Conservatives present their own policies as better solutions, then reject both the solutions and even the existence of the problems after the centre-left agree to compromise and try to adopt them.
By Ryan McGreal
Published August 10, 2018
Premier Doug Ford cancelling the Basic Income pilot is the essential unseriousness of conservative politics in a nutshell.
The basic income is a conservative policy proposed as an alternative to the mix of welfare and other targeted services. In the modern era, its champions have included libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek and conservative pundit Charles Murray.
One of the main conservative points in favour of a basic income is to avoid the "welfare trap" in which people are disincentivized from finding work when any earned income is clawed back from their welfare payment.
Under Ontario's previous government, a three-year pilot project was established to test how a basic income works in practice. 4,000 people were selected to participate in the project, which provides up to $16,989 per year for a single person or $24,027 per year for a couple, less 50 percent of any earned income.
The Ontario PC Party promised during the election that they would let the pilot project run to completion, but quickly broke that promise after winning a majority and forming the government. Now they are attacking the concept of a basic income.
This way this issue has played out follows a drearily predictable pattern:
The centre-left parties propose a policy solution to a social problem. Conservatives acknowledge the problem but reject the proposed solution as too heavy-handed or socialistic. Instead, they counter-propose a more conservative, market-oriented alternative policy.
Eager to get something - anything - done to address the problem, the centre and left parties agree to the conservative proposal and try to implement it. Then the conservatives go on to reject their own proposal, insisting that it won't work and implying that its mere association with parties on the left means it is somehow a leftist policy.
And then they go on to deny that the problem even exists, attacking the peer-reviewed research and accusing people advocating for solutions of being "lobbyists" and "special interests".
We've seen this happen most famously with global warming, an issue on which the basic science is entirely settled and which is already measurably affecting the world today.
In response to early calls to regulate industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the right pushed back and insisted that the response should be market-based, not regulatory. Instead of CO2 emission limits, they argued we should put a price on carbon and let the market figure out the most efficient ways to reduce emissions.
So the centre-left parties compromised and agreed to carbon pricing measures, such as a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade market (sidenote: not the same thing).
In response, the conservatives who had insisted on carbon pricing instead of regulation backpedaled and started opposing their own policies, applying exactly the same criticisms that they had applied to the more regulatory measures they previously opposed.
Many conservatives have gone so far as to deny that global warming is even a real thing - claiming falsely that the world is not measurably warming (it is) or that the warming is not attributable to human activity (it is) or that a warming planet is not a bad thing (it is).
The Ontario PC Party has not gone so far as to officially deny global warming, but they are cancelling Ontario's modest cap-and-trade program and vowed to fight the imposition of a federal carbon tax. So either they don't believe global warming is real, or they do believe it and don't care.
In the United States, this phenomenon also played out in the protracted debate over health care. After the Democratic Party tried and failed to implement some kind of universal, single-payer system in the 1990s, the Republican Party made a counter-proposal for an elaborate system of health insurance markets with an individual mandate to avoid the insurance "death spiral".
The Democrats compromised and agreed to the Republican health care plan, even though it would not be as effective at constraining costs as a truly public health care system. They just wanted to get something - anything - done to improve things for the tens of millions of Americans with no health coverage.
But on cue, the Republicans retreated from their own proposal as soon as there was a chance it would actually be put into effect. They attacked it as "socialist" and shamelessly fear-mongered about "death panels" and other boogeymen, dragging the legislative process out for years.
Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for President in 2012, was in the bizarre position of opposing the very model he had previously signed into law in Massachusetts when he was its (moderate) Republican Governor.
After the Affordable Care Act was finally signed into law, the Republicans spent the rest of President Obama's term trying desperately to kill it by any means they could. Under President Trump, the Republicans have been steadily chipping away at it, having decided that they'll kill it first and then figure out what to replace it with at a later date (read: never).
The same pattern plays out in policy issue after policy issue: in every case, conservatives present their own ideological policies as better solutions, then reject both the solutions and even the existence of the problems after the centre-left agree to compromise and try to adopt them.
It is this essential unseriousness about reality on the part of the right that has made mainstream politics all but impossible in the current era.
If you want to know why the left is starting to decide it no longer cares about trying to compromise and be bipartisan, it's because the right has betrayed the basic civilizational compact that we're all on the same team and trying to solve the same problems.
As more and more politicians, especially younger and more idealistic politicians, start to come out swinging as uncompromising social democrats, remember that this is why: every reasonable attempt to find a middle ground is automatically rejected by the right.
The way Ontario provides welfare is broken and has been for decades. Basic income is a pragmatic and, yes, evidence-based effort to find a solution. The evidence we do have indicates that it supports more education, more employment and more entrepreneurship - all things conservatives used to care about.
And as automation continues to disrupt the labour economy, a basic income offers the potential to ensure everyone can live regardless of their ability to find work, freeing people up to create new opportunities and new types of work. This is why conservative economists like it.
But Doug Ford doesn't care about good governance. All he cares about is throwing culture war meat to his base, securing tax breaks for the wealthy, overturning former Premier Kathleen Wynne's legacy whether it was successful or not, and scoring payback on his political enemies.
That is not the proper role of government.
I can only imagine what Bill Davis must think about what has happened to his Progressive Conservative Party.
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