Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Taxing isn’t something nice people should be asked to do

British Columbia just did what Californians have been doing for years. Enough of them took up a crazy, irresponsible invitation to vote down an unpopular new tax that they were already paying—a tax vital to the interests of both those who want stronger government and those who want a more vibrant private sector.

Confusing his declining personal popularity with the people’s tolerance for the rules of representative government, former BC premier Gordon Campbell agreed that a simple majority of those voting in the pending referendum could vote down the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST). And just over half of the half of the voters that bothered to vote did exactly that.

In North America, even pure blind trouble-makers like to imagine they’re doing some good. So, the defeat of the 12% HST is claimed as a victory for direct democracy. This is an illusion. Making government for the people next to impossible only makes the people less powerful.

The game (designing taxes on a ballot) and the rules (treating less than thirty percent of eligible voters—and law-abiding taxpayers—as the voice of the people) have no merit. There isn’t a significant government on this continent that has won an absolute majority in a general election for a hundred years.  Taxes have been raised, wars fought, and life enhanced and lengthened for individuals by sticking with the rules of constitutional representative government. 

Commentators have suggested the outcome of the BC referendum was influenced by exceptional public anger. Gary Mason wrote in the Globe and Mail:

“Whether this victory for direct democracy emboldens voters across the country remains to be seen. We have certainly seen Canadians vent their anger and frustration at the ballot box before – the rise of the NDP and the annihilation of the Liberals in the last federal election is a good example of it. The Reform Party was a creation of protest politics. But the political culture in B.C. has always had a different personality and harder edge.

“British Columbia is also a community that, by and large, is bound by populist impulses that reject expert opinion,” Mr. Mitchell says. “That is a key element of the frontier politics that still, by and large, prevail in British Columbia.”

Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said he didn’t expect the HST’s rejection in B.C. would hurt his party, noting: “I believe Ontarians have accepted our tax plan.”

Inviting individuals to tailor their own taxes would not work anywhere. It’s condescending and dangerous for eastern Canadians to question the maturity of Californians or British Columbians. Both jurisdictions have been economic and democratic workhorses for both confederations.

Dwight Duncan is wise, as well as reflexively self-serving, to guess that Ontarians accept what he’s done—and leave it at that.

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