Readers respond to Peter Foster on Adam Smith, the NFB and more
In your March issue, contributor Peter Foster rakes over dying embers in an attempt to breathe new fire into the capitalist “ethic” (“What Would Smith Say? ”). While he provides more than enough fodder to fuel a sustained debate among economics undergraduates, the real corker in this litany of near-religious beliefs is Foster’s claim (couched in the ideas of Adam Smith) that it is “a mistake to imagine that governments could promote economic growth or compensate for the alleged shortcomings of the market, which represented a complex natural order.”
First, governments can and do promote economic growth, by employing people and purchasing goods, whether they be paper clips, rifles, or bridges. But more significantly, the capitalist notion that unlimited long-term growth is either desirable or possible has been under fire for some time. The question (as E.F. Schumacher pointed out over a quarter of a century ago) is not if but when we will be forced to address that issue, and at what cost.
Regarding Foster’s qualification of capitalism’s shortcomings as “alleged,” with what magic wand has he waved away unemployment, price-fixing, depletion of natural resources, and pollution of the planet? I suspect he would claim these evils are due to materialism rather than capitalism, but that won’t do. The two are intractably linked.
Finally, the so-called free market, in which no single producer should enjoy a competitive advantage over another, has never really existed, certainly not since the days of Smith. Oligopolies do their best to ensure that their competitors are at a disadvantage, and have since the early days of the Industrial Revolution (indeed, even before that, in the form of production and marketing guilds). But even if it could be shown that capitalism was the natural order of things, it would prove nothing. Lots of things are natural, but also bad. Consider earthquakes, floods, and disease. Or does Foster want to pick and choose?
Having made his best case for capitalism, he goes on to suggest that the current economic crisis is a tempest in a teapot. I would invite him to consider the billions of people around the world seriously harmed by this blip: the employees who have been laid off, many at an age when they cannot reasonably expect to find another job, even in a robust economy; the retirees whose pensions have been ravaged by corporate mismanagement; the people in the developing world who are being left to fend for themselves because NGO funding has dried up. But perhaps Foster would lump them all together under the heading of “parasitical groups who are a dead weight on the economy” (That’s Foster quoting historian Niall Ferguson channelling Adam Smith).
James E. Napier
Peter Foster seems to suggest that we should not be concerned about global warming, because “scientific theories are designed to cater to our desire for simple explanations, and are always and inevitably provisional.” I wonder whether he would have been as scornful of scientific theory when, in the 1940s, scientists cautioned us to stay away from the New Mexico site of the first atomic bomb blast on launch day. They didn’t know exactly what would happen, but it turned out to be pretty good advice. In any case, what special qualification does Foster have to assess the validity of climate change theory? The fact that Adam Smith’s “close friend and dining partner” discovered carbon dioxide? No, we are being told by people who have spent their whole lives studying climate change that we need to be concerned, and that’s good enough for me.
The discussion of Stephen Harper’s student reading in William Johnson’s recent cover story refers to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr as a former socialist turned conservative (“The Outsider,” March). While Niebuhr certainly moved to the right over his career, this was from utopian socialism to New Deal liberalism. As Richard Wightman Fox’s 1985 biography notes, Niebuhr identified himself as a Democrat from early middle age until his death in 1971, supporting Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson. He favoured a vigorous yet realistic anti-totalitarianism in foreign policy, but also believed in a generous welfare state and a mixed economy. He regarded the 1964 nomination of Barry Goldwater with horror, and his writings offer little comfort to conservatives. If Harper thought otherwise, his reading of Niebuhr would appear to be no sounder than his recent political judgment.
J.B. MacKinnon presents a fascinating tale in “The Opposite of Apocalypse” (March), about “rewilding” the Americas. Just imagine Pleistocene mega-fauna roaming the continent again! But along the way, he takes unsupported jabs at the “hollow promise” of conservation efforts. Far from fighting to “preserve an archipelago of ‘pristine’ wilderness areas from the juggernaut of humanity,” conservation is aimed at protecting important species and habitats in a broadly varying state of naturalness. And quite opposite to presenting a hollow promise, these spaces fulfill a vital role in nature protection. Because of their demonstrated success, governments as well as local people around the world increasingly recognize their value. I take issue with MacKinnon’s tacit support of the Ladder Ranch’s nascent “manifesto that would declare an end to the conservation century and declare the dawn of an age of restoration.” It is not a case of either/or. As conservation continues to evolve, it accommodates various emerging approaches to enriching biological diversity, including restoration biology, and the movement is all the stronger for it.
With regard to Matthew Hays’s informal street corner survey of Montrealers on the topic of Canada’s National Film Board (“To NFB or Not to NFB,” March), even if one ignores the fact that the statistical value of a sample of ten is virtually nil, one should consider the possibility that the six who didn’t know what the NFB is might have been more familiar with the initials ONF, which stand for Office National du Film.