What’s Free Enterprise Got To Do With It?

Occupy Wallstreet…I’ve refrained from wading into this debate (partly because the Canadian experience has not been as devastating as the US experience) however a goofball comment has been tormenting me for weeks and I can’t sit on the sidelines any longer.

Here’s the comment:  “Antibusiness protests are attracting a lot of attention in the media right now…and very close to home, but they hide a basic fact: our wealth and freedom depend on the individual right to free enterprise.*

The speaker was Premier Redford.  The occasion was her faux Throne Speech to the Legislature on Oct 24, 2011.  The comment was recorded for posterity in Hansard, the official record of the debates held in the Legislature.  Yes, I know, Hansard is replete with politicians’ statements which range from probing and perceptive to inane and downright offensive.  I’d like to park this comment under the heading “inane” and leave it at that—but I can’t.  Here’s why.

What Ms Redford really said was this:  the Occupy Wallstreet demonstrations have obscured a fundamental human right—the right to free enterprise—and that our wealth and freedom depend on that right.  Say again?

Is there a right to free enterprise? 

Contrary to what Ms Redford would have us believe there is no right to free enterprise.  Canadians and Albertans have numerous rights and freedoms.  They are so vital to our existence as a democratic society that they’re enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Bill of Rights, the Alberta Bill of Rights and the Alberta Human Rights Act.  These rights and freedoms are clearly described so that there can be absolutely no confusion (or wiggle room) as to what they are, namely:  the right to vote, the right to equality and freedom from discrimination, the right to life, liberty and security of the person, enjoyment of property and due process of law;  freedom of religion, speech, assembly and association, and lastly freedom of the press.

These rights and freedoms are sacred.  When them come under attack, either here or abroad, we take up arms and go to war.  Many die.  And this weekend we paused to remember those who gave their lives so that we could continue to enjoy these rights and freedoms unmolested by others.

So forgive me if I react with dismay when the Premier of the province blithely creates a new “right”, this time free enterprise, and says that our wealth and freedom depend on it.

Do wealth and freedom depend on free enterprise?

Ignoring for a minute the fact that free enterprise is not a right, are wealth and freedom dependent on it?  Well, that depends on where you live.  In a democratic society wealth is dependent on free enterprise…but it is also dependent on a myriad of other factors including global markets, the regulatory framework governing the enterprise, access to financing and a trained work force, government royalties and tax breaks, etc.

If, on the other hand, you live in a dictatorship, wealth may be dependent solely on having a close personal relationship with the dictator who, by odd coincidence, has a close personal relationship with the head of the militia.

And sometimes wealth is the result of serendipity—just ask Art Fry, the guy who invented 3M Post It notes.

Freedom is also dependent on where you live;  and your ability to make the most of your talents.  This in turn is dependent on having access to good healthcare and a good education, and then to being able to apply your talents in a democratic society that values your contribution.  To suggest that freedom is in anyway dependent on free enterprise is utterly ridicules.

Are the Occupy Wallstreet demonstrations “hiding” any basic facts?

Now this is downright bizarre.  I’ll be the first to admit that the message of the Occupy Wallstreet protesters is diffuse and muddled at times, however their purpose is clear—to raise awareness of the inequities that result when a small group has disproportionate control over the economic, political and financial sectors of society.  The result is an enhanced quality of life for a privileged few and a diminished quality of life for the rest.  This is wrong because, in the words of Desmond Tutu, “Everyone is precious; everyone matters.”**

What’s free enterprise got to do with it?

Nothing.  I don’t think that Ms Redford truly believes that our wealth and freedom depend on the individual right to free enterprise.  This was just a slick turn of phrase which allowed her to segue into the next part of her speech—a statement in support of small businesses like organic wineries and modular home construction companies.

And that’s why this comment bothers me so much.  Overheated hyperbole is fine when used by sports fans arguing about the best team in the NFL.  But it is never appropriate when uttered by the Premier of Alberta on the eve of an election—then it is fallacious and misleading.

It’s time for Ms Redford to curb her speechwriter and engage the public in an honest dialogue around the issues that really matter.  Healthcare, education, budget deficits, and responsible resource development are a few that spring to mind.

*Hansard, Oct 24, 2011, 1156 

**Vanity Fair Nov 2011, 232

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12 Responses to What’s Free Enterprise Got To Do With It?

  1. Rose Marie MacKenzie-Kirkwood says:

    I am going to start off on a different note in response to my “freedoms”. Firstly, I must confess that I am not a big fan of politicians. I commend them for what they do, that I can’t, because someone has to take the bull by the horns and try to make a difference in this country. What I can not understand is why they don’t have the same accountability that I do.

    If I stand up and profess that I have, will or promise to do something I must do exactly that or answer to the people I work for as to why I failed. Speeches that literally “blow smoke” irritate me to no end. Politicians, like me, have a responsibility to the people who employ them. Our tax dollars should be spent on making our lives better.

    The fact that I am an average citizen with an average salary is my doing and I am more than willing to take responsibility for all my accomplishments and failures but when I vote for a candidate who says he/she will improve health care I expect better health care. None of this should depend on my income which privatization of health care means. I was always under the impression that “free enterprise” meant that we, as Canadians, were free to try to find a better life for ourselves by stepping up to the plate. Whether it be a small business or politics, we are free to take a chance.

    I sat, in my home, with a woman working for Stats Canada yesterday as I was randomly chosen to participate in a “Longitudinal and International Study of Adults”. Apparently the study is designed to play an important role in the success of Canada’s education, economic and social services. Lucky for me I got the short version as my husband was home the first time she came. He was asked to do tasks on a computer to assess his knowledge and abilities, I was simply asked how far I went in school and was I going to go further; how long had I worked, and had I any illnesses that could possibility keep me from working. I guess that covers education, economic and social services. The sad part is the amount of money being spent. She informed me that they would be coming around, once a year, to see how my life had changed for at least next year anyway because they were not sure if the budget would include this in the future. So what was the purpose, Stats Canada already does assessments and if this is going to be a one year shot, again I say, why bother. Stop assessing and start doing because we all know the short falls of our system.

    So we are back to the beginning. I have, all my life, had the freedom to do what I wanted and what I accomplished all lands on my shoulders; so all you free speaking politicians it is now your turn. You also have had all the freedoms I had and we are all ready to stand by you so stop talking the talk and start walking the walk.

    • Rose Marie, your point about walking the talk is well put, particularly in the context of your experience with the Stats Can interviewer. If feds decided to ask Stats Can to run a “Longitudinal and International Study of Adults” and a “longitudinal” study in anyone’s book is one which extends for more than a year (5 maybe?) then the feds should have included sufficient funding to carry out the study properly. To do anything less is a waste of taxpayers’ money and a waste of the participants’ time.

      Having said all that I wonder why Stats Can made that poor woman come out to your house. Given the nature of the questions you were asked, surely you and your husband could have completed the test on line which would have cost significantly less. Have they no commonsense?

  2. Roy Wright says:

    Holy mackerel…I think you are onto something. Premier Redford is indeed very bright, very well spoken and extremely meticulous in her judicious use of words and phrases. However, we have not yet experienced enough of her rhetoric to see where it might lead us. Given she is a lawyer by training (and therefore each statement is likely leading us somewhere just like a very good chess player), I would bet she is setting up the debate about free enterprise and how government should “step back”. I am concerned about the Progressive Conservatives and how privatization of health services (or some variant) might play out, how environmental requirements might be reduced to self policing by the perpetrators (ask about how many Alberta Environment staff are still employed), and other Tea Party driven concepts that will surface. Is the new Premier attempting to cut off the Wild Rose Party by shouting out loud “We are free enterprisers!”?
    This is starting to sound a bit like the Republican playbook of GWB. Will the next salvo start with quotes from Adam Smith out of his “Wealth of Nations” exhorting capitalism? If she follows our cousins to the south she will conveniently forget the last third of the book, which reminds us that government has a duty to “curb the excess of capitalism”. We need to remind her of that duty.

    • Elaine Fleming, Whitemud Citizens for Public Health says:

      I came across this article on the Canadian Doctors for Medicare website. It speaks well, I think, to these points.

      • Elaine Fleming, Whitemud Citizens for Public Health says:

        I’m replying to myself! I should have explained that the opinion of Mr. Corcoran of the National Post, as quoted by the Canadian Doctors for Medicare is not that of myself or the Whitemud Citizens for Public Health, or that of the Doctors for Medicare for that matter. Quite the contrary. And actually, I’m thinking Terence Corcoran might have written this article with tongue-in-cheek, just to provoke people, very much like our own Edmonton fella, Lorne Gunther, just to get a reaction and sell papers. After all, that’s what these dudes profess, isn’t it? It’s all about money, and buying and selling stuff, and healthcare is just another commodity as well. We are going to be hearing more and more of this rhetorical nonsense as the renegotiations for the 2014 Federal-Provincial Health Accord take place at the national level, and here in our own province as our government tries to hive off more and more healthcare delivery to the private sector. It’s encouraging, however that there are so many citizens and groups such as the Doctors for Medicare who are savvy to the benefits of our public medicare system and will fight to protect it. The Council of Canadians, bless their hardy souls, are going to be having a rally in Halifax this November 24, where the meeting of the provincial and territorial ministers on the Health Accord will be taking place. They are going to make sure that the Canadian peoples’ voices are heard, and urge our leaders to protect, strengthen and extend Medicare. If it was closer, Whitemud Citizens would be making a road trip. We will be there in spirit, for sure!

      • Elaine, thanks for your reply to your reply! Hopefully Mr Corcoran is simply being a modern day Johnathan Swift with his own 21st century version of A Modest Proposal. It’s unsettling to realize that many people, including some in government, believe that the private market could do a better job of meeting our healthcare needs than the public funding and delivery system. The confidential Ministerial Report that’s the basis for Rachel Notley’s Standing Order 15 application (misleading the House) states that 30% of all healthcare in Alberta is delivered privately–and we all know how well that’s working. And if the US experience is any example bumping that 30% up to100% is a sure fire recipe for disaster. Equally mystifying is the fact that the specter of privatization won’t die. A Liberal MLA told me that the PCs know that Albertans won’t support more privatization; the PCs own internal reports reflect this and yet they still pursue it. Makes me think that they’ve run out of ideas and are trying to chuck the problem over the fence into the arms of their corporate buddies–a win win situation for them but not for us.

  3. Roy, the worry is that a skilled orator can move the debate far far away from where it started. For example, Ms Redford promised a public inquiry at the start of her leadership campaign, that shifted to a “judicial” inquiry and now she’s proposing an HQC inquiry on the understanding that the HQC will have additional powers to subpoena witnesses and protect witnesses by keeping their testimony confidential. The result is a 180 degree turn. The HQC inquiry, even if it’s led by a judge, is not a judicial inquiry and it certainly won’t be public…so much for transparency and for delivering on a campaign promise.

    Your reference to the USA playbook and Adam Smith is bang on. Let’s hope that Albertans will recognize the need to support broader social policies–like universal health care–and not sacrifice them in the interests of unbridled free enterprise.

  4. Carlos Beca says:

    It is no surprise to me that Alison Redford has made that kind of a statement. The fact that she is a lawyer and that she is a premier does not mean to me that she is very bright. To be a good politician certainly involves many good skills but in today’s political environment, being bright is certainly not one of them. Ralph Klein was a premier of this province with high levels of support and calling him a bright person would be like calling Berlusconni a family man. The reality is that these people are embedded in a certain ideology and like in cults, seem to be unable to accept other points of view. Free Enterprise, market self regulation and the famous invisible hand are now the only way to be prosperous and if one cannot understand that, one is an idiot period. Saying that wealth and freedom depend on free enterprise is just another fake it until you make it type motto.

    As far as the Occupy Wallstreet demonstrations, I am not sure why people find them muddled. In a world where none of us really knows what politicians believe anymore and where lying is a common event along with outright robbery of the public treasury, these demonstrations are as clear as one can get. I personally fully understand their message and in fact I was in the demonstration in Churchill Square for the simple reason that I do not believe that we have a democracy, I do not agree with the extreme inequality we now seem to think is desirable. These are the two main points of the demonstrations. Expecting that these demonstrations have a leader and are clearer is to me a bit unrealistic considering that these people came together spontaneously and had in mind protesting against a system that is way more muddled and corrupt. Furthermore, it is important to note that it is very clear now that the same governments that are so ready to help Libyans and others have the right to freedom of expression are the ones who have no qualms using the full force of their police forces to shut down anyone that does not believe in the cult’s ideologies. It is now very clear that the so called free world, will not allow their police force interfere with politicians using public money to bailout big banks that have committed obvious fraud and legalized robbery, they will not charge (case of Britain) politicians who used public money for their private benefit, but they certainly will be out there with full batlle equipment to get rid of anyone who protests against these outrageous abuses. It is very troubling to me that we got to the point when we cannot even see that there is something really wrong about this kind of system. We get very disturbed and ready for war to get rid of systems like the one in Syria but we cannot understand the WallStreet protests. Many people I have talked to still think these people to be bums and that need to go to jail. This is what is very concerning to me. The problem is that we do have a very muddled perception of what democracy and freedom really means.

  5. Carlos, I take your point with respect to the Occupy Wallstreet demonstrations and agree that it would be unrealistic to expect such spontaneous demonstrations to have clearly defined leaders and spokesmen. I think the protesters have successfully raised awareness of the issues and have garnered support in unexpected (but likely welcome) places. Rather than lose that support by refusing to budge from the parks they could transform that support into action (albeit on a local scale) by taking their issues to the first level of government—the municipality. I understand that some of the protesters have engaged with the City of Calgary to find a solution for specific cases of homelessness. This won’t result in massive social change overnight, but it’s a step in the right direction.

    Another option open to them in Alberta would be to identify political parties and candidates who understand their issues and vote for them in the coming election. It’s a window that opens once every 4 years and their timing is perfect.

    Thanks again for providing your comments Carlos. We all benefit from hearing your views as someone who’s participated in the demonstrations and understands what they’re about from personal experience..

  6. Carlos Beca says:

    Susan with all due respect to you I just wanted to add that you being a lawyer and obviously a citizen that fully respects the rule of law will have a hard time understanding the point of view of people that for different reasons no longer believe that without changes this system will survive. It is biased and obviously flawed. I also fully respect the rule of law and I am a strong believer in an organized peaceful society, but I am also not willing to witness a society that freely uses its police against people that are simply protesting and does absolutely nothing to people that again and again steel from the public treasury as if they have the divine right to it. Banks that just recently were infused with public money to survive are now taking away their homes because these people can no longer afford their mortgages. This is done under the rule of law which basically allows politicians to protect them under the so called ‘to big to fail’ excuse. I wonder why millions of families in the US are not considered too big to fail as well? The reason is clear and we all know it. Elites that own these banks are protected by the same rule of law that bankrupts those whose money is being used to save them. We can talk no end about these abuses as I am sure you very well know. Why am I saying this? Because in your answers to my comments you always suggest in the kindest way, that people have the option to identify political parties and candidates who understand their issues and vote for them …….etc. I am not sure this is because you really believe this actually works or if it is because you cannot say otherwise. If we had done what you are suggesting, you know very well that you probably would not have been a lawyer today and the blacks and gays for example would still be treated like dirt. It is because of people like Martin Luther King and many others that the rule of law was pushed against the wall and had to change. You know as well as I do that inequality has never in history been resolved with elections and candidates and all that jazz and now more than ever before will not be resolved that way. Why? Because the people in power do not have any interest in changing it. Being privileged and powerful is something that no one has ever let go without major revolutions. Avoiding inequality is the best way to get into these situations but it is the candidates and the present political system that has brought us to where we are. So my question to you is this, do you really believe the present system is capable of resolving the serious issues we are all facing today? By the way just to complete my posting I want to make it clear I am not asking this to offend anybody. I am just trying as a citizen to be able to discuss issues with others that have the same interest. I am certainly very grateful to be able to read other people’s comments and beliefs and evolve in the process.

    • Carlos, we agree on many points, such as the disgraceful bailouts of the US banks and financial institutions with taxpayers’ money when the US government could have prevented the financial meltdown from occurring had it enacted and enforced legislation against the creation of esoteric investment vehicles like credit default swaps etc. Where we have a difference of opinion is in what to do about it. I believe the democratic model of governance is a good one, but that it’s slipped off track. As a result I urge people to reclaim the democratic process, to identify political candidates who share their views and vote for them (volunteering to help them get elected would also be extremely helpful). The recent success of Calgary’s Mayor Nenshi and the NDP in Quebec demonstrates that people will do brilliant things when they find a candidate who shares their values.

      Like you I’m interested in all perspectives, and that’s what the soapbox is for–to share ideas and opinions so that we can all learn from each other. I appreciate the fact that you expressed your opinion respectfully. Thanks Carlos. .

  7. Carlos Beca says:

    Thank you Elaine for the URL to the Financial Post – Mr. Corcoran article on Health Care.
    I read it and at first I thought I had the wrong paper. I do not remember to have read such an agressive article in a Canadian Newspaper. I really do not know who owns the Financial Post but I am assuming that it is published in Canada and for Canadian readears. I do not read many newspapers and I do not pretend to be a well versed person on this subject but I read here and there and I was a bit surprised. After I went back a second time to some of the paragraphs I wondered if he was being sarcastic. This morning I noticed that there were 11 comments rather than the 9 yesterday and I read Susan’s reply to my entry and I looked up number 10 and 11. I did not know that this blog allowed entries anywhere on the page. Once I read your entry and Susan’s I have to agree with you. This is probably bombastic to sell more papers. Wow I am still thinking about the article anyway. It is hard for me to believe that people despite all the examples of privatized care around us still fight so hard for it. I have to say that although I do not like to believe it, I wonder if even the health management companies in the US, waiting for the Canadian bone, are not behind these people and paying them lots of money for these articles. I am not much for conspiracy theories but having read and watched very serious programs about Health care in the US, I have to admit I can believe anything.

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