Zero Budget Growth

Worth A Look, Role of Government, Frontier Centre

Over the past hundred years, government has grown to gigantic proportions. It intervenes in almost every aspect of our lives. It tries to plan economic development. It tells us if we may or may not cut down a tree on our own property. It takes care of us from the cradle to the grave.

We got to a situation where every child that is born is already burdened with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. And if you take all levels of government into account, about half the wages of working people in this country goes to fund all this government intervention.

Why did this happen? Economists and political scientists who belong to a school of thought called “Public Choice” have tried to explain this dynamic. Their research shows how particular groups have a strong interest in getting organized to put pressure on politicians.

These special interest groups want subsidies, trade protection, more generous social programs, a fiscal or legal privilege, regulation that favours them and keeps out competition. Any favour they get from the government can potentially bring them huge benefits.

Of course, each of us will have to pay for it. But in our case, the amount we pay for each measure is not significant enough to justify getting organized to oppose it. You won’t go to meetings and demonstrate in the street to oppose a particular program that will cost you ten dollars. But the small group of people who get $100 million have a huge interest in getting organized.

It’s very hard for politicians to say no to these lobbies. Because they have the means to hijack debates, quickly mobilize support and fuel controversies in the media. On the other hand, nobody hears what the silent majority has to say even if they are the ones paying the bill.

So, there is a fundamental imbalance in political debates. On one side, you have concentrated benefits to special interest groups who have a strong incentive to do their lobbying; on the other side, you have dispersed costs that fall on society at large.

That’s how government grows and grows. That’s how we become less and less free. And more and more dependent on government.

What should we, as conservatives, do to reverse this trend?

One way to change the terms of the debate would be to announce that the government is not going to grow anymore.

I know that we are going through some very difficult economic circumstances and that this is not a realistic proposal for the coming budget. But let’s try a thought experiment.

Last year, the federal government’s total expenses were about $250-billion. You can do a lot of things with $250-billion! From a historical perspective, it’s a gigantic amount of resources.

What if we decided that this is more than enough? That expenses are not going to grow anymore?

And I’m not saying zero growth adjusted for inflation and population or GDP increase. Just zero growth.

The overall budget is frozen at $250billion. From now on, any government decision has to be taken within this budgetary constraint.

Every new government program, or increase in an existing program, has to be balanced by a decrease somewhere else.

We no longer have debates about how much more generous the government can be with this or that group, as if the money belonged to the government instead of taxpayers. The silent majority’s interests are always being protected.

The focus of the debate is shifting to a determination of priorities: what are the most important tasks for government to achieve with the money we have? Is this government function really important and should we have more of it? Then what should we do less or stop doing and leave in the hands of the free market, voluntary organizations and individual citizens?

That would be quite a change, don’t you think? A commitment to Zero Budget Growth could become a powerful symbol of fiscal conservatism, just like the “No Deficit” consensus was, to some extent, until the advent of the global economic crisis. But the consequences would be much deeper.

It would mean that every year, the relative size of government would be smaller. It would force politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists and everybody else to stop thinking that your salaries are just there to grab for their own benefit. And because of the budgetary constraints, Canadians would have a lot more confidence that we’re not wasting their money.

We have to convince people that we’re not simply aiming to be better managers of a bigger government; we are aiming to be better managers of a smaller government.

There is a large constituency for these small-government principles. But because there are no lobbies to defend them, they get lost in the debates.

We have to act as the lobby of the silent majority. The silent majority who are tired of working to pay for special interests. The silent majority who are dismayed at seeing their freedom curtailed at every turn. The silent majority who are losing hope that life will get better for them and their children.

It is not always possible, of course. There are political realities that cannot be overlooked. But being pragmatic is not enough. In the long run, there are political gains to be made by telling people the hard truth, and not just what they want to hear or what is politically correct.

And not just telling it; doing it too! We have to justify our actions on the basis of these principles.