Doing politics differently

Published on May 11, 2016

On November 22, I was the keynote speaker at a luncheon organized by the Montreal Economic Institute, where I briefly worked as vice-president in 2005 before becoming Member of Parliament. I spoke about my way of doing politics differently. You can read the text of the speech in English or watch the two-part video with English subtitles. Some demonstrators came to disturb the event, which explains my comments at the beginning of my speech in the video. I would like to thank Stornoway Communications for recording and producing this high-quality video. - 23 December 2010

Doing politics differently
By Maxime Bernier
Montreal Economic Institute
November 22, 2010

(Introductory comments and words of thanks)

So, let’s discuss a crucial problem of contemporary politics, politics as it is practiced in a conventional manner: why is it that so many people have the impression that things are getting worse, or at any rate are not getting better, despite economic growth and the advantages of modern life?

If we look at certain general historical trends, I think we can conclude that this impression is indeed justified.

The main trend that we observe is that governments are constantly getting bigger. A bigger government means a government that taxes more, spends more, gets deeper into debt, and regulates more. It’s a government which intervenes in all aspects of our lives, all the while curtailing our freedom to act.

This happened all over the world during the 20th century. The scope, size and powers of government have grown tremendously.

Take for example public spending as a proportion of gross domestic product, that is, the portion of the overall economic controlled by governments. In the main countries of the western world, it has gone from around 10% a century ago to beyond 40% today.

This means that almost half of all economic activity is controlled by the state. Half of your salaries are going away in taxes.

But these gigantic sums are not even enough to pay for all the programs and interventions of governments. They still have to borrow billions of dollars every year to make up for their deficits.

Some of you may have young children, or are planning to have one. Well, you should know that when they are born, Canadian babies already owe many tens of thousands of dollars, which they will have to reimburse in one way or another in the course of their life. Perhaps this is why they start crying as soon as they arrive in this world!

Talking about babies, governments too often treat us like irresponsible children and act as if they know better than we do what is good for us. It’s almost impossible to do anything nowadays without some authorisation from a bureaucrat.

Did you know for example that there is a law in Quebec and in other provinces which imposes a minimum price on the beer that you buy at the store? That’s right, beer could be cheaper, but the government is afraid that you may drink too much of it if it’s too cheap. So the Liquor Board determines, and here I’m quoting the law, a “minimum retail price for beer so that it does not encourage irresponsible consumption.” It’s a nice coincidence because that also happens to bring more taxes in government coffers.

Governments control whole sectors of the economy, such as health care and education. Sectors which seem to be in a permanent state of crisis and always have funding problems. Still, every year, their budgets increase faster than the overall economy. How is that possible?

Former US president Ronald Reagan explained it best when he said that big interventionist governments tend to see things as follows: if it moves, tax it; if it keeps moving, regulate it; and if it stops moving, subsidize it!

What we need to ask is why are governments always getting bigger? Does everyone really wish to have these obese and tentacular governments? Is this what people vote for?

Economists belonging to the school of Public Choice have tried to explain this dynamic. Their research shows how groups that share the same goals 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, in the end, it’s you, the citizens, who will have to pay for these favours. But you probably don’t have time to go to meetings and demonstrate in the street to oppose a particular program that will cost you ten dollars, even if ten dollars here and ten dollars there add up to hundreds and thousands of dollars. You have to work and take care of your family. But the lobby group who gets 100 million dollars thanks to this program has a huge interest in getting organized and pressuring politicians.

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 think about it, even though they are the ones paying the bill or having to conform to a new regulation.

Public Choice economists also explain that within governments, civil servants have their own interests to defend. What are these interests? To have bigger programs to administer, bigger budgets, more prestigious titles and more power to intervene in people’s lives.

Civil servants have a very large influence on political decisions because they are the ones who control the information and the day to day agenda of politicians. I got first-hand experience of this as minister of Industry. I had to fight civil servants in my own department to achieve my goal of deregulating an important part of the telecom sector, in order to foster more competition and offer more choice and better prices to consumers.

If special interest groups and civil servants want a more interventionist government, and if politicians not only do nothing to oppose this trend but encourage it by trying to buy votes with taxpayers’ money, then voters will get a bigger government, whether they like it or not.

That’s how government grows and grows. That’s how we become more and more regulated and indebted, less and less free, and more and more dependent on government.

We could conclude from such analyses that governments will continue to grow and that there is not much that one can do to counter this trend. On the contrary, I believe that we can change things. That’s what I mean when I talk about doing politics differently. What does it imply?

First of all, we have to be conscious of the political dynamic that favours the growth of government. We have to know history, economics, and theories such as those of the school of Public Choice. We have to take them seriously and draw the necessary conclusions from what they tell us.

A politician who doesn’t have a clear vision of the principles he is defending and of what he wants to accomplish will rapidly get caught up in this system that I have just described. He will let himself be manipulated by civil servants and interest groups and will revert to the traditional way of doing politics.

If we want our ideas in favour of more freedom and less government to have some influence on debates, we must also defend them in the public arena. Unless he can distribute favours, a politician’s only influence comes from the support of all those who agree with the ideas he puts forward.

This is why we must convince and mobilize citizens by defending these ideas openly, with passion and with conviction. Even if this means that many people who don’t agree with these ideas or who have an interest in having big interventionist government will be displeased. In any case, when you try to please everyone, there are good chances you will also displease everyone.

A sizeable portion of Canadians have lost interest in politics and have stopped voting because none of the political options on offer seems attractive to them. They only hear partisan, manipulative and contradictory talk from politicians.

They can readily see that it won’t be possible for politicians to keep all the promises they make. That each favour granted to one group implies that another group will have to pay more. And that the traditional way of doing politics only results in a lower standard of living, more of their salary being taken away and more debt falling on their children.

By doing politics differently, we can give these people a reason to hope that things will really change.

This is why, starting with my first election campaign, I have decided to never make promises. And in the past couple of months, I have put forward the ideas and principles I believe in before various audiences across the country.

It’s true that you have to be careful when raising all these issues. I’m also part of a team, the Conservative Party of Canada, whose accomplishments I am proud of. And I have a duty to stand by my colleagues and my government.

But you know what? It works, to do politics differently. When you take a stand on the basis of clear principles, conservative principles in my case, it may sometimes create a stir or a controversy. But it brings a new awareness of an issue and moves the debate forward. It also causes people who do not agree with you to at least respect you.

It’s obvious that a large segment of the population has had enough of the clichés that politicians come out with, of their manipulative jargon to say one thing and its opposite at the same time. They want to hear something else, based on clear ideas, principles and not just empty slogans.

Something else has changed. Today, with the new means of communications, it’s much easier to stay well-informed and to get organized. The theory of Public Choice as it was developed half a century ago is still valid, but the situation it describes has evolved.

It’s not only the interest groups with large resources who can influence public debates nowadays. A small group of citizens can easily reach thousands of others by using Internet social networks. It’s a lot less expensive in time and effort to express your opinion by joining a group on Facebook than by participating in a demonstration, which was one of the few ways you could do it twenty years ago. The increasing number of media sources also allows points of view that are not often heard to spread more easily.

We’ve seen it with the Tea Parties in the U. S., with the election of Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto, and with the launch of the Quebec Freedom Network in my home province: the traditional way of doing politics is increasingly being challenged.

I am willing to bet that authenticity will become a quality that more and more people will be looking for in politics. People are ready to support politicians who say clearly what they believe in, who recognize that we have difficult choices to make instead of promising the moon and the stars to everyone. And they’re also ready to support politicians who talk about individual freedom and responsibility, smaller government and freer markets.

The Nobel laureate in economics Friedrich Hayek wrote in 1949:

“We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. (…) If we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.”

If you are here today, it is because you also believe in the power of these ideas. I urge you to actively promote them, either by supporting an organization like the Montreal Economic or by getting involved in other fields of activity.

The more these ideas will be understood and shared by a large number of people, the easier it will be for me and for others of my colleagues to do politics differently. And eventually, to make Quebec and all of Canada freer and more prosperous societies. Thank you.