Saturday, March 28, 2015

On value assessments

The Great Budget Debate at the Progress Summit of course reflected a thorough clash in values. But there was one note of obvious agreement which makes the conservative position untenable once its implications are drawn out.

All four speakers spent plenty of time talking about the fact that some investments are worthwhile, and acknowledging that the role of government includes assessing which ones justify the use of public money. But Monte Solberg in particular neatly demonstrated how anti-government bias undermines any attempt to carry out that task.

Solberg spent plenty of time on the Cons' usual jurisdictional dodges, arguing at various points that the federal government should step aside in favour of provinces, individuals and businesses as alternate decision-makers. But the claim that the federal government should carry a strong bias toward that course of action is flawed in two key ways.

There are plenty of areas where the federal government does in fact have direct jurisdiction: as long as one recognizes e.g. the importance of First Nations health and education (being some of the areas with the most obvious potential for investment to make a massive difference in outcomes) which have been grossly underfunded due solely to the choice of the federal government. And there's also the reality that economies of scale and collective planning can produce better outcomes than atomized and unfocused spending which provinces and municipalities are happy to facilitate.

That said, it's absolutely necessary to evaluate program effectiveness. But Solberg and Philip Cross both went far out of their way emphasizing their disdain for the civil service which needs to be able to carry out the cost/benefit analysis required to direct spending where it can best serve public purposes.

In sum, one can't plausibly claim to acknowledge the value of focused and efficient spending while rejecting the process needed to provide exactly that on specious ideological and jurisdictional grounds. And the right's failure to reconcile those principles - both in the Progress Summit debate and elsewhere - offers a compelling reason not to consider it credible when it comes to economic planning.

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