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Business Has its Hand Out to Government, Too

Doing business in British Columbia is a battle. It means trading amidst a punitive labour code, interminable industrial action, one of the steepest tax regimes in North America and reams of red tape. When the BC Business Summit convened November, my sympathies, however, gave way to suspicion. Interspersed with the Summit's Statement of Objectives were too many allusions to the public interest function of business and to the importance of collaborating with government.

The common good piety should raise as much suspicion as Hillary Clinton's reference to "our children" ought to. What is paraded by government and its lapdogs as the common good very often conceals an intention to override individual rights and interests. Beware of business when it claims to represent the public interest.

Most B.C. businessmen and women weather the vicissitudes of making a living in this province without aid. Not all, though. Over the past 15 years, B.C. business has cost the taxpayer $377 million in lost opportunities. This is how the Canadian Taxpayers Federation described the costs to B.C. taxpayers of corporate subsidies that went "belly up." When it turns to government to capture wealth on its behalf, the interests of business become inimical to the interests of the paying public.

The market is one place where every vote does actually count. And I don't mean count towards a tyranny of the majority. In contrast to the political agora, the market unhindered will find a way to satisfy most needs and niches, however marginal. A cash vote directly determines what products should be manufactured and by whom. When governments interfere in the market, among other effects, the signals that sovereign consumers send to entrepreneurs about what to produce become jumbled.

With its perennial subsidies for industries that are often unprofitable because the consumer has rejected them, government replaces the consumer's vote with its own parochial political considerations. Corporate subsidies are really nothing but profligate, vote procuring schemes that transfer wealth directly out of the pockets of taxpayers and other self-sustaining industries.

Less known is how the unholy alliance between industries and government has eroded the right to be free of trespass and nuisance on one's own property.

Consider pollution. Whether you dump garbage on your neighbor's lawn, or incinerate it and use his lungs and bloodstream as dumping sites, you have committed acts of trespass. Under the common law, passed on by England to her colonies, people enjoy very strong protection against such invasions.

The emasculation of the common law as a tool to protect person and property is the doing of governments. Over the last two centuries, and in the public interest, of course, parliaments have allowed industry to operate with impunity under the protection of statutory authority. This, governments have achieved by usurping the common law with statutes and regulations. Attached to government regulations is a far lower environmental standard as well as a limited liability compared to the common law standards.

Statutes, for instance, will often compel the courts to replace injunctions with damage awards. Damages allow the polluter to continue his acts of aggression, and needn't compel him to cease and desist the harmful activity.

By authorizing and regulating nuisances, governments have rigged things so as to indemnify polluters, confer on industry the right to do just about anything in the name of progress (read jobs and votes), and ensure the affected public shoulders the costs.

Any wonder the B.C. and Yukon Chamber of Mines (BCYCM) has stressed its preference for being governed by mining-specific legislation and regulations?

Governments and the mining industry in particular have collaborated over centuries to undermine individual property rights. Hungry for mining revenues, medieval governments crushed the rights of individual landowners, allowing the prospector unfettered access to and ownership of deposits on private land.

The federal and provincial taxpayers kick in to the tune of $300 to $400-million a year for mining industries. Yet, according to leading environmentalist and Financial Post columnist Lawrence Solomon, Canada's mining companies combined earn only $1.2 billion in an average year, an amount "exceeded by the tab they leave behind for taxpayers to pick up."

Prior to the Summit, the BCYCM voiced its unhappiness at its shrinking share of the public teat. In an earlier critique of B.C.'s Land and Resources Management Planning process, Bruce McKnight, Executive Director of the BCYCM, had asked to be spared the potential whims of local landowners, referring to Mr. Joe Public as one who may dare demand at the expense of mining exploration "a taxpayer-financed greenbelt behind his cabin."

This industry, for one, has not budged in its attitude to the homesteader's property rights.

©2000 By Ilana Mercer
The Calgary Herald
December 1


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