Review: Democratic Equality: What Went Wrong

Edited by Edward Broadbent, University of Toronto Press, 2001

By John Bacher (reviewer) | 2002-01-01 12:00:00

Both its critics and its supporters share a sense of inevitability about globalization, whether they expect it to create a heaven or a hell.

They agree that the outcome will result from the actions of international institutions beyond the control of elected governments. Fortunately, however, the provocative book, Democratic Equality: What Went Wrong? edited by former New Democratic Party (NDP) leader, Edward Broadbent, shows that democratic action still can make a difference. In his own essay, Broadbent states that "it is true that there are some new economic constraints at both the national and international levels. When it comes to social policy, however, it is clear that the internal political values, priorities, and pre-established structures of social programs of a given nation matter a great deal.... Whether at the national or international level, that elusive entity known as 'political will' seems to be the most important problem." Here Broadbent is setting up the question for his 13 contributors to address in their own distinct ways: Why, when democracy previously implied the increasing equality among citizens, does it no longer have that effect? These writers took part in a 1998 international conference on equality and the democratic state, at Simon Fraser University. They seem to share Broadbent's view that the principal barriers to further equality are political and institutional, not economic.

They also share his commitment to equality as the primary goal, though to some others the main point is not to divide up the wealth among the citizens so much as it is to raise the floor, the basic living standards below which no one should be allowed to fall. Bo Rothstein addresses that issue by comparing two approaches to running a welfare state - (a) re-distribution programs that seek to eliminate poverty by providing benefits selectively to those in the greatest need, and (1))universal programs that provide the same benefits to all citizens - e.g. in health care, education, pensions - irrespective of need.


One might expect that the former approach, which selectively benefits the poor, would have the greatest effect in terms of redistribution, but Rothstein shows that such is not the case, for "if you tax the rich and give it to the poor, the rich will not accept high taxes." Instead, the rich (and even the middle-class) will start to criticize the worthiness of the recipients along these lines: "What shall we do about these deviant individuals, the 'poor'?" He argues that "universal programs command wide support in the population, while the two programs (social assistance and housing allowances) which appear most clearly to violate the principles of this theory enjoy the least support."

While this analysis is admirably cogent, Rothstein does not explain why some societies have sustained their universal programs, whereas other societies have failed to maintain even selective benefits targeting their poorest citizens.


Canada, it seems, has become one of the latter societies. Readers of Democratic Equality will be surprised to find out that, as Armine Yalnizan puts it, between 1989 and 1993, "the after-tax gap between rich and poor actually decreased in Canada, causing us to be "among the handful of nations around the world that were cited as examples where the inexorable process of globalization did not automatically lead to a deterioration of income."

Why did Canada become less equitable after 1993? Was it because of the Canada/US Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, GATT, the IMF or the WTO? Yalnizan finds that globalization had nothing to do with increased poverty and homelessness. Instead these negative trends were the consequences of actions by reactionary provincial governments, headed by such proponents of neo-liberalism as Mike Harris and Ralph Klein. Prompted by ideology - not fiscal necessity, or the orders of world trade guardians - they took dramatic actions to foster inequality. Thus Harris stopped producing new social housing (despite heavy financial penalties for violations of contracts with housing co-ops) while cutting taxes for the affluent.

Jane Jenson's essay on child poverty in Canada notes that since the late 1970s "there has been a significant shift from universal programs to selectivity." Ruth Lister reviews the situation in Britain, where the policies of Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair are commonly criticized by both pro- and anti-globalizers, for very different ends. Blair's "New Labour" government has followed the example of European social democracy in rejecting the widespread nationalizations of polluting industries such as coal and steel, which past "old Labour" governments favored. However, Blair differs remarkably from his continental colleagues in refusing to in-crease social spending beyond the levels left by the long Conservative reign of Thatcher and Major. Blair has not risked raising taxes, which might alienate the middle class voters he won over to "New Labour" in his first electoral landslide. This decision was dictated, not by trade rules, but by his quest for votes. Lister complains that since electoral politics became so concentrated "on the baffle-ground of 'Middle England' was left to the churches to speak out on behalf of those in poverty in the 1997 election campaign." Obscured during his rise to power, Blair's approach was made clear after his landslide, when it was decided that the Labour government would work within the previous Conservative government's spending limits.

The most devastating critiques of Blair's policies come from Broadbent, a towering figure in the history of Canadian social democracy and a former vice-president of the Socialist International. In contrast to the media message, which give the gloss of inevitability to the policies of the British government, Broadbent shows that Blair's path differs from the more equitable course pursued by European social democratic governments, which are now in coalitions with Green parties.

In his introduction, "Ten Propositions about Equality and Democracy," Broadbent notes that there are important differences between the various continental social democracies such as Norway and the Netherlands. All these countries, however, have in common "policy commitments aimed at furthering equality in the distribution of income and the maintenance of workers' rights, which are significantly superior to those found in most Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development States (OECD)."

Broadbent notes that in all these European social democracies, "the rich ... send their children to the same well-funded public school systems as all other families, with significant consequences favoring social equity." But in class-divided Britain, rich and many middle class families continue to use private schools and health services qualitatively superior to those available to the majority. If the British paid the same level of taxes as the Germans and the French, they could double their spending on their deplorable underfunded health and education systems. It is the absence of the British willingness to pay more taxes and nothing else that perpetuates such serious inequality in the delivery of two of the most important social services."

Broadbent's message on the importance of electoral politics and democracy could have been expanded beyond the range of North Atlantic democratic nations, if the conference had included, for instance, the Nobel prize-winning economist, Amartya Sen. Such social indicators as infant mortality, literacy, and life expectancy show contrasts similar to those Broadbent found between much lower income countries.

Broadbent's approach to measure human development within the North Atlantic region is similar to that which Amartya Sen has applied to exploring the contrasts between southern and northern Indian states, in terms of literacy, infant mortality and life expectancy. In southern Indian states, notably Kerala, effective social democratic political mobilizations have resulted in public policies promoting investments in health, education, and social security. In contrast, the northern Indian state's taxes are lower and there are worse problems of infant mortality, illiteracy, and short life expectancy. The vivid contrast between northern and southern Indian states has been unchanged by the opening up of India's economy to globalization. Thus the socialist government of West Bengal, for instance, still has a worse record in health and education than the same party that is in power in Kerala, because it lacks the political will to raise taxes for universal primary education.

Unfortunately, Ed Broadbent's timely and important message is not receiving the attention it deserves. It is more trendy in both the right and left to point to the flashy politics of global trade and capital flows than the immediately practical issues of how to fund health care, public education, and social services through taxation. Perhaps Broadbent's bulletin will restore the significance of electoral politics. May the thousands standing up to gas attacks and water cannon at Quebec City also spend a few hours in the next election to go door to door among the voters.

John Bacher is a writer and activist living in Toronto.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2002

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2002, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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