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There's Good Reason to Monitor Government Spending

09/26/2014 08:15 EDT | Updated 11/26/2014 05:59 EST
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Ever wonder why it's difficult for politicians to govern wisely? Part of the reason is straw men created by some in the media.

Here's an example. Both the Toronto Star's Rick Salutin and the Vancouver Sun's Daphne Bramham recently offered up some faulty non-issues, an approach that gets us no closer to what the ancient Greeks called the "good life" -- basically, human flourishing in its widest sense.

According to Salutin, because elements of both the public and private sector recently found a ship from the doomed Franklin Expedition, that ends the "irritating argument between the private sector and the public sector over who's the problem and who's the solution."

Salutin rightly notes both are necessary. But he claimed that Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and the Fraser Institute had created a simplistic narrative, where government was always the problem and the private sector always the remedy. That was Straw Man One.

Straw Man Two came from Bramham. "We need citizens, not just taxpayers and bookkeepers," she writes, irritated by those who analyze how governments spend taxes. She implied that politicians had become bean counters (a rare sighting, actually!). Bramham also claims that American anti-tax and anti-government sentiment migrated north courtesy of the Fraser Institute and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Some facts: Examinations of how governments tax or spend does not equate to an anti-tax, anti-government or anti-public sector position.

Nor should Reagan and Thatcher's recognition that governments can be problematic some days be construed to mean they thought the institution was unnecessary.

As for the assumed American influence, wrong again. Canada's earliest politicians wanted to keep Canadian taxes lower than American taxes. It didn't mean they were anti-government. Their position was pragmatic: to attract immigrants and to build up Canada economically.

They also carefully considered the public's ability to pay. One Dominion finance minister, Liberal Richard Cartwright, in 1878, characterized any tax beyond that "necessary to the proper discharge of the public service" as "legalized robbery."

Fundamentally, Salutin and Bramham misunderstand the relationship between political power and money and its profound implication for all of us.

And far from being American, or a result of 1980s politics, the proper functions of government have been debated since at least Plato and Aristotle.

Briefly, Plato thought a top-down, philosopher-king government, with few freedoms and bureaucrats commanding everything, would create a wonderful society. In contrast, Aristotle thought government was helpful to the good life. But it was critical to observe, investigate and measure how human beings actually behave.

Aristotle's thinking implies many things, but here are two.

First, the reality of how people and power interact has an effect on the greater public interest, and it is not always beneficial. For example, when government unions prevent reform of their defined benefit pension plans, it tells us something about their power; it also has an effect on the rest of us who pay the bills for such plans.

Second, to understand the greater public good, it's critical to measure what governments do. Otherwise, you're left with guesswork.

For example, it matters whether governments spend $1 billion on a failed e-health experiment (Ontario), or hand out billions to General Motors and Chrysler to never be repaid (Ontario and the federal government).

These billions, incidentally, could have bought Toronto a new children's hospital, a new subway line, or a Toronto version of Stanley Park.

That's why a focus on numbers is never just a focus on numbers -- it's an argument about power and lost or better opportunities. The numbers simply provide guideposts.

It is indeed important to think as citizens and not just in immediate dollars and cents. Few, for example, would think a tax increase in a time of war as undesirable. But I'd bet most people think differently about higher or diverted taxes in peacetime, just to pay for unreformed pensions in the government sector.

Which is why the "taxpayer" label is so useful. Too many use Orwellian language to propose something contrary to the public good. But, considering the reality of power, the term "taxpayer" helps people focus on the real cost of political decisions that favour a narrow interest, ones which can injure the good life for everyone else.

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