Catchphrases from the past often serve as useful substitutes for wisdom. In my case, as I think about these uncertain economic times, the phrase that has been bouncing around in my head is the 1968 Rolling Stones classic, “You can’t always get what you want.”
Canadians, particularly Albertans, have been blessed with a long run of prosperity that too often leads us to assume that there is no need to make hard choices. Faced with the choice of whether to spend today or save for tomorrow, we have assumed that the good times will continue to roll and therefore there is no need to save. Perhaps we didn’t go so far as to believe that saving is for losers, but that saving demonstrates a pessimistic outlook on life.
When Albertans have faced the choice between low taxes and a high level of public services, including schools, roads and health care, we used resource revenues to provide both. This fundamental choice, we believed, was something that only less-fortunate jurisdictions have had to face. We truly believed we could have our cake and eat it, too.
Today, however, Albertans face tough choices that are unavoidable. Only deficit financing will allow us to keep services up and taxes down.
It is important to stress that the hard choices are not ones for the government of Alberta to make; they are ones for Albertans to make. If voters demand that its government spend, it will spend even at the expense of savings. If voters demand that its government spend and keep taxes low, government will respond with an unsustainable reliance on volatile natural resources revenues.
True, there is a need for government leadership, but it is the expectation of voters that have to be brought in line with new economic realities.
Voters often take refuge in the belief that the circle of low taxes and expansive government services can be squared if only governments were more efficient and less wasteful. However, to believe that the continuation of public services can be met through greater efficiencies is a fool’s game.
My hope is that the current financial crisis will force Albertans to think through the future of their province.
Roger Gibbins is president of the Canada West Foundation.