On Jagmeet Singh’s social democratic credentials: a response to Rick Salutin

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In a column at Rabble, Rick Salutin has harsh words for the candidates in the NDP leadership race, and especially for Jagmeet Singh. In Salutin’s view, Singh does not even belong in the NDP and would be more at home among the Liberals, or the Mulroney-era Progressive Conservatives. Two claims are cited in support of this conclusion. First, Salutin claims that Singh favours income testing pensions, putting us on a slippery slope towards a two-tier health care system in which the poor are insured by the state while the rich are insured privately. Second, Singh is vocal about individual rights, whereas the NDP is traditionally supposed to be more concerned about what Salutin calls “collective rights”. In this post, I will explain why both of these complaints are without foundation.

As originally stated, the first of these claims is manifestly false. Singh’s proposed Canada Seniors Guarantee involves consolidating a number of seniors’ benefits, including the Old Age Security pension and the Guaranteed Income Supplement — both of which are already income tested. And it increases the progressivity of these programs, so that low and middle income seniors will receive larger benefits, while high income seniors receive less (or nothing at all). But the Canada Seniors Guarantee would not affect Canadian Pension Plan benefits. Salutin’s claim that Singh favours income testing pensions as such is not true.

But perhaps this is too nitpicky. Even if the specifics are off the mark, Salutin’s underlying concern still merits a reply. This is the charge that once we allow income testing in one program, we undermine the basis for universality in other programs. This works in two ways. First, Salutin claims, income testing undermines the society-wide solidarity that generates support for programs like the universal health care system. Second, once income testing is allowed in one program, progressives can no longer consistently mount principled objections to two-tier healthcare.

How does income testing undermine solidarity? “[B]y separating the benevolent haves from the needy, petitioning underclasses,” Salutin claims. The thought here seems to be that directing income support to the poor makes them dependent on the contingent, arbitrary attitudes of the well off; such dependency is incompatible with the underlying relationship of mutual recognition and respect between equals that distinguishes solidarity from other forms of assistance. But Salutin’s charge seems more apt as a complaint about charity — that “cold, grey, loveless thing”, as Clement Attlee put it. I don’t see how it applies to a state-run income support program funded from the public treasury and administered as an entitlement with simple, transparent, legally defined criteria. The latter, it seems to me, expresses rather than undermines solidarity. If Salutin wants to maintain his objection to targeted aid, he needs to do a good deal more work to make clear the connection between the kind of objectionably paternalistic relationship exemplified by private, discretionary, charitable assistance to the poor and a system based on a right to public social assistance, administered to the poor as a matter of social justice. Unless this connection can be established, the first of Salutin’s objections fails.

Salutin’s second objection fallaciously deploys the slippery slope argument against income testing any part of the welfare state. Salutin begins with the reasonable assumption that his readers are committed to universality in the health care system. He then claims that if income testing is permissible for some benefits, it must be permissible in the health care system. The basic form of this argument (what philosophers call modus tollens) is deductively valid, meaning that if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. So are the premises true?

I share Salutin’s commitment to a universal system of public health insurance, so I accept the first premise. But the second premise is false. Of course, there is good reason to think that universal social programs help build a supportive political climate for the welfare state as a whole (including those parts of the welfare state that are not universal). Perhaps this is a sufficient reason to preserve the universality of the public health care system. But as as anyone who has paid attention to the debate on two-tier health care should know, there are other equally (if not more) compelling reasons to preserve the current system.

In fact, the left’s defence of universal public health insurance has largely focused on the negative consequences of a two-tier system for those who would continue to depend on the public system. If the private sector is given a larger role in health care, the quality of care available available through the public system will suffer. Those who continue to use the public system will be those who cannot afford better insurance — people with low and middle incomes. The principle that justifies universality in the public health care system is the principle that we ought to give priority to the needs of the worst off — the same principle that justifies directing income assistance to those with low and middle incomes. Far from putting us on a slippery slope to the end of universal public health care, Singh’s proposal essentially involves the consistent application of the very same principle that justifies universal public health care.

Salutin’s second charge against Singh is that he has been especially vocal about individual rights rather than “collective rights”, the latter supposedly being a more a more appropriate object of concern for social democrats:

Singh’s lawyerly stress on individual rights is strongly Liberal too; if anything’s distinguished the NDP, it’s been backing collective rights, such as medicare, unions etc. With Singh, it’s really a question not of what differentiates the NDP, but: Why aren’t you a Liberal? Maybe he wound up at the wrong meeting, the night he decided to get involved.

It is not clear exactly what Salutin means by collective rights; he provides no definition, and judging by the examples he provides, he does not seem to have in mind the more familiar categories of group rights or social rights. Social rights, of which access to health care is a textbook example, are generally borne by individuals, not groups. And union rights are a straightforward consequence of the individual right to freedom of association — no doubt one of the reasons why it took so long for freedom of association to be recognized as one of the basic liberal rights! But no matter how idiosyncratically Salutin wants to draw the distinction between “individual” and “collective” rights, he appears to be profoundly ignorant of our movement’s history. In reality, social democrats have never been indifferent to individual rights of any kind. The earliest struggles of the labour movement — from which parties like the NDP developed — were about securing civil and political rights as often as they were about wages and working conditions. Under Tommy Douglas, the Saskatchewan CCF enacted the first Bill of Rights in the country — 35 years before the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Likewise, BC’s Human Rights Code was passed into law by BC’s first NDP government, led by Dave Barrett. Far from marking him as an outsider, Singh’s work defending people’s rights —as a lawyer, activist and elected representative — is in keeping with the best traditions of the party.

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