Monday, September 26, 2005

On the inevitability of Stephen Harper's failure and the spinelessness of Jack Layton's policy proposals, not necessarily in that order

So the New Democrats are now proposing government regulation on the price of gasoline, on the belief that oil companies are engaging in unethical profiteering. I'm afeared that the honourable gentleman's mistrust of free markets has caused him to fail to recognize a gift horse upon seeing one, or something to that effect.

Socialists tend to mistrust the free market because they're conscious of its excesses. Where inequality of opportunity exists, there is created a grossly unfair, and inevitably self-perpetuating, distribution of wealth. Even in the invariaby hypothetical case of perfect equality of opportunity, those who make less of the opportunity than they could are left unable to afford basic necessities. As markets - especially labour markets - cycle, the prices of goods and services can be suppressed to the point that those offering them are unable to make a basic living, and market exit isn't necessarily feasible or desirable from the perspective of the public good. All of these things are quite true, and I have on more than one occasion found myself on the same side as the New Democrats against the positions of most other parties. Social engineering, in these cases, is a quite acceptable (and universally applied, albeit to varying extents) solution.

In imposing controls on the price of gasoline, however, the New Democrats are proposing the sort of social engineering that runs precisely contrary to their objectives: namely, they are seeking government legislation to benefit major consumers of gasoline (who will be disproportionately corporations and high income earners) at the expense of the rest of us. They are proposing to deal a severe blow to the public transit systems that they claim to hold so dear. They are proposing to maintain the illusion of sustainability that masks the ugliness of the North American lifestyle at present. Moreover, they are proposing to impede the operation of the free market in one of the cases in which the free market works in a direction that they ought to find favourable.

The greatest undeniable virtue of the free market is its adapatbility over the long-term. If there is sustained demand for a product or service, the market will eventually provide it. If a good or service is over-priced, there will be, over the long-term, market entry by other players (this applies even in cases where there are significant barriers to market entry, it's just that the term will be longer and the other players will usually be large corporations already successful in the provision of other goods and services). The invisible hand, as hackneyed as a viewpoint as this is, really does work quite marvellously well. This long-term adaptation will often leave short-term victims in its wake, of course (which is yet another rationale for government intervention) but, in the end, the market will provide.

I don't necessarily intend to suggest that the current increase in oil prices is due to a decrease in the supply or an increase in the demand, of course. However, both a decrease in supply (in the form of reserves being exhausted) and an increase in demand (in the form of Chinese people buying automobiles) are inevitable at some indeterminate point in the future. So too, then, is an increase in price. This present price increase may be, as the New Democrats suggest, the premature result of corporate profiteering, or it may not be. What it is clearly is the impetus for an increase in demand for fuel efficient vehicles, public transit, and alternative energy sources. This demand will take a while, to be sure, but it will take a damned site longer if we prance around suppressing the price of gas in the interim. In the meantime, it subsidizes the S.U.V. owner and does little to help the cyclist.

This trumpeting about the low income person who needs a car for his/her job reeks of displayig a case study to justify a decision that won't withstand the scrutiny of statistics. While such people exist, other avenues can be found of helping them - avenues that don't have the aforementioned negative effects. And if the oil companies *are* profiteering unfairly, well, let them.

And then tax the hell out of 'em.

Now the part about Harper

The trouble with this debate over whether Stephen Harper ought to be allowed to continue as Conservative leader (which consists primarily of Carol Jamieson on one side and the increasingly shrill William McBeath on the other) is that the parties aren't speaking the same language. It's reminiscent of the two thousand year long debate in St. Albert over whether or not to build a bridge over the Sturgeon River (on which more here), wherein proponents of the bridge argued quite convincingly that building it would reduce traffic congestion on St. Albert Trail while opponents argued equally convincingly that it would restrict access to natural areas and disturb sensitive bird nesting areas. In this case, the Harpies are arguing that Stephen Harper is a decent man honestly committed to Canada and to his party's principles (which he is), and the depose-a-trons are arguing that the Conservatives under him will never win a majority government (which they won't, and probably won't even win a minority one).

Is it right that a decent man honestly committed to Canada and to his party's principles should be ousted simply because he won't perform electorally? That the question need be asked exposes the rot of political parties - as long as candidates are nominated for office by some sort of organization, there will always need to be a tradeoff between the membership's belief in the candidate's fitness for office and the membership's belief in the candidate's ability to acquire office. In other words, candidates will be nominated (at least) as much for their electability as for their overall fitness for office, and we'll wind up with a Parliament full of Brian Mulroneys.

As for Harper. . . well, you reap what you sow. He was more electable than Stockwell Day, so he was chosen over him. If somebody still more electable should come along - a Montreal lawyer, for example, with a blue-collar Irish Québec background - he can hardly complain.


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