le 11 avril 1998
Alternatives to over-regulation
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CONFUSING MOVEMENT WITH
by Ralph Maddocks*
When government spending cuts were proclaimed throughout the land, the
conventional wisdom was that the voters wouldn't stand for tax increases,
being already too highly taxed. There, in all its stunning simplicity,
was the politician's answer to the budget deficits which they themselves
created. If you can't get away with emptying their pockets any more, then
cut their services. Logical? Not really! There is another alternative,
but to implement it will run into many roadblocks.
I think that it was John Maynard Keynes who said that the difficulty lies
not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping old ones. The answer
of today's politicians assumes that the question has to do with having
too much government. The political left thinks that we need more government
and the political right thinks that we need less. The real question is
perhaps what kind of government do we have? A question not of government
but of governance; the manner, function or power of government.
None of us want less health care, less education, fewer or poorly repaired
roads, less garbage collection etc., in reality we would all like more
of them. That is, until we are asked to pay more for them.
Look at the road conditions in our province. If you were driven blindfolded
into the province from Vermont, then, ignoring the customs post, you can
tell when you are in Quebec by counting the number of times your
head hits the roof of your car! Yet there is, or was, a surplus in the
Quebec Automobile Insurance fund. So, in this case at least, it can hardly
be argued that there is not enough money to spend on road repairs; it is
the manner in which that money is spent that is the problem.
Earlier, I alluded to an alternative to cutting or increasing taxes. In
the above case we could make road builders responsible, at their own expense,
for the maintenance of the road for the following twenty years. I'll bet
that such a policy would produce a marked improvement in the driveability
of our roads. Instead of salaries, we could pay the government auditors
a percentage of the savings they find. The list of possiblities is mind-boggling.
All this government slashing may reduce costs, but it is analagous to chopping
off your arm when you discover that you are overweight! We can see the
results in the health service. The real problem is that civil servants
are employed doing things which don't need doing, following regulations
that should never have been written or filling forms that ought never to
have been printed in the first place. How much money is wasted due to over-regulation?
Why not introduce alternative sources of supply of services or more sub-contracting,
an idea unloved by unions. Decentralize services, create profit centres
where possible, e.g. break up Quebec Hydro into smaller units and let them
compete for your business, just like the long-distance telephone companies
have to do. Combine and privatize the government Employment services and
remunerate those who operate them on the basis of the number of successful
placements made. Introduce user fees for those who use a service, i.e.
a public golf course, rather than maintaining it out of general tax revenues.
The main resistance to this will come from all parties involved. The politicians,
who spend most of their time thinking about how to get re-elected, are
afraid to confront the unions or other pressure groups. The senior civil
servants, because accountability would become more important to their promotional
prospects than is length of service. Imagine a civil service run on a well
designed incentive system. Payment by results, not by union scale!
Such heresy! The unions wouldn't like it because it would strike at the
basis of that sacred cow, seniority.
We should stop confusing movement with action.
(*) Ralph C. Maddocks is a retired
textile executive and former management consultant, living and writing