The golden age of ideological politics in Ontario

One sometimes hears disaffected voters – particularly young people – complaining that they cannot be motivated to cast a ballot because there is “no difference” between the major political parties. I’ve never had much sympathy for this complaint, particularly in Canada, where there is a pretty significant ideological spread between the major parties. Of course no party is going to cater to any individual’s particular tastes – they are, after all, mass parties, trying to cater to the needs and desires of millions of people. At the same time, anyone who can’t see that the parties stand for very different things has probably not been paying much attention.

Nowhere is this more true than in Ontario right now. I was reminded of this when reading Daniel’s complaint about the fact that Quebec politics remains stubbornly polarized along constitutional lines (separatist-federalist), rather than the traditional left-right distributive justice axis. Indeed, every time that it looks as though the political system in Quebec is going to “normalize” (with the rise of the ADQ, or the CAQ, or QS), it seems to last no more than one election before getting pulled back into the old constitutional axis.

Voters in Ontario, by contrast, have an extremely clear choice between three parties, each of which has a credible chance of forming the next government, and each of which occupies a clear and definable position on the left-right ideological axis. This makes it something of a golden age for those who are “into” basic questions of social justice (or who have strong views about the role of the state in a market economy). The NDP in Ontario is a genuinely left-wing party, the Liberals are genuine centrists, and the PCs are genuinely right-wing. I’ll explain what I mean by “genuine” here, with reference to an issue that has been dominating political discussion in the province, namely, mass transit.

The situation with respect to transportation in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) is a textbook example of a collective action problem. In the past 30 years, the region has grown from approximately 3.5 million residents to over 6 million, with essentially no expansion of the transportation infrastructure (either for cars or public transit). The result has been a lengthening of commute times (on average now between 65 and 80 minutes per day, round trip). Without some sort of government initiative, there is no prospect for any improvement of the situation. The problem is that people lack any incentive to change their behaviour, because the use of roads – at the point of consumption – is free.

This means that every time someone takes a car trip, they generate a negative externality, in the form of increased congestion for others. And every time someone takes mass transit instead of getting into their car, they generate a positive externality, in the form of reduced congestion. The standard “public economics” remedy is to internalize these externalities, by pricing the negative one (through road tolls or congestion charges), and subsidizing the positive one (through government spending on public transit).

In such a situation, the state is in a position to achieve something like a pure efficiency gain. A recent C. D. Howe study estimated the annual cost of congestion in the GTA to be $473 per person. This means that there is a huge amount of room for government to increase social welfare by imposing taxes or fees, then investing the proceeds in new infrastructure that would reduce congestion. (Furthermore, by using road tolls to fund mass transit, there is a chance to achieve the fabled double dividend – of improving social welfare twice, once through the taxing and again through the spending.)

Thinking along these lines, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne declared that the time had come for an “adult conversation” about raising taxes, in order to pay for improvements in transit. Of course, the suggestion that one might have an adult conversation on the subject of taxes is hilarious, in a tragicomic sort of way. Anti-tax “rage” is like catnip for opposition parties, and so far neither the NDP nor the PCs have been able to resist it. Thus NDP leader Andrea Horwath and PC leader Tim Hudak have conspired to block the (minority Liberal) government from raising any new revenue for transit.

Their reasons for doing so are two-fold. First, there is the purely strategic calculation that there are more votes to be had by resisting taxes than there are to be had by raising them, regardless of what the money gets spent on. So both Horwath and Hudak have adopted a bullshit line, of promising people that they can have new transit infrastructure without having to pay for any of it. Second, however, there is a genuine difference of political ideology, wherein both parties are willing to forego the potential efficiency gain, because they assign higher priority to other principles.

It’s the second difference that I want to talk about, but first it’s necessary to dispense with the bullshit. Tim Hudak has promised that it is possible to build new subways without raising taxes, but by eliminating government waste. Andrea Horwath has promised that the NDP would build new subways without raising taxes on ordinary, hard-working people, but by taxing corporations. “Waste” and “corporate taxes” are basically magic hats, that politicians can pull anything they like out of. Whenever a Conservative says that a project will be paid for by eliminating waste and creating “efficiencies,” what that says to the median voter is “you won’t have to pay for it.” And whenever the NDP says that a project will be paid for by increasing corporate taxes, or better yet, “closing corporate tax loopholes,” this is also just code for “you won’t have to pay for it.” All of it is bullshit, in the sense that anyone paying attention knows that you will have to pay for it, otherwise you won’t get it, it’s just a line that politicians can use in order to avoid explicitly stating that fact.

With that aside though, we can move on to the actual differences in political ideology underlying the conflict. In particular, many people have been mystified by the vociferousness with which the NDP has attacked the transit proposals. Many Toronto leftists, in particular, have been upset to see Horwath literally allying herself with Rob Ford, and in some cases even sounding just like him. (After all, it’s not every day that you see the left in Canada driving a stake through the heart of a public transit plan.)

The reason is that Horwath, fundamentally, rejects the principle of market pricing, because when government forces people to pay the social cost of their consumption, it looks to her like a regressive tax. So a road toll is unacceptable to her, because the cost falls on ordinary, hard-working Canadian families (i.e. the sort that drive cars). She thinks that the rich should pay to fix the problem of traffic congestion. Given a choice between building no new transit, or having the beneficiaries of the transportation network pay to build new transit, she would rather build no new transit.

In this respect, she is defending what I consider to be a genuinely left-wing view. Given a conflict between efficiency (fixing a collective action problem) and equality (making the rich pay more for public services) she ranks equality over efficiency. She would rather live with the collective action problem than have it solved in a way that does not generate a more equal distribution of wealth in society.

Over on the PC side, we have Tim Hudak, who some claim is a John Boehner-like figure, held hostage to the extremists within his own party. Even though he’s been pushed hard by the Toronto business community (in particular the Board of Trade, which desperately wants a solution to the city’s congestion problem, and want new taxes to pay for it), his refusal to contemplate raising any new revenue for transit means that he’s basically committed to not building anything. (It is important to keep in mind that Hudak was a member of the Mike Harris government, which closed down the Eglinton subway project that was under construction when they were elected – thereby making a not-insignificant contribution to the current congestion problems.)

The crucial thing about conservatives is that they like cars. Many still have the small-town mentality, and so see public transit as a service for poor people. Thus they treat government funding of transit as essentially a handout, not all that different from making welfare payments. Many also see mass transit as a collectivist conspiracy, aimed at sapping the spirit of individual freedom made possible by the car. And finally, many have an extremely strong aversion to taxes. They simply hate being forced to pay for things, regardless of whether in the end they benefit.

If you wrap this all up and generalize a bit, it’s not too much of a distortion to say that there is commitment to individual freedom or liberty, which leads conservatives to favour the car over any other form of transportation. And given a choice between efficiency and individual liberty, they choose liberty. Faced with the option of giving up a bit of their freedom to drive wherever and whenever they like, in order to solve a collective action problem, they would rather preserve their freedom, even if it amounts to little more than the freedom to sit around in traffic, breathing in the fumes, listening to talk radio, and slowly building up rage.

Put in political-philosophy terms, we have three basic principles: the first is to increasing welfare (or efficiency), the second to increasing equality, and the third is to increasing (or preserving) individual liberty. Everyone approves of all three, when formulated at a sufficiently high level of abstraction. The differences in political ideology only become apparent when there is a conflict, forcing people to choose one over the others. In Ontario the Liberals have consistently favoured efficiency, the NDP have favoured equality, and the PCs liberty.

Unfortunately, with something close to a three-way split between the parties, the result has been collective paralysis, where any project that involves assigning priority to one principle attracts opposition from two of the three parties (illustrated most dramatically in the NDP-PC anti-transit alliance). Hopefully a provincial election will sort this out. In the meantime, while there are many things to complain about with the current political scene, lack of ideological “spread” among the parties is not one of them. In fact, it’s difficult to remember a time when the choices were more clear, or where the policy positions of the three parties have crystallized in a more exemplary fashion around fundamental differences of political ideology.




The golden age of ideological politics in Ontario — 1 Comment

  1. Good article, but I have some its to pick. While this piece is particularly accurate in its sketch of the Tory position, I think it’s a bit off-base on the other two. The Liberals aren’t the technocrats of my dreams; they’ve backed off of their promised “adult conversation” by committing *not* to raise sales taxes, fuel taxes, nor income taxes on middle-income earners to fund transit. This leaves only income taxes on high-income earners left. And while I approve of same, for a variety of reasons, everyone should admit that you can’t fund the necessary transit on high-income taxes alone. Nor should you! Everyone benefits from transit, so everyone should pay, including middle-class earners. The argument that the NDP is being ideological in its rejection of transit taxes is horseshit. It’s not because they won’t support any collective-action solution, like transit spending, unless it also contributes to economic equality; rather, they’re craven centrists, who’ve adopted the cynical Mulcair line that high-income taxation is confiscation. What the NDP, whether in Ontario or Canada, wants is to be Labour under Tony Blair: a social-democratic party that achieves power by pulling to the centre, i.e., to the right. Anti-tax catnip, indeed. It’s enough to make a social democrat like me vote Liberal… except see above about how they’ve abandoned their promises to stop insulting our intelligence. On this, all three parties agree: doing the right thing and raising public funds to restore and expand public infrastructure, and hence everyone’s well-being, is not to be thought. Which is crazy! But I’ll save my “taxes in Canada are too damn low” rant for another time.