Welcome back to the 19th century

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald, Red Deer Advocate and Miramichi Leader

Back in the 20th century, much of the world’s politics was shot through with deep-rooted ideologies that had a considerable effect, often negative, on humanity. This month, as the world recalls the 70th anniversary of D-Day and its aftermath, it is helpful to recall those ideologies and their influence on political debates, especially in contrast to our relatively more mundane politics in the 21st century where politics is “back” to normal: a competition between narrow interests and the general, public interest.

For example, a corporation in search of a taxpayer subsidy is a narrow interest. But if a government hands over, say $700-million to one corporation as Chrysler Canada recently wanted, tax dollars would be diverted from the general interest, be it tax relief or a new bridge.

Before delving further into this normal state of politics though, some history: last century’s ideological battles veiled just such normal political battles. Consider that Germany in the 1930s and into the Second World War was driven not just by a militaristic leader, Adolf Hitler, but also by his fascist ideology, Nazism.

The 20th century was also home to another ideology, one that many countries faced with intensity after Nazism was defeated. Communism, and the notion of collective action in the economy, had been around in various forms since at least Plato, but it was given new life with the 19th century writings of Karl Marx and others.

The writings of Marx prompted debates over the role of government in the 20th century, even in liberal democracies such as Canada. Those who favoured free markets and open societies on the grounds that practically and empirically, such an approach (combined with moderate governments) best achieved human progress, were forced to square off with ideologues who argued politicians and bureaucrats could centrally plan the economy with better economic results and more jobs.

But the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the escape of central and Eastern Europe from communism’s grip, the implosion of the Soviet Union, and the failure of central planning everywhere from Beijing to Budapest, killed off Marxism/communism as an animating factor in debates over the role of government. And Nazism/fascism was, of course, already dead.

That meant that for many Western countries at least, the "normal" battles in politics again became more obvious, where competing interests try to influence politicians to use the public purse for their own ends.

The 21st century then resembles the 19th century—not in the size of government but in the obvious tussles between special interests and the general interest.

For example, in 1876, the first post-Confederation finance minister for the Dominion government (what we now call the federal government), Sir Richard Cartwright, a Liberal, responded critically to the Conservative’s call for higher tariffs on imported farm equipment.

Cartwright objected because such tariffs would transfer wealth from people in rural Canada, where most Canadians lived. Higher tariffs on imported farm machinery would mean the buying public would ultimately pay for the tariffs in the higher cost of the product. Or the tariffs would force them to buy made-in-Canada products, also with higher prices (given the lack of foreign competition). That would benefit domestic manufacturers and their owners but harm the broader public through paying inflated prices—thus Cartwright’s concern about the unjustifiable transfer of wealth.

Cartwright was attempting, quite properly, to look out for the wider public good as opposed to a narrow interest.

These days, without the ideological justifications of the 20th century to mask them, special interests are again blindingly obvious. When business leaders argue for a subsidy they are demanding that the public treasury be used for their own interest; when government employee unions demand compensation and pensions higher and more generous than in the private sector, these union leaders are effectively demanding the general base of taxpayers serve them.

Special interests still dress up their demands for special treatment in lofty rhetoric—thus the chatter about “national champions” from business leaders or so-called “social justice” from many government union leaders.  But now, in the 21st century, absent the more animated 20th century ideology of central planning, such special interest demands are (or should be) seen for what they plainly are: a plea for unique treatment at the expense of others.

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