Photo: Paul Downey

When it can be said in any country in the world, “My poor are happy; neither ignorance nor stress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want; the taxes are not oppressive… When these things can be said, then may that country boast of its constitution and its government.

-Thomas Paine

Lucius Cassius, a consul whom the people of ancient Rome revered as a wise and honourable judge, was often required to adjudicate disputes involving the laws or policies of the Senate.

Time and again, his first question was “Cui bono?” which can be translated as “Who benefits?” or “To whose benefit?”

His reasoning was that no political action could be explained unless it was first ascertained who gained from it.

The even more illustrious Roman orator and statesman Cicero often quoted this maxim of Cassius in his own speeches. It’s an analytical query that is just as applicable today as it was more than two millennia ago.

If applied, for example, to most of the major laws and policies of Canadian neoliberal governments over the past 15 or 20 years, it would reveal that the beneficiaries have overwhelmingly been wealthy individuals and large corporations.

They have certainly benefited financially from business tax cuts, from the privatization of public services, the attacks on unions, the refusal to curb industrial pollution, the deregulation of their marketing activities, and the lax enforcement of the regulations that remain.    

The business barons and upper-class members of the élite also benefit from Canada’s inexcusably steep rate of poverty, which ensues from the inequitable distribution of the national income. The more income that goes to the poor, the less goes to the rich. And since the rich want to keep increasing their wealth incessantly, neoliberal political leaders are quick to oblige them, at the expense of hungry children.

Not the government’s responsibility?

James Moore, who served as industry minister under the preceding Harper government, was once asked by a reporter why more wasn’t being done to lower the level of child poverty in Canada. He replied that it was not the government’s responsibility to ensure that hungry children are fed.

“Is it my job to feed my neighbour’s kids? I don’t think so!” he declared, laughing.

He later apologized, but spontaneous comments like that usually reflect a person’s true feelings. Whether his cabinet colleagues shared his callous outlook is unknown, but some of them — especially the wealthiest — probably did. Unlike Moore, however, they were wise enough not to blurt it out in public.

It was just after Moore’s insensitive remark that unions and other progressive organizations, along with some provincial premiers, began pressuring federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to improve the Canada Pension Plan.

This was (and still is) an urgently needed reform. Two-thirds of Canadians don’t have a workplace pension, and most can’t afford to put adequate amounts into an RRSP. So they mainly have to depend for retirement income on the CPP and Old Age Security.

Boosting their CPP contributions was clearly affordable for all but the smallest private sector employers. But the corporations would have had to shell out a few hundred dollars more, so it wasn’t surprising that Flaherty spurned the proposed CPP improvement.

“A hike in CPP premiums,” he brazenly argued, “would amount to a payroll tax that would result in fewer jobs and take money out of workers’ pockets.”

Subjected to the “cui bono” question, however, that specious claim really translates like this: “Any hike in CPP premiums would amount to an increase in corporate contributions and take money out of shareholders’ pockets.”

Flaherty’s rejection inflicted harm and stress on millions of low-income earners and pensioners, but benefited a small number of powerful business executives and millionaires.

Cui bono? Who benefits? Under neoliberal governments, whether Conservative or Liberal, it’s almost never those who most need it. In the case of the CPP, members of the House of Commons who supported Flaherty’s refusal to bolster it are guaranteed a hefty parliamentary pension. One wonders if that lack of dependence on the CPP could influence their vote on bettering it for everyone else.

Who will benefit from Armageddon?

It’s not only in Canada that governments see their primary role as keeping big business happy. Elsewhere in the world, too, many other governments keep business taxes low, keep regulations weak, keep pollution control measures minimal, and keep trade union rights suppressed.

There are notable exceptions, of course, especially in Europe, where many countries have preserved self-rule and keep governments in check. They maintain genuine democracy and their citizens enjoy relative financial and social security. But, on an international scale, their evasion of the oppressive global capitalist economic and political system is much more the exception than the rule.

If the crucial “Qui bono?” question were applied to all of Earth’s 7.6 million inhabitants, fewer than one in five of them would likely be found to be living in comfort, peace, and freedom. On a planet where a dozen multibillionaires hoard more wealth than half the world’s population, the benefits of a happy and healthy life are denied the vast majority.

It brings little solace to know that the rich and powerful will not enjoy their opulent lifestyle much longer. Maybe another 30 or 40 years, at most. They, too, like everyone else, will be among the victims of the worldwide environmental catastrophe that their indomitable power and avarice are in the process of unleashing.

For a planet whose atmosphere, seas, soil, and forests have already been devastatingly despoiled, uncontrolled capitalism is the worst possible economic system that could have seized global supremacy. Every one of its driving precepts — notably the unlimited plunder of resources and their unlimited consumption — is the precise opposite of the set of measures that today should be the world’s No. 1 priority. 

It is our greatest misfortune in a “civilization” so endangered that it is also a time when we are ruled by purblind ideological oligarchs. They remain hell-bent on putting their short-term prosperity ahead of the long-term survival of humankind, and thus are the least likely world leaders ever to mount the concerted international rescue mission that’s needed to avert our species’ annihilation.

Cui bono? Who, in the end, will benefit?


Photo: Paul Downey

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Ed Finn

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer’s apprentice, reporter, columnist, and editor of that city’s daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist...