neither of these things is going to happen in Canada. We are not an either-or country, a doctrinaire country, a country of professors or slaves. We are a little bewildered at the moment, and no wonder, with all the madness that is howled into our ears by good men and bad men from one coast to the other. But we have the instinct of freedom, we have the great and essential instinct of compromise which is the living principle of all tolerable societies; we have the healthy scepticism of easy solutions and ready-to-wear remedies; we have the brains that built this country and we have the character that made its life good and free. These things will finally assert themselves when we think a little more deeply around our winter stoves.