Student protesters are back on the streets of Montréal. Empowered by their maple spring victory of 2012, where the lesson learned was that the more disruptive you are the more likely you will get what you want, student unions have chosen their cause. They are determined to wage another war. This time, however, it is not about tuition hikes. This time the object of protest is the evil A-word (austerity). The word our own Premier dares not say for fear of political backlash. And students are not alone.
We’ve been hearing this word quite a bit in recent years, often in a negative tone. It is not uncommon to sense the disdain and indignation in the voices of those who make reference to it, as though austerity were a contagious disease, or a great form of government oppression and injustice. But when closely examining our situation one should conclude that the lack of austerity in recent decades is what is truly worthy of our indignation.
Faced with the ever-increasing costs of maintaining our giant wealth-syphoning government, faced with enormous public debt and the increasing costs of servicing it, and faced with shrinking revenue from a depressed and debt-burdened economy, like many governments around the world, our government has little choice but to reign in public spending. The process for Québecers is just beginning, and yet we already feel the pain. Indeed, after forty years of burning through our wealth and good credit, to cut our credit cards, to eliminate our credit margins, and to live within a budget, is a tough thing to do.
We shouldn’t be angry about the desire to correct a bad situation; we should be angry at the fact that we allowed this to happen in the first place. The problem took root the moment deficit spending became an acceptable practice; and the problem will persist and get worse so long as this remains the case. Painful austere cutbacks are the effect, not the cause. They are the symptoms of Big-Government disease.
Big spenders learn the hard way
The alternatives to austerity are worse. For governments that do not have control over their currency, the alternative is default. For governments that do have control over their currency, there is the additional alternative of inflating the money supply, which, for political expediency, is tempting, as it provides temporary relief in the short run, but far worse in the long run, as it robs people of their wealth by greatly reducing purchasing power.
Big-spending socialist are learning the hard way. French President François Hollande made his way into office with promises of better times and an end to government cutbacks, only to learn that his worldview is unrealistic. He learned that there is a cost to everything, that wealth cannot be legislated and taxed into existence, and that a nation can support only so much debt. With his feet now more grounded in reality as result of actually having to govern, austerity has become the order of the day.
Québec can no longer afford its massive welfare state (including corporate welfare and bailouts); in fact, it hasn’t been able to afford it for years. The government has no other option but to reign in its spending. And though I am sympathetic to the larger objective of reducing the size of government, I am certainly not without criticisms for Premier Couillard and his government, whose tactics, choices, and contempt for the rule of law leave much to be desired.
Austerity comes from being honest with ourselves
Austerity, however, is not so evil; it is nothing more than living within our means. It is about not spending future generations’ wealth. It is about being honest with ourselves and responsible for ourselves. To stand against austerity is to stand in favour of more debt. To stand against austerity is to support one’s own temporary well-being at the detriment of our children’s and grand-children’s well-being. By standing against the practice of living within our means one stands in favour of oppressing future generations.
When protesting is peaceful and done for the purpose of exercising freedom of speech in unison and solidarity with others, it can be a beautiful thing, especially when the objective is to protect our rights and freedoms or to preserve the rule of law. When it is done for the purpose of disrupting lives and intimidating those who disagree, however, it can no longer be considered protesting; it becomes mob-rule. And if the objective is to oppress others for one’s own benefit, it is contrary to our centuries-old heritage of individual liberty and responsibility; and it is an ugly thing. With A-word protests now underway, the coming weeks will soon reveal just how beautiful or ugly we really are.
Kevin Richard is a freelance Québec journalist and Discourse Online contributor. This article was first published in The Record, an English language daily newspaper based in Sherbrooke, Québec.