Have we become conditioned to having our votes bought by federal budgets?

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If the federal budget was a cunning plan to distract us from SNC-Lavalin it seems to have failed.  Not least because of the vicious leak about Manitoba chief justice Glenn Joyal.  But if it was a cunning plan to buy votes it seems to have failed.  Not least because everyone expects their vote to be bought.

Too cynical?  Well, I’ve been following responses to the budget and basically they divide up exactly as you’d expect.  A few small-government groups are unhappy that there’s so much spending and the unquestioned assumption that the purpose of government is to give everybody everything (to steal a prescient phrase from Samuel Warren).  A few huge-government groups are unhappy that there’s so little spending, nationalization and such like.  But everybody else cheered or booed depending on how much loot they got from the Treasury.  Nobody even expects reactions to the budget to be based on an assessment of its impact on the common good or whether something is a legitimate function of the state.  It’s all just give me boodle.

When the Federation of Canadian Municipalities says “Today’s budget delivers major results for Canadians directly through their local governments” it means they gave us lots of cash.  When the Canadian Association of University Teachers says “Budget 2019 takes small steps to improve access to post-secondary education” it means they gave us a bit of cash.  When the National Pensioners Federation says “Federal Budget Fails to Protect Canada’s Defined Benefit Pensioners” it means they didn’t give us enough cash.

If this observation seems trite, it only underlines how numb we’ve become to this serious distortion in our understanding of the state and correspondingly of its actual conduct.  Including that I was also buried in press releases about Liberals roaming around at public expense touting the benefits of the budget.  As in going to people who got money to recite variations on “Did you notice, we gave you money, vote for us, know what I mean?”

The good thing is it won’t work.  The bad thing is why.  You’d think I’d consider its failure a happy thing since I don’t like big government, vote-buying open or surreptitious or the current administration.  Instead I’m sad since it will fail because the vote-buying enterprise, as I’ve said before, is the victim of its own success.

During the Harper years I used to complain constantly about being buried in press releases about the Conservatives roaming about at public expense handing cheques to anyone with a hat in their hand or even on their head or in their cupboard.  Day after day they poured in about money given to blueberry farmers, laminated door makers, exporters of thneeds or whatever it was that day.  For which I was lucky to get a dismissive pat on the head about how the real world works.

As you may recall, the Conservatives were in principle the party of limited government, opposed to corporate welfare etc.  Why, Harper ran the National Citizen’s Coalition before reentering politics and they were against the nanny state, picking winners and the gag law.  But that was then.  Once in power he discarded all these believes in favour of a cunning plan to get reelected that failed.  But I digress.

No, wait.  I don’t.  The modern state, as Anthony de Jasay wrote in The State, has become a finely tuned instrument for exchanging money for support.  Not just votes, but general acquiescence in the size, scope and tenor of contemporary big government.  Regrettably the better it gets, the worse it gets, for two reasons.

First, it becomes harder and harder to improve on the offer, which is why modern electoral politics is such a vicious squabble over such trivial differences.  Second, as it is not possible to give everyone more than they pay in over time, it becomes harder and harder to keep the bargain.  Big, meddlesome government is bad for growth and interest on the debt eats more and more ravenously into the available handouts.

De Jasay likens this dilemma to being on a treadmill that keeps speeding up.  You can’t go more slowly or you get flung off the back of it.  You can’t jump off or you smash into the ground, a wall or some hard angular piece of gear.  And you can’t make it stop.

Well, arguably you could.  You could challenge the whole premise that the purpose of government is to assist citizens in looting the Treasury.  You could argue that the functions of government ought to be defined by the principle that it should only do for citizens what they cannot do for themselves because of free rider, transaction cost or holdout problems.  And you could argue that it is dishonourable to seek to enrich yourself by claiming through the political process things you cannot earn from your fellows by persuasion.

Here I do mean you.  I do not mean politicians.  It would be nice to see them try, to see someone who believes what Stephen Harper believed between 1998 to 2002 campaign on it and then govern accordingly.  I even think they might get a chance, that such a campaign would work a lot better than it sounds as though it would.  Which admittedly might not be hard.  But people are so sick of oily pandering rhetoric that they flock even to politicians who are rude and illogical provided they say what’s really on their so-called minds.

A genuine campaign on principle could go a long way.  As we may indeed find out with Maxime Bernier, despite the predictable chorus that he’s a bigot.  Now I really digress.

The point is, you’re not going to get this stuff from politicians until they’re already getting it from you.  My friend Danny Hozack with the Economics Education Association of Alberta is fond of reminding people of Ralph Klein’s aphorism “Show me a big enough parade and I’ll be happy to lead it.”

Right now the parade is marching right up to the Ministry of Finance and reaching in through the windows, cheering when they get a big fistful of cash and booing when they don’t.  And that’s why the politicians and bureaucrats are pushing their way to the window to help hand it out.

By all means throw the bums out over SNC-Lavalin.  But don’t expect it to fix any other problems until we stop grabbing for the loot.

Photo Credit: National Post

More from John Robson.    Follow John on Twitter at @thejohnrobson

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