by Nate Hendley
"I fear the U.S. is headed for socialism, which means, of course, ever
increasing interference in the business of each citizen. Whatever happened to the glorious frontier,
of minding one's own business? The word liberal has come to stand for the most damnable
tyranny, a snivelling, mealymouthed tyranny of bureaucrats, social workers, psychologists
and union officials. The world of 1984 is not even 30 years away."
Do reds run the big blue machine? On surface it seems a ludicrous question, especially in light of newly elected Mike Harris' propensity for drastic budget slashing. According to Robert Metz, leader of the fanatically pro-business, pro-capitalism Freedom Party of Ontario, premier Harris is in fact little more than an ineffectual left-winger, while the Tory party is doing more for the cause of socialism then then socialists themselves.
"The Tories have completely bought the socialist argument that capitalism is greedy and selfish," Metz, whose laissez-faire capitalist beliefs are as rock-hard as his London, Ontario based Freedom Party is obscure. "That's based on a false moral premise. There's nothing more greedy than socialists, because they want to take money that wasn't earned by them."
Agreed, but does that make the conservatives a bunch of pinks in blue suits? According to Metz, it does.
"The PCs are still committed to spending other people's money for other people," he says. "Mike Harris is still committed to universal programs which are not sustainable. I call them the Socialist conservatives, not Progressive conservatives."
Which would come as news for Mr. Harris, the former golf pro turned politician, though Metz's angry accusations do make more sense after you hear his definition of socialism.
"Socialism," Metz says, "is the use of government force to enact any kind of government objective - often a benign objective, such as helping the poor."
Metz further clarifies his definition by adding "socialism means robbing Peter to pay Paul... the philosophy of all collectivist governments."
Metz's classification of Harris as "leftist" is supported by other figures who make up part of the amorphous body politic vaguely known as "the right wing." Although he might be offended at being labelled "right," Hill Cox of the Libertarian Party of Canada, like Metz, also fanatically believes in a pure capitalist system, with as little government interference in the lives and livelihoods of the citizens in the province. This apparently is also what Mike Harris believes in though Cox doesn't think so.
Cox defines socialism as "a system that promises a free lunch. Promises you something that someone else will pay for. Communism without the guns." He agrees with Metz's depiction of the Harris Tories as a left-wing force.
Most critics of Harris, however, would suggest the premier is promising anything but a "free lunch" to the denizens of the province, especially those with low incomes. Harris' finance minister Ernie Eves has announced cuts to government programs in the neighbourhood of $1.96 billion. In an attempt to keep the province's estimated $8.7 billion deficit for the current fiscal year from rising, the Tories have chopped significant funding from public housing, pay equity programs, subsidized day care and, most controversially, welfare. As announced on July 21, welfare recipients will be receiving a cut of over 20% on their payments, a situation that has led to heated protests across Ontario from people on social assistance.
None of which impresses Cox or Metz much.
The nearly two billion in cuts Eves has announced will basically cover the drop in federal transfer payments for next year, Cox says.
In any case, Cox would like to see the welfare system - along with unemployment insurance, and the Workman's Compensation Board - completely privatized, and out of government hands. To his mind, "The best way to help the poor is to lower their taxes," not increase their welfare rates, he claims.
Harris has in fact promised to slash income tax, but Cox and Metz feel this is a political bluff which he will be unable to accomplish without significantly lowering the deficit first. And he won't be able to lower the deficit without some drastic overhauling of the system.
To be fair, Harris has promised some pretty major changes to the welfare system, mainly in the form of the program known as "workfare." Workfare is, depending on your political perspective, either cheap forced labour or a way to make freeloaders work for a living. Those who take the latter view consider workfare a brilliant conservative program that will save huge tax dollars currently given out in the form of free money for welfare recipients.
Ultra pro-capitalist Metz however, doesn't support workfare at all.
Workfare is "destructive," he states. "Number one, it hands jobs that don't exist to people and number two, it takes jobs from other people who already have them. Also, where exactly is this money coming from for workfare?"
Unmentioned by its supporters is the fact that workfare would merely replace one inefficient government bureaucracy with another, as welfare bureaucrats took to administering training and job placement programs instead of doling out checks. State run enterprise and money-making efficiency are usually not synonymous terms. As the Economist magazine has pointed out, administering workfare might end up costing even more money than the current system of welfare.
If workfare then is a farce, announced cuts to day-care subsidies are not. Writing in the Toronto Star under the provocative headline, "Smashed: the hopes of countless women and children" Michele Landsberg writes of how the day-care subsidy cuts will have a massively negative impact on women who work in day-care centres and kids who attend them. The "meagre pay" of female day care workers, "averages about $28,000 in Metro" Landsberg notes. Landsberg, we can assume, has not applied for any entry level positions in the workforce for some time for she considers this a poverty-level salary and is horrified that these wages might go down even further in the face of Tory cuts. While her reaction to the reality of salary levels in the mid-90s might be a little off, Landsberg does accurately point out that cuts to day-care subsidies will hurt low income parents who rely on government support to keep their kids in day-care.
'Let's assume there's an element of truth there," Cox says of Landsberg's column. "She wants the government to help out. But government has to make other people poor to help the poor."
Robbing Peter to pay Paul, in other words.
Cox continues, "The state should not become the parents of kids. The best way to help single parents is to make sure that the money a single parent worker makes is worth something, not subsidizing day-care. In other words, make it so a single parent doesn't have to pay as much in taxes."
Once those kids are old enough to leave day-care, they face a public education system that is hardly running at peak performance. The Common Sense Revolution book says very little about schooling, except for the banal statement that "classroom funding for education will be guaranteed." Beyond that, Harris has not proposed any truly radical measures for education. Metz and Cox have a few of their own, none of which are likely to be adopted by premier Harris any time soon. Metz suggests granting parents the right to direct their children and their educational taxes to the institute of their choice. Teachers, he believes, should also be able to start their own schools if they so desire. Cox, for his part, wants to see education privatized.
Actually, Cox and Metz would like to privatize just about everything from health care down. Cox even suggests services such as water companies be run on a private business basis.
The logic behind their fierce belief in the private sector is rooted in the libertarian ideal of getting government off people's backs, for real, and the fact that the province, and nation as a whole, is basically broke. Cox in fact predicts a somewhat gloomy financial scenario whereby the province hits a "debt wall" sometime before the year 2000, at which point we default on our debt payments and Moody's downgrades our credit rating to a Gentleman's "C" or lower. This would in turn mean the province couldn't off-load their bonds, affecting the Canadian dollar, which would collapse, destroying millions of people's savings. "There will be some rioting the streets when this happens," Cox predicts.
This isn't just fiscal ranting from the leader of a party which will probably never win any seats in the House of Commons.
Cities, states, even whole countries can and do go bankrupt or come close to it. Orange County, California, through a combination of disastrous stock market speculation and financial mismanagement, recently announced bankruptcy. Public services in Orange County have been drastically slashed, not for any ideological reasons but simply because the county is broke. Ten years ago, New Zealand sailed very close to the economic abyss. This happened after the New Zealand government tried to artificially support the agricultural sector with subsidies, following a drop in sales of agricultural products to Europe.
The New Zealand economy "hit the wall," as Cox puts it. The socialist Labour party who were ruling at the time were forced to implement "the most conservative [economic] measures," says Metz, "and they worked. They had billboards on hospitals, on police cars." As detailed in the fall 1989 edition of Fortune magazine, "Controls on foreign exchange, as well as extensive wage and price strictures, were scrapped. Tariffs and taxes were cut and a host of government corporations from Petrocorp, the state oil company, to Air New Zealand were privatized." The agricultural sector lost many of their subsidies and "sheep farmers did riot, but now the agricultural business there is very lucrative," Cox says. The Fortune magazine article did note that the "festival of deregulation has had one unhappy side effect: an unemployment rate of 9%, the highest since the 1930s" but through these measures New Zealand saved itself from financial insolvency. Cox expresses the opinion that such a fiscal near-disaster along the lines of the New Zealand experience could come to this province, especially in light of the fact Ontario has been gradually losing its manufacturing base, traditionally the main source of wealth for the province. High-tech industries such as computers and computer software are not adequate replacements for manufacturing concerns, he says, being industries that are"very volatile and portable." Instead of trying to lure high-tech firms, who might move out in a couple years, Ontario should try to maintain its manufacturing base, Cox says. To do this, the province should cut universality of social programs, eliminate the minimum wage and set up free trade zones in the province."
None of which, of course, Mike Harris is prepared to do.
Cox's free trade zone idea however, remains an intriguing capitalist suggestion, one that the supposed free market supporter Mike Harris might be apt to study.
A free trade zone would be an area in which "you would have no G.S.T., no P.S.T., no trade taxes, no manufacturing taxes. No government taxes at all. People could work there voluntarily." There would also be no worker safety and pollution regulations, though Cox feels these concerns could best be addressed by "private insurance companies."
Cox says free trade zones are coming soon regardless of whose party occupies power at Queen's Park.
Whether such proposed free trade zones would be the economic salvation of the province, or turn into neo-Dickensian pits of wage slavery, or both, remains to be seen. For the moment, however, both Metz and Cox argue that the fuel which drives Mike Harris' "conservative" financial policy has more to do with public opinion polls which reflect a growing right-wing attitude in the province than deeply held economic ideology.
"Harris' party is based on being in control," Cox says. "Based on power. In that, his party is no different than other parties. Harris will be as left as he wants to be, or as right as he wants to to be elected. Bob Rae follows the same thing."
"There is, in fact, no recognized principle by which the propriety or impropriety of government is customarily tested. People decide according to their personal preferences.Some, whenever they see any good to be done or evil to be remedied, would willingly instigate the government to undertake the business; while others prefer to bear almost any amount of social evil rather than add one to the departments of human interests amendable to government control."
last updated on April 28, 2002