The big reason to vote “No” in the Alberta Beef Producers Plebiscite between Oct. 19 and Nov. 13 is that whoever pays the piper calls the tune. The main argument for “Yes” isn’t that a guaranteed source of income will let the ABP do great things for you. It is that it is better not to have a choice. It isn’t.

On October 15 Charlie Christie and Ryan Kasko, chairs of ABP and the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association respectively, went on Danielle Smith’s radio show and made the best case they could for a non-refundable checkoff. It was that a refundable checkoff might have brought accountability back in the 1980s but “our industry has evolved” and with greater consolidation, a changed political climate and a far more complex regulatory system “we need a new way of ensuring that our industry is well represented and funded.”

Of course we’d all like to be well-funded, meaning “have more money than we do now”. And the ABP is welcome to ask people to make voluntary long-term commitments. But the ABP isn’t “our industry” or our only representative. It’s just a group that wants your support whether you want to give it or not.

A mandatory contribution isn’t even “new”. “Pay up or else” is one of the oldest ideas in politics, and life generally. Only in free societies based on Magna Carta are you mostly free to give your money only to people offering you something you want at a price you think fair. The one exception is government, of course. Taxes aren’t voluntary and can’t be. But in the free world, even governments have to ask permission once in a while.

So the real question is whether the ABP should be like a private store or a democratic government. And on Danielle’s show Christie and Kasko argued the latter, claiming mandatory checkoffs actually enhanced accountability. If one or two very large operators take back their checkoff it has such an effect on the ABP, they said, that it undermines accountability by cancelling everyone else’s influence. By contrast a mandatory checkoff “brings everybody to the table and maybe forces them to engage in the process a little more.” They also talked about stability for long-term projects. But fundamentally “Where accountability comes in for us is it’s a democratic organization…”

It is. But political accountability is a distinct second-best to the commercial kind. No matter how enthusiastic you might be about a political platform, you get one vote on all issues and candidates and have to take them “bundled”. It’s as if you had to agree to buy all your clothes in one store for four years. Or in this case, forever. And spend a fixed amount every year no matter what you thought of the clothes you actually got.

In government there’s no other way. You can’t run it “like a business” because it exists precisely to do things you can’t do privately, like defence and policing. But it comes with long lines, excessive salaries and pensions, slow inflexible procedures and widespread frustration with politicians and bureaucrats. It’s not an arrangement you should ever adopt if you have a choice. And we do… for now.

Christie and Kasko admitted as much. “If we only lost 15% we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But it borders on 40% lost. So…” And there it petered out because the whole point is that too many of us think we can spend our own money better than they can. On which basis they even praised “forced engagement”.

In doing so they made our argument for us. By all means be engaged. But don’t be forced, because an “exit option” is far and away the best accountability mechanism.

Vote No to force. Don’t let them lock the door with your wallet inside.