A tale of two bridges
Written by Link Byfield   
Monday, 17 July 2006

In response to last week’s column we heard from a man named Ray.

By happenstance Ray was recently able to compare traffic on the big Port Mann Bridge in Vancouver with two impressive federally-subsidized four-lane bridges in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

He reports, “There was more traffic on the B.C. bridge after midnight than there was on either bridge in Fredericton during mid-week rush hour.”

He got thinking about whether it’s fair to make people in Vancouver pay for bridges in Fredericton.

“If someone in B.C. earns $70,000 per year and sends $10,000 per year to his buddy in N.B. who earns $50,000 per year, they each end up earning $60,000,” Ray writes. “This sounds equal doesn't it?”

But when you factor in the extra 20 hours a week the B.C. Canadian spends in traffic, the wear and tear on his vehicle, his peace of mind and his family time, it isn’t fair at all.

Ray concludes, “Maybe the buddy in N.B. should send $5,000 to B.C. to help build more bridges and transit systems so that everyone in Canada can be fortunate enough to work only eight hours per day and be equal.”

The news these days is full of reports of how Alberta is once again an El Dorado of soaring wages and real estate values.

But what of it?  The first thing new arrivals notice -- as I did when I came to Edmonton in the last boom in 1978 -- is that prices rise as fast as wages, anyone on a fixed income is screwed, businesses can never find enough reliable workers, service is often terrible, and unless you’re working for the government you don’t get much time off.

This is not a complaint. It’s only to comment on Ray’s point that there are good reasons to move west, and good reasons not to. The free market works.

Yet Ottawa typically removes 5% to 7% of Alberta’s economy off the top, to build bridges in Fredericton, and to pay people EI so they don’t have to come to Alberta.

If Ottawa were not removing about $50 billion a year from Alberta, B.C. and Ontario, people in the weaker provinces would not starve. Wages and real estate values would decline marginally, the incentive to move west would slightly increase, and the capacity of the stronger provinces to absorb them would rise too.

Still, if Canadians insist on “federal sharing” -- a dubious concept economically, politically and constitutionally -- we should do it more intelligently.

What slower provinces need is a way to reduce their costs, to hold their workers and attract investment. They don’t need federal EI to keep people away from new jobs, or to build federal bridges without traffic.

Ottawa could, for example, take over provincial debt in exchange for a balanced-budget commitment. Provinces taking in young Canadians could agree to pay the province that trained them. Stronger provinces could agree to keep their public-sector wage levels nearer to the national average.

The whole point -- and the great advantage -- of a federal system is that it can encourage “competition and emulation” among provinces, which is what drives the private sector. It’s the only formula anyone has ever found to almost guarantee success.

The fact that in a free market some are always more successful than others is the price we must pay for universal prosperity.

- Link Byfield

Link Byfield is chairman of the Edmonton-based Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy, and an Alberta senator-elect.
"Just Between Us" is a feature service of the Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy. The purpose of the Citizens Centre is to enhance freedom and democracy by enabling ordinary citizens to become active and effective on important issues outside the normal processes of party politics.