Friday, December 15, 2006

History lessons for Cherniak

I don't entirely know how I feel about an elected Senate, but I will say this much. The arguments against Senate reform that I've seen thus far are generally pretty bad arguments.

My friend, Jason Cherniak, for instance, has been on a roll as of late trying to make plain his position on the move to alter the Senate. His most recent post plays on the concept of "responsible government." This concept is historical, and represents early debates within Upper and Lower Canada prior to Confederation about the way governments were to be run. I will charge that Cherniak introduces his very own special meaning of "responsible government," one that bears little to no relation to the actual meaning of "responsible government" in the Canadian context. This will be my second charge against his argument, and we'll get to it after my first charge is made plain: That Cherniak ignores Quebec history (and Alberta history), focusing exclusively on Ontario history, to make his case.

Something that is typically overlooked in Canada are two separate rebellions that sought for independence for Canada from the British Crown. Unlike in the U.S., both rebellions were unsuccessful in accomplishing their primary purpose, although they were successful with respect to some secondary purposes.

In 1837, under Louis Joseph Papineau, Lower Canadians (Quebeckers) rose up against the government. Motivation for the uprising included age-old hatred of British rule in Quebec, made concrete and pressing by the rule of the Chateau Clique. The "Clique" was a governor-appointed group of people who were "advisors" to the governor, but who essentially ruled the day-to-day lives of Quebeckers. This was made worse when the Clique managed to take control (by being appointed) of the Legislative Council, the upper house in Lower Canada. Their mission was to anglicize the French-Canadian population by replacing the Roman Catholic church with Anglican churches, and trying to replace French civil law with a British common law system.

As it stood then, the Governor was appointed (and was always a Brit), as was the Legislative Council , and the Executive Council (the third branch, something like the governor's "cabinet"). This left the elected Legislative Assembly with little to no effective power. All these appointments left Quebeckers furious, especially given the aims of the appointees. It came to a boiling point in 1837, with open rebellion led by Papineau.

It is hard to figure out just what, exactly, steamed them so. I don't think anyone will disagree that appointing the governor is a bad idea. But would Quebeckers have been all right with an appointed Legislative Council, so long as the governor (and maybe executive council) had to be a member of the Legislative Assembly first (and, therefore, elected)?

The Senate reform bill leaves open whether Senators will be elected by the rest of us, or whether it will be decided by the provinces, with them being free to have either elections, or appointments by provincial parliament/legislative assembly, or by the Premier of the province, or by some other way. It would be strange to see that Quebeckers, who are aware of their history, would not opt for at least the second set of options--that of having Quebec senators chosen by Quebeckers, or by their representatives. It is only ignorance of Quebec history that would lead one to promote the status quo with respect to the Senate.

So that's my first charge against Cherniak. It may be true that Upper Canadian (or Ontario) history suggests a federally-appointed Senate would be more consistent with their particular vision for "responsible government," but it is hardly true of Quebec. To ignore the other founding nation is to ignore one reason for a reformed Senate.

Back to history: When Papineau led the charge against British rule in Quebec, the Canadian government chose to send troops from Upper Canada to help quell the Lower Canadian rebellion. This was an opportunity that Willion Lyon Mackenzie was aware he had to seize. As troops left Upper Canada, Mackenzie urged farmers to storm an armoury to take guns and ammunition to begin their own parallel rebellion. The farmers agreed, and Mackenzie managed to sack the storehouse and arm his troops. It was the only success in this particular story, the story of the Upper Canadian Rebellion, or, as it is sometimes referred to (with not just a hint of ridicule) the "bar fight on Yonge Street."

The causes of this conflict were similar to those in Lower Canada. Mackenzie and Papineau were cut of the same cloth. Neither was a fan of British rule, and neither could stomach having their government be run essentially by appointment, with table-scraps reserved for the elected lower house. Upper Canada had its own version of the Chateau Clique, the Family Compact. They, too, ran things, and they, too, were the cause of much anger and resentment.

Alas, neither rebellion succeeded in their primary aim of shaking off the British yoke. Papineau made his way to the U.S. and then to France to plead his case for military support in their uprising, but neither the U.S. President, nor the French crown would have it. Mackenzie, meanwhile, escaped with a handful of troops to Navy Island. They declared it the Republic of Canada on December 13, a republic that lasted for exactly one month, being crushed by British forces on January 13.

But both had moderate successes. Part of their mission included fighting for "responsible government." Here we get to my second charge against Cherniak. Responsible government, in Canada, means that all members of the government are ultimately accountable. They can be held to account by the people, through elections, or by other elected representatives through votes of no confidence, and other measures. Its early specific meaning was that the appointed governor could be made to resign by the elected legislative bodies. This was what Lord Durham, in his report following the Rebellions, suggested as a way to ease tensions. This is what he explicitly meant. But the concept has changed somewhat. Currently, what it means is that every member of government, including appointed members like Senators, can be made to adhere to the will of the people either directly by the people (elections), or by their representatives.

If the Senate has any effective power, as it surely does, then responsible government means that they can be held to account. The Senate, as it currently stands, is a violation of the concept of responsible government. It is not consistent with it, because no Senator can be fired, or be held to account in any way but by public opinion (and this only amounts to being shamed).

Having Senators elected by the people is only one option on the table. I agree with Cherniak that Upper and Lower Canadian history does not suggest this as the best possible way to proceed (although Albertan history begs to differ, a history that Cherniak also fails to even mention). What I believe is the best lesson to take from our history is this. Provinces, through their elected lower house, should make the decision on their own as to the make-up of the federal upper house.

In Ontario, this would mean either that the Premier appoint Ontario Senators (possibly with advice from his cabinet or caucus, or from all the sitting MPPs), or that MPPs, as a whole, come to the decision together. One possibility is that Ontario decides to leave it in the hands of the sitting Prime Minister. In Quebec, I don't think we can decide between either direct elections or appointments by Quebec representatives, but one thing is crystal clear. No one will convince me, nor anyone else, I wager, who has more than a high school understanding of Quebec history, that the Prime Minister should appoint the Senators. Whatever system is preferred, it will not be the current one. Only a repudiation of early Lower Canadian history could lead anyone to this conclusion (which is why Jean Charest's recent comments strike me as totally bizarre. It would be a "radical change" to Canada's system, but radical change is hardly a reason for Quebeckers to think it a bad idea...). It would have to be more recent history, and the fact that a significant number of recent Prime Ministers have come from la belle province, that would lead anyone to prefer the current system. Meanwhile in Alberta, and most obviously, their history points in only one direction: The people of Alberta directly elect their senators.

I can't decide whether this is merely political, or whether some people genuinely believe that Senate reform is a bad idea. Clearly, provincial history is on the side of reform. This, of course, does not mean that we should reform the Senate. Just because our past history points in one direction does not mean that we should follow that path. Times may have changed, and there may be other considerations, considerations about the current state of play, and the possible repercussions of changing a system so entrenched, that need to be taken account of. But an argument from history is an argument for Senate reform, even if that reform is not necessarily a popularly-elected Senate.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


About a week ago I mentioned Lind's article about the death of libertarianism. Since then, I have come across many articles that claim just the opposite. That libertarianism is not dead, but is finding a new home... on the left.

I'll explain in a second. I should also point out that Lind's article may have misdiagnosed the problem. It is not that libertarianism is dead, but that the conservatism of Republicans, as it used to be, is dead.

Why are the tales of libertarianism's death exaggerated? One reason to think this is because libertarians have shifted gears. Instead of aiming their arguments at economic liberty, they have begun to target social conservatism, and begun taking social libertarianism more seriously. If this is so, many writers, like Lind, may be confusing libertarians for liberals. When someone writes in defence of ending the war on drugs, they may be libertarians, but Lind may falsely believe that it is a liberal writing. So he's not counting enough libertarians.

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that can be described as both left and right, as both liberal and conservative, in different respects. It is left and liberal on social issues (drugs, sex, and rock and roll); it is right and conservative on economic issues (anti-tax, and pro-free market ). It is for small government and liberty through-and-through. Conservatives are in favour of small government with respect to economics ("mind your own business"--where "business" means economic enterprise), but in favour of big government when it comes to social issues and the military. Social democrats (as they are called in Europe) and liberals (as they are, alas, alas, called in Anglo-America--but not in Australia! In Australia, "liberals" are still pro-liberty on both social and economic issues. Would that the rest of us were as wise about words as Australians... but I digress...) are in favour of small government with respect to social issues ("mind your own business"--where "business" means affairs), but in favour of big government when it comes to economic issues.

Libertarians are in favour of people minding their own business in both of the above senses of "business." Mind your own affairs, and mind your own economic enterprises. Just in case this is interpreted as thorough-going interpersonal isolationism, the libertarian claim is that what shouldn't mind my or your business is the government. You and I can take an interest in one another's businesses. We can try to persuade others that they should do one thing, rather than another. The claim is importantly restricted to the activities of governments, and not of churches, persons, charities, other institutions and so on. Libertarians can be busybodies. They can run around telling other people how they should run their lives, and how they should run their businesses. Libertarians just take very seriously the prohibition on doing so by making use of the government.

Sometimes they believe this because they believe that people shouldn't be coerced or forced to do things against their will. Some libertarians believe in what they call the "axiom of non-aggression," or something like a total prohibition on initiating force (Murray Rothbard comes to mind). I do not agree with these libertarians. In principle, I see nothing particularly wrong with forcing people to do what is right. By "in principle" I mean something like this. Suppose we had an oracle that could tell us everything, and knew everything. If we had such an oracle, there would be nothing wrong with coercing people to do what the oracle says. The problem is that we don't have this oracle. So we may be opposed to paternalism, coercion, and the use of force for practical reasons. We may believe that, for instance, giving someone the power to coerce us when we all agree that it is the right thing to do will not keep them from coercing us when we think it is the wrong thing to do. We may believe that, in practice, while some institution manages to get it right a lot of the times, they can get it wrong, sometimes horribly, terribly wrong. We may believe that the benefit of allowing coercion in cases where they will get it right is outweighed by the cost of those times when they get it wrong. This is what I believe. But this is another digression.

Conservatives found appeal in libertarianism when libertarianism expressed its economic arguments. Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, James Buchanan, and so on, were all popular figures in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Most everybody knew their names, and was familiar with a handful of their arguments. Libertarians, at the time, probably sharpened their pens and got busy writing about economics because the biggest threat was to economic liberty. Communism comes to mind, as does socialism. These were real threats to liberty, real reasons to focus on economics. Communism is no longer a "real" threat, "real" in the sense of being politically feasible. Socialism is also no longer a "real" threat. (This is my perception, I'm guessing many others share this perception). Since this is so, many may have turned, or are now beginning to turn, to social liberty issues. Drugs, gays, and a culture of liberty.

This makes it natural for libertarians to begin abandoning conservatism, especially since modern-day conservatism in the Republican Party means supporting somewhat different big government programs from the Democratic Party's big government programs. This abandonment appears to be happening. The most significant of these articles is Brink Lidsay's article entitled "Liberaltarians" in the New Republic. I could not get past the first paragraph (firewall), but then found the article on Cato's website, where Lindsay works. In this article, Lindsay is pleading with libertarians to dump the elephants in favour of the donkeys. He is also arguing that liberals and libertarians in America have more in common, when you consider everything, than libertarians and conservatives do. Good for him. I agree. Read the article.

Today, meanwhile, the Economist chimes in with an article that argues the Republicans should target their guns at the Libertarian Party. This is a short article, but it expresses what I take to be a fact. In many cases, many libertarians are shifting their vote to Democrats, and the Libertarian Party, as a way of venting their anger with Republicans. Good for them. I support this move. Read the article.

Is libertarianism dead? Hardly. It's just shifting gears.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Column in the "West"?

I did a double-take when I read an article in a "national newspaper" on Dion's French citizenship. Here's the part that raised my eyebrows:
It did not take long for the issue of Mr. Dion's dual citizenship to be raised after he won the Liberal leadership on Saturday, with a newspaper column in the West saying it was "a question of loyalty" while Bourque Newswatch -- a popular news Web site -- featured a headline: "Citizen Dion: Vive La France!"
Notice that the article refers to Bourque Newswatch, but only calls Ezra Levant's column in the Calgary Sun a "column in the West." Why be so obscure about this column while being specific about a news aggregating website?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Speaking of Friedman

I mentioned Friedman below. I suppose I should say just a little bit more about the man who passed away recently.

Friedman was a personal hero of mine. I once had the opportunity to chat with him for about an hour over the telephone. Here's the article that came of it (the Queen's Journal website seems to be down just now... I may update the link if they fix the website). He was lucid, erudite, and quick-witted. I was surprised. I was half-expecting something very different. Maybe I thought, given his age, that he might be a bit difficult to speak with. But he wasn't. Not at all.

I wish I had met him in person. I never did. I would have told him all sorts of things. Milton Friedman was a rare mind.

I did get to chat with him, though, and this was more than enough. I even mailed him two copies of my interview, and he mailed one copy back with his signature across it. I made a poster out of it. It hangs at my parents' cottage.

Maybe one day Canada (or the U.S.) will decide to take Friedman's policy proposals more seriously. There is no doubt that his influence continues to animate many in both countries. Like me. Like many of my friends. Like you, probably. Even if you disagree with Friedman, you can't help but take him seriously. It isn't like you can just ignore him.

The last two weekends I raised a glass to Friedman. I'll keep raising a glass to him. You should too.

Death of libertarianism?

In a Fukuyama moment, Michael Lind explains how libertarianism is dead as a serious movement in the U.S. (and, I guess, Canada and the U.K. to boot).
"The most epochal event in world politics since the cold war has occurred - and few people have noticed. I am not referring to the conflict in Iraq or Lebanon or the campaign against terrorism.

It is the utter and final defeat of the movement that has shaped the politics of the US and other western democracies for several decades: the libertarian counter-revolution."
"Utter" and "final" defeat?...

Lind explains:
"For nearly a decade, the Republican party has controlled Washington and most state legislatures. And yet every big proposal of the libertarians has been rejected by the public and their elected representatives. Their only temporary achievement has been tax cuts, which are likely to be rolled back at least in part to reduce the deficit in the years ahead. With the disappearance as a significant force of the libertarian right, the centre of gravity inevitably will shift somewhat left in matters of political economy. But we will not see a restoration of the mid-20th century pattern because there will be no revival of the socialist left. The demise of both socialism and libertarianism pretty much limits the field to moderate social democracy and big-government conservatism."
Those "big" proposals include social security privatization (through personal accounts) and health care privatization (also through personal accounts).

To be sure, libertarians in the U.S. have had a hard go of it. The Republican Party has abandoned the driving ideas behind, for instance, the Goldwater years, and the ideas of Milton Friedman that charmed many. That hasn't stopped Bush from giving Friedman a "freedom medal." Neither has it stopped Bush from spending more than anyone. Ever.

But to focus on fiscal libertarianism, to the exclusion of other issues, is to miss why the libertarian philosophy is not dead. Social libertarianism is far from dead. From gay marriage (with caveats) to marijuana, people from all over the political spectrum are thinking liberty. This is truer in Canada than it is in the U.S., but it doesn't change the fact that many Americans feel like Canadians on these two issues. And both of these issues are decidedly libertarian.

Yes, of course, many libertarians are not in favour of gay marriage. For these folks, it isn't that gays shouldn't get married, it's that the state has no business deciding who should and shouldn't get married. The state should decide who I'm allowed to marry just as much as it should decide what colour underwear I should be allowed to wear. In both cases, it's none of their business.

But if the state is going to be in the marriage business, then it should be neutral between different kinds of marriage contracts. If I want to marry a man or a woman should be no grist for their mill. Churches can choose whether to marry gays or straights, and people can go ahead and have their own private ceremonies too. That's the libertarian position. And it's a position many people agree with in Canada and the U.S. (and the U.K., and elsewhere too).

Social libertarianism is hardly dead. But neither is fiscal libertarianism. To take Lind's position is to be too short-sighted, and too narrowly focused on party politics. Yes, the Republicans haven't moved on any pro-liberty issues in a long, long time. They still pretend to be small government types by passing tax cuts. They fool plenty of people. But I suppose many people don't support the Republicans for principled reasons, but for the same reasons that you root for your sports team. It doesn't matter if the team sucks, or is playing poorly, or has nothing praiseworthy to recommend it. You pick your team, and you root for it. There is (almost) nothing that would count as being a reason to root for another team.

Other Republicans, the types who care about policy, are moved by the Republicans lack of fiscal discipline. They complain, and they feel betrayed. Many might move away from the Republicans for this reason. What keeps them hanging on? For my friends who are Republicans, they feel that the war on terror is more important. That doesn't mean they accept the Republicans' spendthrift ways. It just means that, for the moment, something else is worth having these types around for a while longer.

Lind is a bit too quick to think the pro-liberty movement is dead. It isn't. It's just not really at home in the Republican Party.