Screw the Safety Net, I Want a Floor!

A welcome to noted libertarian Alan (a.k.a Occam’s Carbuncle?), who added this thought provoking comment to my post yesterday. I’m just finished packing for a weekend trip to Washington DC, but as it’s been over a day since I updated this blog, and as I was casting about for things to write about, Alan’s comment seemed worth replying to with a whole post.

Alan says:

You seem to harbour the notion that lower taxes and less regulation would result in hardship for your family. I don’t believe there’s any basis for that belief, unless you assume that there would be a corresponding economic collapse, or your family for some reason suffers from an enervating overdependency on the largesse of big government, which I’m sure it doesn’t, as you seem to be an enterprising and industrious fellow.

I appreciate the compliment. I may have engaged in hyperbole when I said “significantly alter the social and economic infrastructure of this country in such a way as to make my life and my family’s life significantly harder?” I lived through the Harris years here in Ontario and I would have to say that, in terms of personal impact, he was no worse than Bob Rae. People in general seem to be enterprising and industrious, and able to cope with swings in government policy. So I think we can probably handle an election of a Harper majority government without a significant change in our quality of life after four years.

But while Harris cut my provincial income taxes by 30%, he did not improve my standard of living. Indeed, in key ways, the province of Ontario is worse off after his election. The decrease in my taxes was made up for in terms of increases in property taxes and decreases in the quality of services, resulting from provincial downloading. In particular, public transportation and municipal infrastructure remains seriously underfunded, and the costs of ignoring this problem are simply going to mount. So, what Harris avoided taking out of my pocketbook, or yours, has simply been delayed to a couple of years down the line. Indeed, with the Toronto Transit Commission commanding a capital budget of $700 million in largely unavoidable spending, a couple of years may be a hopeful estimate.

I pick on Harris on this issue a bit. Truth to tell, the chronic underfunding of the Toronto Transit Commission started and continued during the Petersen and Rae years, but it was Harris who tried to back the province of Ontario out of public transportation funding altogether — a mistake he realized and partially corrected (to his immense credit) in 2001 when he admitted that public transportation was (a) vital to the health of our cities and (b) something that the cities could not themselves pay for given the limited taxation powers they had.

I pay as many taxes as you do, Alan, but I do not find the burden onerous. I do have experience with other jurisdictions which tax less. My in-laws from the United States, for instance, pay less taxes than I do, but the difference has been more than made up for in terms of their health insurance costs. Taxation is no different to me than any other item I’m obligated to pay for, like mortgage interest, grocery bills, phone services, Internet, et cetera. If I could get away without having to pay for these items, my standard of living would also increase, but that’s not to be. And like mortgage interest, grocery bills, phone services, Internet, et cetera, I have received value for what I paid for.

Now, I’d be happy to see taxes lowered. I’d be happy to see food prices drop, but I’m still managing to live within my means. Further, I’d like the government to address a few priorities, first. For instance, keeping the budget balanced and paying down our debt. Addressing the infrastructure deficit in our cities and in our military. Maintaining our health care system and improving our education system. You might call it a set of blinders, but I do not believe that the free marketplace can provide these things for the benefit of all. You say, “your family for some reason suffers from an enervating overdependency on the largesse of big government,” well, in one way, we do:

Seventeen months ago, we gave birth to our lovely daughter Vivian. The quality of care in our hospital was excellent, and the midwives ensured a smooth birth. Without our government health insurance, this procedure could have cost us or our employer close to $30,000, judging from comparable services south of the border. So, yeah, we were dependent. I don’t think we were overdependent, and I don’t think the service the government provided was largesse. We have a beautiful daughter who, with her government-funded education, will become a good taxpaying citizen in short order, live a happy life and, incidentally, pay off that investment with interest.

You say:

Characterizing political maneouvering as somehow “deceptive” seems to be a slur reserved for Conservatives. When Liberals or the NDP do it, they’re being “pragmatic” and “centrist”. Perhaps you should examine your innate anti-conservative prejudice.

Not quite. All political parties have broken promises, but the Liberals and the NDP have been pretty clear about their approach to governing. Put simply, when I vote, I simply ignore the promises themselves and consider the approach each party shows in terms of how to govern the country. The NDP believe in more government control and regulation, and I think we have enough of that in most areas. The Liberals are either true pragmatists or shameless opportunists; they will either pick the best ideas from left or right on the basis of the ideas’ benefit to Canadians, or the ideas’ popularity. Sometimes they’ll opt for more regulation, sometimes they’ll trim it back.

The Conservatives, traditionally (and especially in Stephen Harper’s published history), have played themselves as the party that trims back regulation, and leaves more of our lives at the mercy of the free market economy. There are also social conservative elements in the party that appear to want to control more of my behaviour, or express societal disdain over such things as homosexual behaviour. Harper’s approach to government since being elected, however, has been more pragmatic, and unlike the Liberals, has run counter to the Conservatives’ traditional stances and Stephen Harper’s own words. The question is, is this move the move of a prime minister who has had a conversion on the road to Damascas and either sees these policies as being best for Canadians, or sees these policies as being what Canadians want, or is his move designed to buy himself a majority so that he could revert to the Conservatives’ traditional approach to government, in opposition to what the majority of Canadians might want?

There is no easy way to counter this lingering suspicion, though I have an idea. Unlike his days in opposition, Harper now has access to the actual federal finance books. He has a pretty good idea of the funds available. So, if he wants to allay my remaining fears of how he’ll govern over the next four years, perhaps he should put forward a detailed blueprint. He released a budget on Monday based on the fact that he has control of a minority parliament. Maybe before the next election, he should release four budgets, to show what they might look like over four consecutive years of a majority government?

Right now, Harper’s biggest achilles heel is that he’s still an unknown factor. If he addresses that, even if he decides to follow a provincialist agenda, what little hopes the Liberals had to campaign by fearmongering will disappear (heck, I could buy into a provincialist agenda, reducing the federal government’s spending powers and responsibilities to BNA-act levels and leaving the provinces to get back to the task of managing their own responsibilities). Until then, the only point of comparison I have with Harper is Mike Harris. And I lived through the MIke Harris era, and it didn’t do much for me.

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