Becoming Jeffrey Simpson

July 24th, 2009
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Any casual observer will have realized that we need more voices of moderation, more mainstream voices in the print media. It was with pleasure that I recently discovered Andrew Potter, or should I say Dr. Andrew Potter (he has a PhD in philosophy from U. of T.) who writes for both MacLean’s and the Ottawa Citizen.

What caught my eye was his indignation over what he thinks are silly concepts – Tax Freedom Day, Gas Tax Honesty Day, etc. He believes these reflect a “rhetorical strategy designed to make taxation seem like something fundamentally alien, at odds with the interests of the average person.” More shocking is the underlying message “not that some taxes may be too high, or that the share of taxation may be unevenly distributed … (instead) that all taxes are essentially confiscatory, an unfair and probably illegitimate transfer of income to the state from its rightful owner, the private citizen.” These certainly are disturbing ideas. Way out there. Potter refers to this reasoning as “relentlessly shrill right-wing rhetoric”, “rubbish” and “a boatload of nonsense”.

Not only does he question whether individuals are the rightful owner of their income, he considers it a “mistaken premise that sees the private sector as the producer of wealth, and the public sector as the consumer”. For supporting evidence he quotes another philosopher, a Joseph Heath from his alma mater, the University of Toronto. The gist of the argument is that market provides private goods, “like running shoes and maid services”, while the state provides “public goods like national defence and weekly garbage pickup”.

OK, but isn’t the state “providing” much more than that? Yes, and Mr. Potter actually gives an expanded list – “national defence and other forms of security, health insurance, unemployment insurance, pensions, clean air and water, consumer protection, infrastructure, research and education.” And there’s the rub. Potter quotes the Fraser Institute as saying costs for these services have gone up 1,783 per cent per family since 1961 and, unlike us “anti-government types”, he’s OK with that.

Alright then. Let’s have a debate about the relative effectiveness of public versus private sector service delivery –preferably without using words like “rubbish”, “nonsense” and “shrill rhetoric”. Anyone with first hand knowledge knows that the public sector services fall down time and again, primarily due to the lack of competition and other self-correcting mechanisms. Why not debate how much wealth the public sector creates? Despite philosopher Heath’s contention that garbage collection is a created “public good”, are these not services rather than goods? And how does a service create wealth?

If one doesn’t proceed from the premise that wealth belongs to the person who earned it, and the state must have their consent to tax and spend that money, what premise does one use? To use Mr. Potter’s list, how much would the average taxpayer want to spend on consumer protection? “Shrill rhetoric” aside, I think the Fraser’s point is that the massive expansion in public spending has not corresponded to a proportional value to the taxpayer. One doesn’t need to have worked in government to know that.

Given a choice, the taxpayer would and could get better value elsewhere. But that’s the point, there is no choice, hence the “confiscatory” problem Mr. Potter alludes to. The “freedom” that the Fraser talks about, and Mr. Potter seems to dismiss, is not just freedom from taxation in general, but freedom to choose how much tax to pay for how many services. And, as usual, freedom is in tight supply.

Happily, Mr. Potter also underscores his political preferences in a recent Ottawa Citizen article. It seems he’s got a weakness for that mythical creature, the Blue Liberal, and bemoans the fact that John Manley appears to be abandoning public life. For Potter, Manley is “a devoted public servant who was a serious player in the last serious government this country had”. That pretty much sums it up.

In a related development, Jeffrey Simpson recently outed Prime Minister Harper as yet another tax-hater (Terry Corcoran gave him a great slap down here). Apparently the PM was quoted as saying “I don’t believe that any taxes are good taxes”. Yikes!

Given the ideological kinship between Potter and Simpson, one needn’t worry about losing  the aging generation of Canadian opinion leaders. From failing hands the heavy torch of intellectual illumination is already being passed.

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By John Weissenberger