The Smug Minority by Pierre Berton, 1968
McClelland and Stewart Limited, Toronto

This book is out of print but is available as an ebook.

Quotes from the Smug Minority

"[in the future] Work, as you know it now, may be obsolete. Two per cent of the population will be able to produce enough for everybody to eat and wear. Most of the population will be engaged in creative work or in handicrafts. There will be a much larger proportion of writers, poets, painters, and musicians to the population. As in Aristotle's time, almost everybody will play a musical instrument. " Page 20

"...there are alternative standards of living based on scales that do not exclusively chart the consumption of goods and services. One such standard, for instance, might attempt to chart the average amount of true leisure time enjoyed by Canadians in comparison with other countries. " Page 25

"The right to free speech and free expression in Canada is hedged around with a variety of subtly inhibiting factors, many of them economic. A very large proportion of Canadians are afraid of being outspoken because of the fear--a real one--of losing their jobs if they express unorthodox opinions... The truth is that an army of people are working in jobs which are not really of their own choosing and which can only be described as degrading. None of these people can be said to be free in the proper sense of that overworked and mangled word. "

"A poor man is not free and a destitute man is as much a prisoner as a convict; indeed a convict generally eats better. A man who can't afford a streetcar ticket, let alone real travel, who can exercise no real choice in matters of food, clothing, and shelter, who cannot follow the siren song of the TV commercials, who can scarcely afford bus fare to the library let alone a proper education for himself or his children--is such a man free in an affluent nation? There are such men and women in Canada and their numbers are legion. Until there is a basic economic floor beneath them, these people cannot begin to participate in the whole range of what we mean when we talk glibly about a free society."
Pages 41 - 43

"For years my friend W.O. Mitchell has been wandering about the streets and fields of High River, Alberta, thinking about his work, which is creative writing. For a long time Mitchell puzzled and baffled his neighbors. "When are you going to work, Bill?" they'd ask him, and it was useless for him to try and explain that in his terms he was working. Work to them was "a job" and one of the problems we face in an automated world of the future is this dangerous confusion of terms. " page 56

"In a mechanized society there are tens of thousands of such button pushers and machine watchers. When true automation comes they will not be needed, but unless we abandon the work ethic of another era, their lives may still be wasted because of blind insistence that everyone must have a "job" even if the job is useless. " Page 60

" Would society be worse off if all of them lay on their backs and stared at the clouds, or if all of them spent their days drinking beer in the taverns or coffee in the coffee houses arguing religion and politics? The very idea is abhorrent to us, since, being Puritans, we cannot stomach the sinfulness of it. Yet we revere as heroes and even saints men and women from the past who seem to have done these very things. When we read of religious leaders "meditating" it does not occur to us that they were doing - or appeared to be doing-the very things that the luncheon speakers decry; to wit, "nothing." Page 61

"Will a guaranteed annual wage kill incentive among the poor? If a man is given a certain amount of security, won't he quit working? Exactly the same contention could be made about the sons of the wealthy who are left large fortunes. Yet the evidence suggests that, given economic freedom, people will generally choose to do that which interests them most. It is up to society to see that these interests are widened and that too requires investment." page 118

From the introduction:

Conversation for the Twenty-First Century [shortened from the original text]

"...why do they always talk about 'the good old days,' Pop?

People tend to view the past through a fog of nostalgia... don't forget that for most people life was composed of equal parts of boredom and drudgery. It was, in essence, a serf society run by a smug minority of well-entrenched overseers.

...where those people really like serfs?

They would have resisted the name; but in our terms they were... historical evidence makes it clear that the masses of the people who lived in Canada in the Sixties were chained to tedious and degrading jobs which they despised; that between one-fifth and one-third of them were prisoners of a poverty so grinding we can scarcely contemplate it; and that only the wealthy had the freedom to enjoy a proper education.

...the smug minority... who were they?

A small, in-bred, establishment of business and political leaders who had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

... but why didn't the people revolt if conditions were as bad as that?

Because the minority convinced the majority that life was wonderful

...Oh come on, Pop. That's stupid.

Read your history books. You'll find that's what happened. Of course the big establishment had the help of the minor establishments-religious, educational, journalistic, judiciary-in this brainwashing.

...You mean they convinced people serfdom was an okay thing?

Oh quite easily. The most menial and wretched toil was held to be highly honourable. It conveyed a magical thing called "status." People preferred it to happiness.

...But all that poverty... Surely they didn't prefer that? Wasn't there any kind of public planning to prevent that?

No, quite the contrary... The minority convinced the majority that public planning was bad for them. They called it "government interference." They said the people would lose their hard-won freedom if they had it.

...But hold it... They didn't have any freedom!

That's right. But the minority boasted so loudly about this non-existent freedom that they convinced the majority they had more of it than any people in history.


...I just don't understand why the people didn't complain.

Because the minority convinced them that it was better that way--that anything else would be foolishly extravagant besides being an invasion of freedom.

This minority... they must have been a real bunch of hypocrites to fool the people that way.

Not at all...all the available evidence shows that they honestly and sincerely believed all those things themselves. You see that's what made the minority smug. "


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