Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/12/2016 (254 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Whenever I go for a walk, my feet each claim credit for any forward momentum. My right foot says it has all the initiative and is the real driver of my progress. It sometimes complains that my left foot just tags along, not doing the heavy lifting.
My left foot replies that it plans where we should go and without its direction the right foot would carry me off randomly. My left foot also seems to care about the welfare of my right foot. My right foot is self-interested.
But then I wonder, who is responsible for the road we travel on? The right foot says no matter, roads can easily be built by the right feet of the world and any and all feet should pay a fee to travel on them. The left foot argues that roads are a collective responsibility, part of the public good and every foot may use them for free.
Adam Smith was the first major economist to identify a set of collective goods that should be financed through taxes and other fees imposed by government. Often unjustly maligned as the architect of unbridled capitalism, Smith was a moral philosopher deeply concerned with issues such as poverty and the potential for big business to cause harm. He also identified certain essential services that support general welfare, which no business would ever attempt to provide. Such so-called "public goods" provide a general benefit to society, but no one would find it profitable to provide them at levels that would satisfy social needs.
Smith included transportation infrastructure, public health, education and defence in the list of services that should be provided collectively to support the public good. Economists continued to refine the list with one important addition being the civil and criminal codes within the legal system that supports the rule of law. It is hard to imagine commerce of any kind operating without contract law.
Collective services provided in the name of promoting the public good become a form of social contract. The essence of political economy is how to promote the public good and make the decision of where to draw the line between collectively and privately provided services.
From this basic decision on where to divide public and private services, there flows a multitude of attitudes and preferences that are the grist of endless political debate.
For Smith, self-interest is key to the promotion of the public good through a process that resembles an invisible hand.
Self-interest, as Smith defines it, is not greed and easily encompasses a range of human motives such as altruism and the duty of care by a parent to a child. However, this approach to promoting the public good is controversial, with many seeing it as a deeply flawed idea mitigated only by activist governments.
In recent times, a structural defect has emerged in how we define the public good. It is a flaw embedded in foundation documents such as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
To understand this, we need to travel back to 1943, as the tides of the Second World War were turning in favour of the Allies. Gen. Charles de Gaulle, leader of the French government in exile, commissioned a work on the regeneration of France after the war. The author, Simone Weil, was one of the remarkable philosophers of the 20th century. A member of the French resistance, Weil outlined her plan for France’s postwar recovery in the book The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Toward Mankind.
The introduction is one of the most arresting antidotes to the current obsession with rights and entitlement:
"The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former."
A right exists only to the extent it is recognized by others. An obligation exists regardless of its recognition. For Weil, one who is alone in the universe has no rights, but will always have obligations, some of which are to themselves.
Her goal was to encourage French citizens to recover their spiritual roots and create a restored society founded on the obligations we have individually and collectively to ourselves. United States president John Kennedy attempted the same thing in his inaugural address when he extolled Americans to "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
The Canadian charter makes no mention of any duty by Canadians, either to ourselves or others. In our "selfie" era, where rights seem to multiply exponentially, articulating our mutual obligations is more important than ever. These duties become the strands that weave the canvas of the social contract on which we paint our economy and society.
Gregory Mason is an associate professor of economics at the University of Manitoba and a senior consultant at PRA Inc. His views are his own.