The Three Questions: Prosperity and the Public Good

March 1 st 1999

The Three Questions: Prosperity and the Public Good by Bob Rae (Toronto: Penguin Viking, 1998, 203 pp., $27.99)

"If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"

These three questions are attributed to Rabbi Hillel, a revered Jewish teacher who lived in Babylon more than 2,000 years ago. Bob Rae, the former NDP premier of Ontario, uses these questions as navigational instruments in his attempt to chart the course of Canadian social democracy into the twenty first century.

We know from Rae's political record that he is willing to cast loose from the traditional policy moorings of social democracy, which he summarizes as "bigger centralized government, higher taxes, more intervention, and public ownership" ( 5). We also know that he has on occasion been willing to abandon those of his political companions whom he considered errant—such as the public sector unions of Ontario during his premiership—for the sake of sticking to his determined course of policy redirection.

Essence of social democracy

But Rae claims still to be navigating by the same stars as the social democrats of the past. These stars, for him, are summed up in the core value "that communities and equal citizenship matter, that ordinary people need to work together to improve their lives, to increase their ability to cope with the impact of change" ( 7). For Rae, the essence of social democracy is "its belief in the equal right of every person to enjoy the good things of life, its commitment to freedom, and its recognition of the enduring values of human solidarity" (8).

Rae's efforts to chart a new course for social democracy, therefore, takes the form, in this book, of "an extended discussion of the connection between Hillel's first two questions, about the relationship between prosperity and the public good" (10). The new policies in which he has come to believe, and by which he attempted to govern Ontario during 1990 1995, are—Rae would have us believe—no more than prudent, even unavoidable responses to the changed historical circumstances in which we find ourselves today. These circumstances—"the world in which more and more people live"—are defined in part by three words: "self interest, technology, globalization" (15).

Rae identifies—and correctly so—"a fundamental shift in the spirit of the age." It is indeed more commonly the belief in our time than has been the case since the 1920s that "self interest has a purpose and a place at the heart of civil society," and that "the pursuit of individual pleasure and profit are despised at our peril." But Rae goes further. For him, this is the logic of Rabbi Hillel's first question, and "about as close to a fundamental part of human nature as you can get" (18 19, 26).

In this view, he overtly allies himself to the shift among social democrats worldwide towards a pragmatic and neo liberal understanding of the human person, the nature of economic life, and the tasks of the state. "Social democracy is now about the improvements we can make to what we have. . . . The issue in the modern world is not between capitalism and socialism. It is about what kind of capitalism we want to have" (30).

Canada no longer has a national economy, claims Rae. Its borders have become porous to trade and the transfer of capital. The decisive economic reality of these times is the global marketplace. This globalization severely limits the state's power to tax and regulate—and in particular, to tax and regulate business corporations . It also alters the conditions that made possible Keynesian stimulation of a national economy. Mobile capital can and will seek out the most favourable tax and regulatory regimes. But even efforts by the Canadian state to attract capital and stimulate job growth by means of a favourable tax and regulatory environment may well fail in the face of international conditions. "We're just not as self enclosed and sovereign as our public rhetoric would like us to believe," insists Rae (73). The causes behind this globalization of economic life are technical. "It is technological change itself which is at the core of the drive to globalization" (85).

Rae points out what he considers to be the intimate relationship between the three determining characteristics of our time (55): "The globalized, high technology world is the product of the culture of self interest, and in turn fuels the politics and economics of self interest in every part of the world."

More than a marketplace

The art of navigation has two parts: the finding of position and the determination of course. Having found the historical position to be that of a culture of self interest, high technology, and economic globalization, Rae uses Rabbi Hillel's second question to determine the course of social democracy from this point onwards.

"We live in more than a market place" (86).

Despite the severe constraints which he believes technical change and economic globalization places on the state, Bob Rae does not believe the state to be entirely irrelevant or bereft of power. There are things that can be done and moral and political decisions that must be made in an effort to build "the necessary democratic countervails to the global reach of the economy" (54 55, 86).

While Rae believes that "the pursuit of self interest is a necessary precondition for a decent social order," he also believes that "a good society requires more," namely, "the ways and means for empathy and solidarity to be reflected in everyday life" (89). Private charity and philanthropy are, in his view, inadequate means to this end, and so he turns his gaze on welfare.

Rae would make welfare reform a social democratic issue, recognizing the need for a sense of reciprocity and with "work and education back at the centre of its commitment to income support" (99). This would not require a single, big, ideological solution but rather a pragmatic buffet of better approaches.

What these approaches should not be, however, is intrusive or repressive. In particular, government should not encourage mothers in two parent families to stay at home and should not take a punitive, disciplinarian approach to workfare.

At the end of a rather throwaway discussion of health and education—lackadaisical despite his claim that "the extension of public, tax based support for health care and education are rightly seen as the bedrock of modern solidarity" (111)—Rae provides an argument why, despite their innate and appropriate tendency to place self-interest first, people should give a damn about empathy and solidarity. And his argument comes as no surprise. "There is no point lecturing people on the need to be generous—they will be generous when they realize that it is in their self interest to work for joint action" (131).

If not now, when?

Rae concludes his reflections on the relationship between self interest (supposedly the motive power behind the achievement of prosperity) and empathy and solidarity (which must augment self interest if society is to be decent) with Hillel's third question: "If not now, when?"

Having found the historical position and having determined the course for social democracy, Rae prepares to set sail. He makes the case for a reinvigorated federalism as the appropriate form of governance for the diversity of Canada. His federalism would take the form of a tolerant, irenic, "civic nationalism," which would embrace the diversities of region, language, race, and religion in such a way that Canada would be able to continue to contain both the aboriginal communities and Quebec.

Drawing somewhat unexpectedly on both Edmund Burke and George Orwell, Rae also defends, eloquently, the relative priority in human affairs of politics—politics as the art of pursuing common interests with a sense of balance and a recognition of limits. At the end of his book, but before his summary conclusion, Rae pictures the social democratic ship he would sail away in:

A successful social democratic party will despise neither prosperity nor power. It will respect markets and businesses. It will admire innovation, hard work, and education. It will fight for a sustainable economy, for equality, and for solidarity, but will understand that none of these can be achieved with an excess of partisanship. We must understand the priority of politics, but also appreciate its limits. (194)

Taking his stand against "an excess of partisanship," Rae prepares the reader for two small sentences, three paragraphs before the very end of the book. "The right is talking unity. A broad social democratic and liberal left should be doing the same" (202). Is Bob Rae still a real social democrat? Or is he simply coming out as what he has been all along—"a liberal in sandals"?

Failing worldview eyesight

To navigate the ocean of our common life, we need to find our position and determine our course. To do so, we must make astronomical observations and mathematical computations, using the appropriate tools. If we set our sights by the wrong stars, err in our computations, use incorrect or inaccurate tools, or suffer from failing eyesight, we are likely to loose our way, perhaps to founder on perilous rocks.

If there are basic truths we can know about reality, then these should serve as the stars by which we navigate. If there are eternal verities, first principles, then we should seek them out as the beginning guidelines for our lives.

The stars by which we navigate determine our worldview. The basic truths to which we are committed, about the way the world works, about what it means to be a human person, about the ways in which we human beings arrange our common lives, determine the way in which we understand everything with which we find ourselves confronted.

Like all of us, Bob Rae suffers from failing worldview eyesight. Relying on his own unaided reason, he must of necessity profess ignorance concerning roads to salvation (183). Like all modern people, he must construe his own understanding of the human person, economic life, and history, relying to some extent on the thought of earlier modern thinkers such as John Locke, Adam Smith, Harold Innis, Edmund Burke, and George Orwell. Without help, Bob Rae must think as if God doesn't exist. In this, he is no better and no worse off, no more and no less guilty, than any of us.

How things really are

Sadly, unaided human reason must of necessity misapprehend the actual states of affairs. Rae does not in this way come to grips with how things really are. No one ever could. My quarrel with him is not on the facts he presents or, for the time being, on the minutiae of his historical, economic, or political interpretation. It is on the grounds, rather, of his worldview, his ultimate convictions concerning the human person, the arrangements of economic life, and the shaping of history.

In Rae's view, the human person is ultimately a self interested individual—a rational self interested individual, who may be persuaded on the grounds of self interest to show empathy, generosity, and even solidarity toward the less fortunate, but a self-interested individual nonetheless, on whose private philanthropy no one can rely.

Rae's observations concerning economic life are based on his understanding of twentieth-century history, which he understands from the presupposed perspective that human beings are driven most fundamentally by self interest: people work but out of necessity; capitalism is the only remaining option as a way of economic life; capitalism has no other internal principle but self interest, and must therefore be turned to empathy, generosity, decency, and solidarity through the coercive power of the state (although in a nice, social democratic way, rather than by means of a crass, nationalizing collectivism).

While Rae derides Marx and Marxism, his understanding of history is no less of a technical and economic materialistic determinism than that of Marx.

It must be admitted that Rae's framework of presuppositions is more nuanced than this review suggests. But these are evidently the worldview stars by which Rae navigates: an understanding of the human person as little more than a self interested individual, an understanding of work as something we do only under the constraints of necessity, an understanding of economic life as informed by no other internal principle than self interest, an understanding of the state as the sole agency responsible for the coercive establishment of decency and the common good, and a materialistic understanding of history as determined by technical and economic processes.

Internally incoherent

Rae's set of presuppositions, or the "social democratic" politics which he derives from them, are not suasive, hopeful, or true to reality. As several studies of both the modern worldview and of political economic approaches similar to Rae's have shown, this kind of modern worldview is internally incoherent. Worst of all, the evident lack of meaning in this view of the world and human life gnaws away at the unwarranted good cheer with which Rae presents it. It is not a worldview which would get me out of bed in the morning.

By contrast, a Christian worldview offers true hope for economic and political life in Canada and in the rest of God's world. Starting out from the presupposition that we human beings cannot get hold of an understanding of the true state of affairs merely by means of our unaided reason, a Christian worldview would turn for help to the Bible. As Christians have suggested since at least the sixteenth century, the Bible serves as a pair of eyeglasses, correcting our failing vision of reality.

Looking at reality with the aid of the Bible, an entirely different set of worldview presuppositions are apparent. The human being is not a solitary individual, but a person in relationship. The defining characteristic of the human person is neither reason nor self-interest but responsibility—the ability to respond to God and other persons. Work is not drudgery, but meaningful service to other people, and stewardship of God's earth. Economic life is not motivated by mere self interest, but rather is guided by thrift and generosity. The state does not have to take sole responsibility for the coercive establishment of all decency, generosity, empathy, and solidarity among people. Rather, it is responsible only for the establishment of public justice, and takes its place among a wide array of human relationships, each contributing to the common good in its peculiar way.

History does indeed at its foundations have to do with technique, tools, organization, and work. But history is not subject to either technical or economic fate. Rather, history is in the provident hands of a loving God.

This is a worldview that does get me out of bed, full of hope and gratitude, every morning. If God is for us, who can be against us?


Gideon Strauss was the editor of Comment from 2000 to 2010. He is currently Associate Professor of Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies, a graduate school of philosophy in Toronto, and a senior fellow with the Center for Public Justice in Washington DC. Gideon also facilitates vocational discipleship in churches in his native South Africa.