Fraser Forum

Taxpayer-funded nationalism—wasteful and unnecessary

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Nationalism—ardent support for your country or region—is at the forefront of everyone’s mind these days. The Brexit vote (unfolding as I write) pivots around national identity. Quebec begins the Saint Jean Baptiste “Fête Nationale” on June 24, and soon after, crowds of Canadians and Americans will blow millions in fireworks and flags to promote, endorse or celebrate the idea of their respective countries.

All of this would be fine, as long as it didn’t involve snouting around in government coffers. Alas, our tax dollars are used to fund much of the nationalist celebrations to bolster patriotism, support culture and buy the fidelity of future voters. Statists and centralizers argue that the party wouldn’t happen if governments didn’t step up, but I beg to differ.

Everyone loves a party, and when you get a bunch of peaceful people together with a shared desire for fun, well, you get a party. No government needed. My small town experience offers a great illustration. The fireworks used to happen in random gatherings of private groups around the village. Bob, who ran the hardware store, sent a few off from his barge that was anchored a hundred yards from shore. People thought that was a great idea, so the following year many chipped in to give Bob more money for super flares and roman candles. Sure, there were quite a few damp squids and the occasional grunt of pain as Bob stumbled around, lighting the fuses, in the darkness on his floating barge. But that was part of the fun. The clapping and hoots of support amongst our little group were deafening, and so was the little fireworks display.

But the statists don’t like to see unregulated fun, and what better way of regulating it than ensuring that the government controls how it’s funded? Now, our small municipal government (already grossly indebted) spends tens of thousands to hire a professional fireworks team. There are auto igniters, timers, paired music. The show is truly spectacular, but it lacks the foibles and misfires—the small town charm—of the original displays.

Many argue that the larger celebrations—the Fête Nationale events in Quebec City, Canada Day in Ottawa, or the various large-scale celebrations across the United Sates, would simply not occur if government wasn’t involved. But the numbers simply don’t add up. There are dozens of small (and privately funded) music and arts festivals, and tens of millions are spent on fireworks every year by individuals and independent organizations (sports teams, retail outlets, Lions Clubs, etc.). In 2013, Americans spent more than $675 million on fireworks, and that doesn’t include what is spent by government.

One further attempt to justify government spending on arts and culture is that it ultimately results in economic returns. Guy Laflamme, who has been hired as the head party organizer for Canada’s sesquicentennial in 2017, noted (in the Ottawa Business Journal) that using taxpayer money is “not about spending money” but rather “about investing money.” But a long history of appealing to this rationale has simply not panned out. Governments “invest” in Olympic events, sports events, stadiums, arts and culture venues, and we know that statistically those investments are more often a net loss. Furthermore, we can’t be clear about the counterfactual, namely, what would private individuals have done with their money if it wasn’t taken through taxation, and what sort of economic return would those privately spent tax dollars have generated?

What we do know is that the federal government will spend more than $6 million on Canada Day celebrations in the next week or so, with no clear idea of what the financial return will be.


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