Since When is Fending for Yourself a Bad Thing?

Worth A Look, Role of Government, Frontier Centre

OTTAWA — Here is Prime Minister Paul Martin, in stump speeches and during Monday’s debate, defining Canadians’ options in the federal election: “Stephen Harper’s goal of a fend-for-yourself Canada or my vision of a country in which we strive together toward a common goal.” All other issues fall away. A single, simple decision remains: To fend or not to fend.

Perhaps Mr. Martin selected fend because it sounds a bit extreme, like fiend. This, however, is a stretch. Mr. Martin is not likely to compare Mr. Harper with the hellish character identified by 17th-century English poet John Milton as the arch-enemy of mankind. More probably, Mr. Martin used fend for yourself to suggest a primeval Darwinian struggle for the survival of the fittest. If so, he erred. Before using fend, he should have looked it up.

Oxford gives the primary definition of fend as any effort, however humble, that a person makes on his or her own behalf. Like getting up in the morning. Like going to work. Go upscale with fend and it means a personal venture. Like getting an education. Like running a business. The word also means to look after someone or something. It means to provide sustenance.

It’s actually quite an admirable thing, this fending that people do every day of their lives. Indeed, a noble thing. Sir Walter Scott in 1818: “He friended me, and fended for me.” Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1863: Freedom shall “fend you with his wing.”

In a secondary meaning, fend is the core part of defend, on the one hand, and fender, on the other. Nothing especially sinister in either case. A fender was originally used to keep ships from scraping against docks. People commonly use old tires for this purpose. Although we now have fenders on all sort of things, no prime minister has hitherto chafed against them.

(We have unfortunately lost fendable from the language, an adjective once used to describe exceptional competence; we would all benefit, for example, from knowing a “fendable” mechanic.)

Mr. Martin’s misuse of fend in this campaign must nevertheless be welcomed. It is, in fact, a central issue, corruption aside. In the end, what will be the reach of the federal government? What capacity to fend for themselves will remain with the provinces? With the people? These questions define the divide between the Liberal and Conservative parties.

Mr. Martin proposes further to limit the fending authority of the provinces and of the people. Yet it is precisely the federal reach that separates Quebec from the rest of Canada. It is precisely the federal reach that makes alms seekers of the provinces. It is precisely the federal reach that undermines voluntary action, charitable organization and individual enterprise.

Government spending — federal, provincial and municipal — now takes 40 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. (In Manitoba, it’s almost 50 per cent.) This combined reach can only be described as long-since excessive. (In the U.S., the comparable percentage is 30.) The economic literature indicates that government spending in excess of 30 per cent significantly slows economic growth and impoverishes those the expenditures purport to help.

Economist John Maynard Keynes himself once suggested that governments probably hit the maximum level of economically tolerable taxation at 25 per cent of GDP. By this criterion, we should reduce the reach of Canadian governments by 15 percentage points, taking us back toward the more “tolerable” reach of the 1960s.

Mr. Martin presumably knows this well. As finance minister in the mid-1990s, he reduced federal program spending, eliminated programs and cut 50,000 jobs. In subsequent years, federal revenue abruptly surged — indicating that deadweight government had dragged down the economy for years. The government’s debt-to-GDP ratio dropped by 30 percentage points. Surpluses ensued, year-on-year for eight consecutive years. The national debt fell.

Yet, as Prime Minister, Mr. Martin abandoned restraint and opted for superhero achievement. For this purpose, he commandeered the government’s anticipated surpluses for the next decade.

Mr. Martin now confuses surpluses with national prosperity. But the federal coffers hold only the people’s money. The more held by government, the less held by the people. This equation eludes Mr. Martin. It was the excessive surpluses he devised that have kept ordinary people on a treadmill since 1993. Statistics Canada tells the tale. Disposable incomes flat. Labour incomes down. Direct taxation up. Social security taxes and personal savings rates way down.

We don’t yet know Mr. Martin’s “common goal” for Canada. We can bet, though, that it will be heroic. We can bet that it will further reduce people’s capacity to fend for themselves and their families.