Putting the true profit motive back into government

 

At some point during their long campaign to regain the relevance they once enjoyed in western society, progressive liberals of the social-democratic mien finally wised-up to the fact that filthy lucre, not moral suasion, makes the world go round.

Specifically, unless they can link improvements in living standards, literacy and child care to actual wealth creation, they might as well go home and write folk songs for all the influence they’ll wield.

The money principle has been the genius of the counter-counter-culture that began with the reign of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, continued under the “everything goes” administration of Bill Clinton, persisted during the corporatist eras of the daddy-son Bush tag-team of George and Georgie W. It now languishes in Barack Obama’s uncertain hands. 

The fundamental idea was, and is, that Government is, at best, a necessary evil. Most of the time it’s just evil by nature – wasteful, tyrannical, ineffective. 

The “market” was, and is, mankind’s true salvation. Individuals, properly motivated through low taxation, will solve their own problems.

In this conception of reality, welfare is for weaklings, schools are for learnin’ the three Rs and, higher education is for snooty elites unless it leads to a job at a billion-dollar tech firm in Silicon Valley.

Or, as the late Margaret Thatcher once opined, “We want a society where people are free to make choices, to make mistakes, to be generous and compassionate. This is what we mean by a moral society; not a society where the state is responsible for everything, and no one is responsible for the state.”

Lately, though, that notion has been turning on its head.

Andre Picard, the Globe and Mail’s award-winning public health reporter, recently quoted from a study underwritten by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. The findings were startling.

“For every $1 spent providing housing and support for a homeless person with sever mental illness, $2.17 in savings are reaped because they spend less time in hospital, in prison and in shelters,” Mr. Picard reported earlier this month.

“People who are severely mentally ill and chronically homeless use a lot of services – an average of $225,000 a year, according to research. Providing housing and support is costly too – an average of $19,582 per person. But the avoided costs are much greater, $42,536 on average, because those who are housed are put in hospital less often, make fewer ER visits and do not use shelters as often. . .For people with less severe mental illness and lesser needs, 96 cents is saves for every additional $1 spent on housing.”

The results suggest that, contrary to the opinions of nanny-state decriers, Government’s obligations to provide safe, reliable housing to the erstwhile homeless is not only moral – it’s also financial, as the investment yields an enviable return for all taxpayers.

Apparently, that’s something even a Harperite can get behind. 

“We can do more – not just manage homelessness, but eliminate it altogether,” Candice Bergen, federal minister of social development, said at the study’s unveiling in Ottawa on April 8. “I’m realistic. I know there will always be people who will be homeless and who will need help. But most people can recover, they can get back on their feet.”

Lately, the same line of reasoning has been leaking from commentaries by the unlikeliest sources: economists. 

When TD Bank Group’s Craig Alexander is not talking about the dollars-and-cents benefits of structured, universally accessible early childhood education, he’s pointing out the enormous costs to society of structural, endemic illiteracy.

Halting it, he recently told a business crowd in Saint John, “raises your income, which ends up creating a better standard of living. You invest in people. You improve their skills. You give them the ability to be much more productive. It’s good for business.”

It’s also good for the state – which, for all practical purposes, means all of us.

 

 

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