Conrad Black: Western democracies are ready for some fresh ideas; here are a few

“There are better methods of achieving the admirable goal of the elimination of poverty than just pouring out cash and paying for it by tax increases.”

It was my pleasure on Wednesday night to participate in a debate at the C.D. Howe Institute about the desirability or otherwise of a guaranteed annual income in advanced Western countries. Arguing in favour were the master of Massey College, former senator and chief of staff to Ontario premier Bill Davis and prime minister Brian Mulroney, Hugh Segal, and the U.S. Democratic activist, counsellor to president Clinton and CNN commentator, Paul Begala. The former minister of finance and of social services of Saskatchewan, Janice MacKinnon, and I argued against.

The other three speakers were all very fluent and often entertaining and the entire atmosphere, including the social aspects, were very convivial. The event was sponsored by the distinguished mining executive Aaron Regent and his most gracious wife, Heather. Janice and I were given to understand that our opponents were advocating outright payments to everyone who survived childbirth, for life, of $1,300 per month. As that would cost Canada $560 billion a year, and the United States over $5 trillion annually, this would be completely impractical, and we prepared ourselves for a rollicking debunk.

As the motion was formally read and our opponents spoke in support, it was clear that what was in contemplation was not at all preposterous, and was effectively a variant on Milton Friedman’s negative income tax and a program of income supplements to bring income-disadvantaged people up to a level above poverty. In my experience, in debates of this kind, where interventions are from two to five minutes and everyone has up to six opportunities to speak, preparation can be excessive and participants should be ready for fairly radical improvisation, which makes the whole exchange more spontaneous and effervescent anyway. It is, after all, a give-and-take debate, not a sequence of scripted recitations. Janice and I scaled back our responses to assertions that there were better methods of achieving the admirable goal of the elimination of poverty than just pouring out cash and paying for it by tax increases that could not fail to fall on the middle-class brackets, and by cancelling non-cash programs to assist low-income people in acquiring skills that would enable them to raise their incomes.

There was the predictable posturing and histrionics on both sides

There was the predictable posturing and histrionics on both sides, usually executed with considerable panache; Hugh and Paul swaddling themselves in “fairness” and looking for any opportunity to portray Janice and me as heartless reactionaries, indifferently resigned to the Biblical permanence of poverty and tight-fistedly dissembling while seeking more comfortable conditions for those already well-off. We had no trouble parrying that, and as we had no problem either with our opponents’ espoused goals, we proposed a series of suggestions of achieving our shared objective by more efficient means. The issue effectively changed in mid-course from attacking guaranteed minimum incomes to alternative methods than just doling out taxpayers’ money. There were four rather complicated questions from a panel of accomplished jurors (including four federal and provincial MPs). The questions were rendered rather ceremoniously by the equable chairman of the Bennett Jones law firm, Hugh MacKinnon, and the time limits were courteously but ruthlessly enforced by the president of the C.D. Howe Institute, Bill Robson.

Counterintuitively, Hugh Segal, always a Red Tory, and Paul Begala, a very liberal Democrat, and Hugh MacKinnon on behalf of the apparently moderately left jurors, invoked Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, the greatest intellectual champions of the free market since Adam Smith, in favour of giving money to those who need it as they will know best what to do with it, and because poverty is intolerable. Janice, a prairie New Democratic ex-social affairs and finance minister, attacked the extravagance of universality, and I, by far the most outspoken capitalist of the debaters, championed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s workfare programs and military buildup that brought the United States out of the Great Depression, out of isolationism, and prepared it to lead the world in war and Cold War.