Last month in Ottawa, the Coalition for a Better Future—which consists of more than 100 business and industry associations, think-tanks and community organizations—held a summit to discuss how to make Canada more equal, environmentally-friendly and prosperous over the next few decades. The coalition’s decided ideological orientation, evidenced by its summit and public statements, is of suspicion towards free markets and support for collaboration between governments, corporations and community organizations to impose top-down economic designs.
At the conclusion of the summit, the coalition released a scorecard with targets of what it wants Canada to look like in 2030. The scorecard has three broad categories: growing sustainably, living better and winning globally. These are in turn broken down into 21 different metrics related to equality, innovation, climate change, international trade and other things. The theme of increasing equality runs heavily through the coalition’s agenda—for example, one item on its scorecard is “income parity across genders, races, and people with disabilities.”
This goal is absurd. The only way to have uniform incomes across groups is through massive transfers of property and incomes, the effect of which would be to everywhere create moral hazards, encourage wealth dissipation, reward sloth, subsidize irresponsibility and punish economically and socially productive behaviour. The idea of grouping people by gender, race or other characteristics to redistribute income is particularly worrisome. The general tendency is that when the government gives some people the right to take things from other people, the powerful do the taking.
Arrangements to equalize incomes across groups are therefore likely to benefit powerful people in “disadvantaged” groups at the expense of everyone else, including the people at the bottom of the “advantaged” group. This is well illustrated by proposals to rewrite government procurement policies to award more government contracts to businesses owned by women or other groups of people said to be disadvantaged—an idea supported by, among others, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, which are both Coalition for a Better Future members.
A question worth asking is, who will be able to land government contracts by convincing bureaucrats they are oppressed? Certainly not anyone who is actually oppressed. Meanwhile, taxpayers would pay more for governmental goods and services, and firms that are economically productive would lose business on account of being owned by or employing people of the incorrect race or gender. This government equality and diversity initiative would therefore cause a net loss, as the gains for a few politically powerful people would be more than offset by greater loss to everyone else.
The Coalition for a Better Future’s equality ambitions are exacerbated by its mistaken idea that societies and economies can be centrally designed and shaped through top-down control. The coalition’s ideas mirror those of Adam Smith’s “man of system” who, as Smith described, “is apt to be very wise in his own conceit” and “seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.”
The coalition seems to think of people as chess pieces. Its scorecard has metrics for the number of women and Indigenous people in senior management positions, and coalition co-chair Lisa Raitt recently posited that the number of women in senior positions is something that “everybody understands” must be brought to a “better level.” But what is meant by a better level? Is there some universally agreed-upon number of women in Canada that should be corporate executives? Note that if women are underrepresented in some positions—corporate management, for example—there’s an offsetting overrepresentation elsewhere (see the veterinary profession and public school teaching).
If we want equality, we could push some teachers, as if they were chess pieces, into corporate roles, and push some corporate managers into teaching. What could go wrong? The answer from Smith—people are not mere chess pieces; they have their own agency, and forcing them in a direction opposite to where they want to go would result in misery and cause society to “be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.” Thus all Canadians who do not want more social disorder should oppose the scheming of coalitions looking to impose their top-down economic designs on society.
Matthew Lau is an adjunct scholar with the Fraser Institute.