The Government Taketh Away: The Politics of Pain in the United States and Canada

By Leslie A. Pal; R. Kent Weaver | Go to book overview

1
THE POLITICS OF PAIN

LESLIE A. PAL AND R. KENT WEAVER

DEMOCRATIC POLITICS IS ABOUT MAKING CHOICES, AND SOMETIMES THOSE choices inflict pain. Most western democracies have been through an extremely painful period in the last decade. Across the OECD, there has been a trend of expenditure and program cuts, increased taxes, and downsizing in both the public and private sectors. Yet, the need to make political choices that inflict pain on at least some citizens or organizations is unavoidable. At a minimum, not every tax dollar that citizens pay is returned as a direct benefit to them. Some decisions, like locating a military base or a shipyard, involve benefits that are not easily divisible, and so create winners and losers, at least in relative terms. Implementing new regulatory standards imposes costs either on those who are regulated or on their customers. Pareto optimality (in the sense of increasing total utility without making anyone worse off) is difficult to achieve in practice, and almost any policy initiative will, at least initially, inflict some measure of pain and create a category of those who suffer some loss.

Some decisions impose more visible pain than others, however. Whereas constructing a new military base or awarding a contract to build a new generation of fighter aircraft is likely to create economic gains for communities near the site(s) chosen and deny them to communities who lose out in the competition, closing an existing base creates even more visible losses of jobs and purchasing power in affected communities. Locating nuclear waste sites and other undesirable facilities in any given community arouses so-called “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) concerns. Cutting pensions or unemployment insurance benefits affects constituencies that

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