Ford’s Anti-intellectual Populism

In my public management class, I discuss how government’s priorities originate. In some rare instances, prime ministers chose priorities that matter to them personally. One example is Jean Chretien’s higher education agenda, described in Eddie Goldenberg’s 2007 book The Way it Works Inside Ottawa.

Chretien presented himself as a populist, “un petit gars de Shawinagan.” But he also had a law degree, took education seriously, and wanted to expand educational opportunity and improve the quality of higher education in Canada. When the federal government was starting to run surpluses twenty years ago, Chretien decided to make Canada’s millennium project support for our universities. The result was an impressive set of programs: Canada Research Chairs, Millenium Scholarships, Canada Foundation for Innovation, and Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Fast forward twenty years to Doug Ford’s anti-intellectual populism. The most egregious recent example is his attack on economists who advocate a price on carbon. Ford has made the erroneous claims that what he calls a carbon tax will make everything more expensive and that this will lead to a recession. These claims, of course, ignore the simple facts that a putting a price on carbon will increase the prices of goods and services that use carbon most intensively and that the policy will be revenue-neutral, with revenues collected by the government rebated on a per-capita basis to the entire population.

Some of Ford’s lines include “once you move beyond the academic theories and enter the real world, it is clear that the risk of a carbon tax recession is very real” and “we would encourage these elite economists and carbon tax lobbyists in downtown Toronto to spend less time in the ivory tower, and instead spend more time listening to the truckers, waitresses [sic], seniors, and other people who will be hit hardest by this tax.” Actually, low-income seniors and servers are likely to drive very little or use public transit, and will be net gainers from carbon pricing.

What Ford is doing, of course, is putting more credence in selectively cited experience than the expertise of economists who study the impact of policy changes on the entire society. He prefers listening to those who only experience a phenomenon to those who both experience a phenomenon (economists drive cars and buy gasoline) and study it.

The other thing Ford is doing is using language that demonizes his opponents and devalues their arguments. The attack word is “elite” used pejoratively to refer to enemies of “the people,” in whose name Ford claims he governs. Over the years, conservatives in Canada and the US have come up with a host of such words. Examples include “socialized medicine,” “death tax,” “political correctness,” and now “carbon tax.”

Governing by privileging selectively cited experience over expertise, evidence, and research leads to bad public policy. We are seeing the Trump Administration ignore science, evidence, and reason in instances now too numerous to recount. And it is clear that Doug Ford has gotten on the Trump train too.

Sandford

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