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