What's Behind the Lemming Urge?
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 2 Oct 1975, p. 41-53

Mackasey, The Honourable Bryce, Speaker
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A belief that we in Canada are "trading a system, a mixed-economy system that gives us all an unprecedented freedom, for a system we fought a hot and cold war to escape." What our free enterprise system has given us. The need for the control of self-restraint. A brief history of the economy since 1900. Differences between then and now. The present institution as the "true community." Individual alienation by bureaucracy. The dynamics of our system going back throughout history: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Magna Carta. The controls of constitution, law, faith, a sense of duty. Problems with big government, interference with business, fraudulent advertising. The restraint of wage and price controls. The responsibilities of private enterprise. Problems with cutting government spending. The responsibilities of individuals. The practise of restraint.
Date of Original:
2 Oct 1975
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Full Text
OCTOBER 2, 1975
What's Behind the Lemming Urge?
CHAIRMAN The President, H. Allan Leal, Q.C.


Mr. Minister, ladies and gentlemen: We bid you welcome to the second meeting of The Empire Club of Canada for this season. The arrangements for the meeting today were made by telephone. You will recall the innocent (by present standards) childhood game of post office, part of which was set to music:

I wrote a letter to my PMG
And on the way they lost it.
It went to Spain
And back again.
They're still trying to accost it.
Since I had occasion to write to the Postmaster General, and thought it only proper to insert the postal code, I went down to the General Post Office on Front Street to get it and found yet another peril added to advancing years and failing vision--there it was, the Directory of the Postal Code in two languages and four volumes, the Atlantic Provinces, Quebec, Ontario and the Western Provinces (including the Territories). But where to find Ottawa? While scanning the instructions at the front of one of the volumes, my eyes fell upon a map of Canada divided into postal areas with a letter assigned to each, beginning with A in Newfoundland near Seldom-Come-By or Come-By-Chance and proceeding westward. But alas, there was no letter Z. Now I have a real affinity with the letter Z and was sorry to see it excluded. But undaunted and otherwise impressed with the perfection and symmetry of the system, I was moved to poetry which I offer under the simple, and I hope not inappropriate, title:
Ode to the Code
A postal code has been devised for dealing with our mail
So the process now is speeded up and delivery without fail
There are two letters out in front and a digit in between
And we no longer have to seek the intervention of the Queen
Is one really now expected to keep it in one's head
When the experts at the CPO scorn the use of letter Z.
C'est parfait dans la langue francaise
If for French you have a flair
Since odd numbers come out "impair"
And the evens simply "pair"
But how is one expected to keep it in one's head
When the experts at the CPO scorn the use of letter Z.
But the sheer joy is for the sorters Who get down to work with zest When the E's are going eastward And the W's heading west
How the hell is one expected to keep it in one's head
When the experts at the CPO scorn the use of letter Z.

We extend a warm welcome today to the Postmaster General of Canada. Born and formally educated in the Province of Quebec, at McGill University and later Sir George Williams University, he entered the House of Commons first in 1962 representing the constituency of Verdun and has been returned in no less than five federal general elections.

After having served as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Health and Welfare and the Minister of Labour, he received his first full ministerial appointment without portfolio in 1968. Subsequently he has served, and if I may say so with respect, served well, as Minister of Labour, Minister of Manpower and Immigration, Minister of State and, since August 8, 1974, as Postmaster General.

Our distinguished guest is a competent, loyal and devoted public servant. Caught in the crossfire between the cost/price squeeze, on the one hand, and a seeming militant trade union posture on the other, he has steered the political bark between Scylla and Charybdis in a manner that has attracted and deserves our admiration and, indeed, affection. In popular jargon he would be classed as a "gutsy guy". He has demonstrated the courage to deal with terrible problems in a manner which he believes to be in the best interest of all Canadians. We salute him and are happy that in the most recent round of musical chairs he was not lost to us through an indulgence in the usual political artifice of "shooting the piano player". Ladies and gentlemen, I am privileged to present to you, the Honourable Bryce Mackasey, P.C., M.P., Postmaster General of Canada, who will address us on "What's Behind the Lemming Urge?"


Ladies and gentlemen: I've been doing a lot of reading during this parliamentary recess. Let me tell you, it's a very depressing pastime. The ghosts of dead civilizations seem to haunt every serious writer. The consensus appears to be that democracy is ungovernable and inflation is administering the last rites to free enterprise. The predictions are so gloomy that I turn on television cartoons and watch the characters blow each other up.

I wonder why animators always show animals acting like humans? Except for lemmings, who get this odd urge periodically to rush to their own destruction, no animal species but man commits suicide. No animal reared in freedom would trade that freedom for a cage--but in reality, this is what we're doing. We're trading a system, a mixed-economy system that gives us all an unprecedented freedom, for a system we fought a hot and cold war to escape.

The more I read about what's happening the more incredible it seems. Here we are with an economic system of free enterprise; it has given the average man luxury and leisure for the first time. And does he support it? Does he work for it? Look at the figures on absenteeism, the figures on labour turnover. Productivity is falling in every area but crime. We fail to realize that every system requires control. In a communistic system, there is state control. In ours, it is the control of self-restraint.

Here we are with a political system that allows us to govern ourselves and people are beginning to reject it. Fewer eligible people vote; political participation is falling. Party labels have lost their relevance; party loyalty has weakened. The last election in Britain was an unpopularity contest. According to a recent poll, 57% of Americans believe that neither party represents their best interest. No single political party in western Europe holds a majority. And now, instead of the Big Blue Machine, Ontario has the tri-colour.

Our system has freed us, by any standard but ours, of man's oldest enemies, pestilence and poverty, and almost every newscast carries our response to that freedom: riots, confrontations, labour violence, vandalism. Some people don't know what they want but they're willing to raise hell to get it.

Our system has given us all we need to solve our essential problems, organization, know-how, technology and materials, and yet we can't even get a consensus on such basic needs as saving energy, controlling pollution or defeating inflation. It seems that fate put the materials of happiness into our hands just to see how miserable we can make ourselves.

Our system has freed us, for the first time in history, of slavery and tyranny, and yet more and more groups are taking the law in their own hands. Civil rights protesters. Maoists. Anarchists. Industrial polluters. Illegal strikers. And when individuals or groups begin to take it upon themselves to decide what laws they will or won't obey, society breaks up in anarchy, or worse, it's brought together by force.

Our system has given us the best educated citizens in history, yet we're racing along a road that plunges down the abyss of ignorance.

So here we are with a stranger-than-fiction paradox. We have the most successful economic system ever devised, the most humane and enlightened system of government that ever evolved. And yet that system no longer responds to traditional restraint. The economy no longer responds to Keynesian controls. Citizens no longer respond to their leaders. Everybody wants, and nobody will give.

It reminds me of Mark Twain's story where the corpse gets out of its coffin and rides to the graveyard with the driver. The way we're going, we, too, may watch ourselves, our freedom, being buried.

Here's an even stranger paradox. For more than half a century we've been fighting Communism because it opposes all our beliefs. Its government is monolithic. Its economy is controlled. Its values are materialistic. Individual liberties are suppressed. But all the time we've been fighting state control we've been moving toward it, the slaves of our own inventions--our machines and our institutions.

In 1900 we had only a handful of big institutions: a few corporations and the church. The University of Toronto, biggest in the land, had fewer students than a modern regional high school. Hospitals, which now require five employees for every patient, had one employee for every five to ten patients. Our entire federal civil service could have been housed with space to spare in a single new federal office building in Hull.

Two-thirds of our people lived on farms or off the proceeds of family enterprises. Most lived in small communities where you knew what everyone else did and everyone shared the same concerns, and the family looked after its own. The family took care of sick relatives, orphaned nephews and pregnant daughters. It brought the children into the business, or sent them to college, or got them a job. It was a total community and each was much the same. Everyone understood each other, socially if not emotionally. Everyone could relate to everyone else.

Then in 1909 Henry Ford changed all that. The first Model Ts came off the first assembly line that year, and within two years 743 car makers shrank to 270. Specialization was breaking trail for giantism.

We substituted that life which I have described for the assembly line which became the womb of modern society. Mass production called for mass markets. It called for a national community, as compared with a community where each family was self-sufficient. It called for ever-larger units for ever-increasing efficiency. And these units called for more and more consumption. The assembly line committed the western world to a new concept of progress: continual and inevitable growth.

The productivity of the craftsman became the productivity of the machine. Today, 40% of our work force produces enough goods for us all, and by 1980 two-thirds of all workers will be in service industries. We're no longer a goods-producing society, we're a service society. A mechanized society. A society of locked-in specialists. A bureaucracy. If we keep on the way we're going we'll have to develop a strain of man that can digest millions of tons of memoranda.

Today the institution does almost everything once done by the family. The institution is now the true community. Society is a plurality, a community of institutions, each specialized, each a bureaucracy loosely co-ordinated or regulated by the biggest bureaucracy of them all. Ironically, we are fast approaching everything we rejected: a monolithic government, a controlled economy, materialistic values, a society that oppresses the individual.

In every area, the individual is alienated by bureaucracy. Its automated machines restrict or outdate his work skills. Its specialization intensifies his boredom. Its size and impersonality makes him feel small and unimportant. It pressures him to obey rules for which he may see no logic, to conform to a lifestyle he may neither like nor respect.

Not surprisingly, he's been defecting in large numbers. First, the intellectual. Then the student in university in touch with intellectual thought. Then his younger brothers and sisters. Then the parents--who listened to their kids. And now the workers are turning against those union bureaucrats who put power ahead of benefits to their members.

Communism works no better. The effect of Soviet bureaucracy has been outlined by Ota Sik, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia. Workers, he says, and I quote, "have no participation in management, have no direct share in the results," and therefore their only interest "is in their salaries and what they will bring." Management's interest, he says, isn't really in capital but in power. Its prime concern isn't production but self-advancement. This sounds like an editorial from The Wall Street Journal!

Result? The same as ours, and again I quote, "a steady decrease in the efficiency of investment" and "an increasingly slower rate of growth of per capita" income." We and the Soviets have reached the same dead-end by different routes, except that they have the advantage of State control, while we have the disadvantage of having lost our self-discipline.

This lack of control, it seems to me, has its roots in our dynamics. If we want to find the reason why our system faces failure I think we have to look at our success. .

The dynamics of our system go back to the American Revolution; before that to the French Revolution; before that to the Magna Carta. Our society grew on a belief in justice, in legal, not regal, rule, on a belief in equality of opportunity, on a belief in individual freedom.

These convictions released human energy on a scale never seen before. But energy, of course, must be restrained or it turns destructive. We had our constitution, law, and above all, faith, a sense of duty that emanated from the religious conscience.

These controls, based on a sense of right and wrong, kept the public in check throughout the age of Queen Victoria. But the Edwardian Age was a time of change, a time when large corporations came into being, when great fortunes were made by railway presidents, bankers, and financiers in those days a euphemism for high-class promoters. They controlled the market machinery for flogging stocks. In theory, the system of free enterprise was controlled by competition and the economic law of supply and demand. In practice, the new "trust" was squeezing out small companies, the new "pool" was secretly setting prices, and the new "holding company" was draining subsidiary treasuries. The belief in individual rights had become belief in the rights of wealth.

By the turn of the century the new creed had been formalized. Adam Smith's doctrine of laisser-faire and Darwin's survival of the fittest had been blended in the philosophy of Spencer, and I quote, "The entire industrial organization in all its marvellous complexity has risen from the pursuit by each person of his own interest."

One sentence sums up Spencer's philosophy: "God helps those who help themselves." A man named Horatio Alger grooved this into the brains of businessmen. He wrote 132 books, or, as somebody said, one book 132 times. In it a poor boy rises to riches through hard work, thrift and shrewdness. The fruit of his virtue was wealth so to be wealthy was to be virtuous. And just as logical, to be poor was to be lazy, wasteful or stupid.

You people tell me that government is too big. But how did the government get to be so big? Because these new corporations, without a social conscience, trod on the individual rights of the workers. So unions were formed. In 1910 there were 67 strikes. That year the new Labour Minister, a young man named Mackenzie King, received a wire from Prime Minister Laurier, and I quote: "I AM DELUGED WITH TELEGRAMS ASKING ME TO INTERFERE."

Interference with business was heresy but lack of restraint breeds heretics. King had just introduced the Industrial Disputes Investigation Act. Now he brought in the Combines Investigation Act. The excesses of one dynamic had trampled the claims of another. The abuse of individual freedom had started state control, the long slow movement toward income equality.

Everything changes but human nature. As corporations grew fatter their rationalizations grew thinner. A new generation grew up. We sent them to school and taught them truth. They looked at society with new eyes.

Business told them it was efficient but what they saw was waste. They saw technical obsolescence--displacing good products with slightly better ones; non-functional obsolescence--shelving good products for less-good new ones; visual obsolescence--outmoding useful products with style changes; functional obsolescence designing a product to break down.

The young forced us all to look at ourselves, to reexamine our views, and we saw that the iron law of supply and demand can be bent like tin, that the claim that consumers call the shot is a farce. We saw that the corporation works on a kind of cost-plus basis. It controls its suppliers by contract or stock. It sets prices by "price leadership", tacit agreements with other industry giants, and it passes unforeseen costs on to consumers. In every field of business where the big corporations dominated and they dominated about half the economy, price competition did not exist and consumers had little control.

And people saw that some advertising was fraudulent, that some products were unsafe, that some plants were poisoning the water and the air. So people banded together in special interest groups. They demanded more government restriction, and got it. Everyone hates bureaucracy, yet everyone is forcing its growth, including the corporate manager who builds up his sales, his staff, his budget, in order to increase his own reward.

Business today is finally learning restraint but the lesson seems lost on some others. Unions used to be held in check by the limits of company profits. But the unions in some service sectors, especially government, have no limits. Some of the strongest unions are enriching themselves at the expense of the weak, sometimes the unemployed, and often the public. It is no longer productivity that wins most pay, it's power, and power is defined as who can do the most damage to society. Unless some unions ease their demands they'll go the way of business, because a new bureaucracy within government will be formed to control them. Bureaucracy will grow.

A case in point is wage and price restraint. We turned down controls sixteen months ago because they weaken incentives for production and investment, causing shortages and even higher prices. We tried to get a consensus on voluntary restraint. We didn't succeed. But if inflation worsens and restraint isn't forthcoming, we will find a formula that holds prices and wages down. And the bureaucracy will grow. Out of one side of our mouth we holler at government red tape, out of the other we make demands that bind us with it. We can't have it both ways.

It isn't just business and labour; I've stressed them because of their power. Everyone is making demands on the state: minorities, women's and citizens' groups, environmentalists, consumers, all with legitimate causes, all demanding action by the government. Add the demands of almost every sector of the work force, and you can see why the Marxists say capitalism will fail because it can't meet all these demands; all these demands will create a crisis of capital.

Some people say the government should lead in showing restraint. They say to us, "Stop spending."

Stop spending on what?

If private enterprise met its social obligations, there would be no need for government to spend. Some people say they would cut back on welfare and unemployment insurance. Let us look at the figures. There are 736,000 people unemployed. Knock off 100,000 rip-off artists. Knock off another forty of fifty thousand because you don't think women should be in the work force, despite the contribution that you and I know they make. There are still only 61,322 vacant positions in Canada. If anybody here can fit 600,000 Canadians into 61,000 jobs, they can be Postmaster General!

I remember the Depression. My only problem in those days was whether I had the family car. I can remember my mother making food parcels. I can remember people knocking on the door and saying "Charite". My mother would dole out a dime, and some sandwiches, and maybe an apple. It was my job to cut the kindling at night, and it was never there in the morning. I came to the conclusion that someone was stealing it, and I watched till I saw him. I woke my dad up and told him who it was. My father said, "Mind your business. I've known that for months. He takes just what he needs to stay warm." We had labour camps, food lines, families broke up. Ten Lost Years should be required reading for everybody in this country.

We don't want to go back to those days. We're not going back to those days, as long as I'm a member of the Liberal government.

When you say cut back on government spending, do not cut back on the unfortunate, do not cut back on welfare or unemployment insurance. We are on this earth because of our obligation to the person next door.

I may sound pessimistic, but I'm not. There is a solution to it all. Our free society is based on individual responsibility. We have at our disposal the finest group of -young people in the history of this country. The longhaired hippy, who sometimes freaked out ten years ago, had the courage to stand up and be counted.

Collectively, they brought a war to an end in Vietnam. In my church, the Catholic church, they converted our doctrine from one of fear to one of love. In the universities, they insisted that they decide whether to read Karl Marx or Irving Layton. When historians write about the '60s, they won't say that this was the generation when man went to the moon. They will say it was a time when people paused and evaluated where they were going and where they wanted to go.

Where are those young people today? They are in your companies. They are here. They are in Parliament. They are in positions of power. They have not lost their idealism. They will see that we return to the fundamental values--not growth for growth's sake, but the knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. That is what democracy is all about.

When we are asked by the government to practise restraint, it will hurt. But if you believe in anything you will have the consolation of knowing that the sacrifice you are making is for somebody less fortunate.

Our distinguished visitor and speaker was thanked by Mr. Joseph H. Potts, C.D., Q.C., Past President of The Empire Club of Canada.

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What's Behind the Lemming Urge?

A belief that we in Canada are "trading a system, a mixed-economy system that gives us all an unprecedented freedom, for a system we fought a hot and cold war to escape." What our free enterprise system has given us. The need for the control of self-restraint. A brief history of the economy since 1900. Differences between then and now. The present institution as the "true community." Individual alienation by bureaucracy. The dynamics of our system going back throughout history: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Magna Carta. The controls of constitution, law, faith, a sense of duty. Problems with big government, interference with business, fraudulent advertising. The restraint of wage and price controls. The responsibilities of private enterprise. Problems with cutting government spending. The responsibilities of individuals. The practise of restraint.