Political garbage

Apparently Marie Antoinette never said "Let them eat cake." Rather, "Qu'ils mangent les brioches" was a one-insult-fits-all piece of French political folklore pinned to any member of the ruling class who was considered drastically out of touch with the lives of regular folks. Which brings me, of course, to striking workers in Toronto.

Out of touch? The willingness of Toronto municipal employees to bury residents of Canada's largest city in stinky trash during the hottest part of the year if they aren't paid off might seem grimly realistic, especially respecting the concept of "extortion." They clearly understand that their employer cannot go bankrupt in the normal sense, because it can always reach into the pockets of the public and wrench out their cash in the form of taxation, which private firms cannot do unless they somehow persuade the state they are "too big to fail" or something else equally stupid. But the striking workers show little appreciation of "the limits of the possible" or of public patience. And that curious blindness suggests a quite different explanation.

Thomas Sowell, one of whose books neatly phrased the question as Is Reality Optional?, has suggested that beneath partisan and even ideological quarrels lurks a fundamental disagreement as to whether "the limits of the possible" is an important concept or a mean-spirited trick. Some of us consider the world a difficult place in which tradition offers valuable, hard-won lessons about how to keep war, famine and disaster at bay. Others think peace, plenty and harmony are normal and the main source of trouble in the world is deliberate malice on the part of the powerful.

I argue that striking public-sector workers, and their political and intellectual allies, are firmly in the latter camp. They believe that a world of lavish rewards for limited work and belligerent intransigence is well within our reach in every sphere of human activity if only we have the "political will."

In the short run, it seems to be working. Consider the Canada Day story in this newspaper that collective bargaining wage increases in the Ontario public sector were the same in 2008 as 2007 despite the recession, 3.1 per cent on average, while in the private sector they fell from 2.9 to two per cent (below inflation's 2.3 per cent). And according to new Tory leader Tim Hudak, public-sector employment in Ontario has grown 22 per cent since Dalton McGuinty's Liberals were elected in 2003, against just five per cent for the private sector.

The image of plump, rosy-cheeked aristocrats stuffing their faces while the peasants go hungry, and congratulating themselves on their superior moral qualities between mouthfuls of pheasant, springs all too readily to mind here. And not just here. Something big is happening to the welfare state throughout the industrialized democracies.

California is gruesomely broke, while Illinois, Pennsylvania and other states may literally be unable to pay their employees. And in Britain, the Daily Telegraph says: "The state will pay out more in social security benefits than it raises from workers in income tax this year ... by almost £25 billion. Normally, income tax receipts comfortably cover the benefits bill." Yet the British government's obtuse response is to spend more money and hire more public servants, even after the MP expense scandal ignited public rage. It reveals the tragicomic inability of the ruling class, there or here, to alter its behaviour and attitudes in the face of ominous trends blazingly obvious to normal observers.

I must admit that when it comes to the state of public policy in Canada, I have learned not to be optimistic. Canadians put up with obnoxious political rubbish and mistreatment and frequently encourage it by our acquiescence in its intellectual foundations. Even so, I hope and believe public patience is being exhausted by such self-satisfied trough-gobbling given current hard times.

The commoners do appear sulky. For instance on Canada Day, amid the usual bumph about how grand and unknowable Canada is, the Globe and Mail noted that, "Voter turnout in last month's Nova Scotia provincial election dipped to an all-time low." So someone's not too thrilled with the state of public play. Just the citizens, mind you. But the routine appearance of such numbers across Canada, the Anglosphere and western Europe could be mistaken for exactly the sort of warning sign the Ancien Régime should have heeded.

Instead, their arrogant attitude remains: "Qu'ils mangent les poubelles."

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson