Is the Government Really Accountable to the People?

File:View through a broken window from a room in Sanatorium du Basil, Stoumont, Belgium (DSCF3542,DSCF3545).jpg

Lee Friday – June 27, 2019

While stressing the importance of accountability within government, most writers fail to define this word in any meaningful way. Here is a typical example: “Accountability in government or in business has never been more important. We need to know our political leaders have integrity, are transparent and will rely on science and evidence to make critical decisions for all Ontarians.” [emphasis added]

Integrity, transparency, science, and evidence are mere by-products of genuine accountability.

Accountability is the defining feature of the business world, which increases the prosperity of successful business firms and the consumers they serve. In contrast, accountability does not exist within government. Thus, as the size and scope of government increases, the prosperity of the general public decreases.

Defining Accountability

If you break your neighbour’s window, accident or not, you pay for the replacement. Whether you paid willingly, or were pressured to pay, the other neighbours are likely to agree this is an appropriate remedy. You caused the damage, and you paid money to reverse the damage. The compensation comes out of your own pocket. You have been held accountable for your actions.

In contrast, when a ruling party loses an election, most people say that politicians have been held accountable for their mistakes. In fact, the pundits always tell us, “If you don’t like the government, then don’t forget to vote, because this is your opportunity to hold politicians accountable.”

Really? That’s how we define accountability in politics? Is our anger and frustration alleviated when we kick the bums out of office? Is it enough to see teary-eyed politicians deliver concession speeches on election night?

Consider this example: Under Ontario’s Green Energy Act, the Liberal government signed numerous long term contracts with energy producers at guaranteed prices. Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault admitted that the government’s green energy policies have contributed to sky-rocketing hydro costs across the province. In 2015, Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk said “the excess payments to generators over the market price cost consumers $37 billion during that period (2006 to 2014) and are projected to cost another $133 billion from 2015 to 2032.”

Have these politicians used their personal resources to remedy the situation by reimbursing consumers tens of billions of dollars? No! The Liberals lost the 2018 election, but they have not been held accountable for their actions. Likewise, if I walk around the neighbourhood and break all the windows in all the houses, then lose my job, have I been held accountable in the eyes of my neighbors? Not likely.

Let’s consider two more examples to further emphasize the lack of accountability within government versus the universal accountability which characterizes the actions of private individuals and businesses.

Private Security Versus Public Police

From Bruce Benson’s book To Serve and Protect, Privatization and Community in Criminal Justice

Rossmoor, a private development covering about seven square miles in Walnut Creek, California, started with about eighty-three hundred exclusively adult residents in 1979 … and is protected by private security.

The vast majority of calls [to the security force] are not to report crimes; instead, they involve medical emergencies and crime prevention actions such as vacation checks and escorting visitors.

The security force has not been granted police powers by the government, so its personnel’s authority to arrest is the same as any private citizen’s, and they must call the public police when a criminal incident actually occurs, but deterrence is so effective that Walnut Creek public police respond to only about twenty-five such calls a year from Rossmoor.

Nonetheless, it is estimated that in 1980 if Rossmoor had terminated its private security arrangement, Walnut Creek would have created two additional twenty-four-hour patrol beats at a cost to city taxpayers of about $1.5 million per year. In comparison, the twenty-two-person private force and related security arrangements cost Rossmoor residents $555,000 in 1979.

Walnut Creek Police Chief Joel Bryden said “The number of violent crimes in 2008 in Rossmoor was zero … Although Rossmoor has 15 percent of the population of Walnut Creek, the community only accounts for .05 percent of crime.”

If Rossmoor residents are unhappy with the performance of Securitas, they can refuse to renew the Securitas contract, and hire another private firm to do the job. That is how Securitas is held accountable for its actions. In its quest for profits, Securitas is highly incentivized to prevent crime.

In contrast, the Walnut Creek police department is NOT incentivized to prevent crime because they externalize their costs to taxpayers on a continuing basis, regardless of their performance for which they are not held accountable. The perverse nature of this arrangement is seen through the prices paid for protection. If public police had to replace Securitas, the cost would nearly triple, and the costs of crime would likely rise, as evidenced by crime rates elsewhere in Walnut Creek.

Peace and prosperity are reduced due to the lack of accountability within government. In this case, the reduction of peace is seen through the high crime rate of Walnut Creek (other than Rossmoor). The reduction of prosperity is seen through the exorbitant cost and inefficiency of the Walnut Creek police department. These resources should be reallocated in the marketplace. The tax savings realized through the elimination of the Walnut Creek police department would allow all Walnut Creek residents to hire private security firms, while retaining the greater portion of tax savings which they – not the government – can each decide to save, spend, or invest as they wish, all of which makes them more prosperous.

Many individuals, businesses, and communities use private security companies because they offer protection services far superior to that of public police, who, as it turns out, are not actually required to protect the citizens who are forced to pay their salaries. If employed more extensively throughout the country, private security firms would likely produce significantly lower crime rates. Consequently, the emergence of a far more peaceful society should trigger a massive ripple effect throughout inefficient governmental police/judicial bureaucracies, which would be hard pressed to justify why their budgets should not be drastically cut. Reallocation of most of these scarce resources, not within the government, but into the free market, would further increase overall prosperity.

Infrastructure

The City of Toronto estimated that it would cost between $65,000 and $150,000 to build a set of stairs over a rocky path in a community park. Stunned by this estimate, 73-year-old Adi Astl, who said “I’ve been watching people tumbling down the slope and hurting themselves,” took it upon himself to build the stairs, at a cost of $550. (See here, here, here, and here)

“Astl says members of his gardening group have been thanking him for taking care of the project, especially after one of them broke her wrist falling down the slope …” But the City of Toronto quickly removed the stairs, claiming them to be unsafe, and promised to build new stairs within the week, at a cost of $10,000. Some media outlets “obtained quotes from contractors … in the $5,000 to $10,000 range.”

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the City-built-stairs are better constructed, and safer, than Astl’s stairs. With that said, there is no doubt that Astl’s stairs were much safer than the sloping rocky path that the City was content to live with for many years. As Astl’s wife, Gail Rutherford, said “These people in the park have been asking for stairs for 10 years. It’s a long time. So now they’re being done in 10 days.” City Hall acted quickly, and much less expensively, because it was publicly embarrassed.

The final bill for government infrastructure projects, both large and small, often greatly exceeds the initial cost estimates, which, as we have seen, are usually outrageous to begin with. Why? Because politicians and bureaucrats are not accountable to taxpayers.

Conclusion

Notice how wealth was transferred from Ontario consumers to Ontario energy producers, from Walnut Creek taxpayers to an ineffective Walnut Creek police department, and from Toronto taxpayers to City Hall’s favoured contractor. These are just three examples among thousands at every level of government in virtually every country. All such schemes rely on a lack of accountability for their development. No one is required to reverse the damage they caused. The government is nothing more than a mechanism for a coercive transfer of wealth.

Thus, accountability within government cannot be improved, but we can reduce the damage resulting from the lack of accountability by reducing the government’s budget. How much? The sky is the limit. When we decrease the size and scope of government, we increase the freedom, peace, and prosperity of the people. These are simple concepts which writers in the mainstream media would do well to understand.

Image credit: Trougnouf [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

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