Canadian Commentary: Economics

Harris the Stalinist

December 1997

The business press has commented on the centralization of political power within Mike Harris' office, but, typically, it has largely ignored the much more important issue of the Harris government's centralization of power in the province as a whole. Mike Harris' government has in fact been behaving like a Stalinist state, using central planning by a small group of people to micromanage the most important sectors of Ontario's society.

The first sector to receive this treatment was the municipalities, particularly Toronto. Rather paying any attention to what those who had studied the issue had said, and rather than allowing those involved in the governance of Toronto to evolve their own system, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs unilateraly imposed a solution, the amalgamation of the cities of Toronto, which no-one had suggested or wanted.

The treatment of Ontario's hospital system was even more Stalinist. The government appointed a small board of "experts" which determined which Ontario hospitals would close down based on their own estimation of the needs of each region of the province and the most "efficient" way to meet these needs. In the process, no attention was paid to whether individual hospitals were more successful than others, or whether they fulfilled a particular mandate. Their popularity, quality and efficiency were ignored. The planners fell for the classic planning virus - thinking bigger means more efficient. The planners closed down small and medium-sized hospitals in favour of the largest hospitals. But, as with municipalities, all of the evidence shows that once you get past a certain size, bigger hospitals are no more efficient than medium-sized ones - and are usually less effective. This kind of central planning by "experts" has never worked in any other sector - why should it work in health?

Now, finally, Harris is centralizing education. All educational spending is now in the hands of the Ministry of Education. He has stripped the school boards of their powers and is focusing all major educational decision-making power on the Minister. In the process, he has not only cut out local influence over education, he has cut out the role of interested and knowledgeable parties - parents, teachers, school trustees - in making decisions about Ontario's schools system.

The irony, of course, is that such central planning is supposed to be anathema to the Conservatives' governing philosophy. The free-market system is devised specifically in opposition to the idea of central planning in the economy. If central planning does not work in the private sector, why on earth do they think it will work in the public sector? (To be fair, a few conservative commentators have noticed this irony. However, their solution is usually to privatize everything - ignoring the fact that education and health were absorbed into the public sector precisely because the private sector could not take care of them effectively). The key - the link between free-market ideas and Stalinist government - is a belief in rationalism, in their own overweening wisdom. These conservatives are attracted to free-market ideas because their formulation is so rational and elegant. The first thing they do not realize is that the free-market is actually extremely messy - and this messiness is what makes it effective. No-one can decide in advance what is going to work - the best ways of doing things emerge because a lot of different approaches are tried. The second thing they don't realize is that this is precisely the same way democracy works. Democratic governments are effective because there are so many different sources of power, and so many different voices - just like the free-market economy. Mistakes are less likely because everyone knows there are other people who will make you suffer when you make one. When a mistake is made in a democracy, its impact is softened because other voices point out the mistake, and other centres of power compensate. Meanwhile, good ideas are more likely to emerge because there are so many possible sources - and once an idea has been proven to be good by experience, it gets picked up by everyone else. What Mike Harris is systematically doing is eliminating these other voices and other sources of power in Ontario. Every time he screws up, there is nothing to soften the blow. As a result, we are now suffering from the imposition of absurd arbitrary measures typical of the central planning of any Stalinist state.

Dec. 9, 1997

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