The Shotgun Blog
Monday, May 31, 2010
Cut spending without delay
I have heard several politicians and members of the chattering class claim that cutting spending immediately would be disastrous to the economy. This was a constant refrain of Gordon brown during the recent UK elections. Mr. Brown constantly claimed that it would be ‘taking money out of the economy.’ The Cato Institute takes on this assumption by using a historical example:
...the “Depression of 1946″ may be one of the most widely predicted events that never happened in American history. As the war was winding down, leading Keynesian economists of the day argued, as Alvin Hansen did, that “the government cannot just disband the Army, close down munitions factories, stop building ships, and remove all economic controls.” After all, the belief was that the only thing that finally ended the Great Depression of the 1930s was the dramatic increase in government involvement in the economy. In fact, Hansen’s advice went unheeded. Government cancelled war contracts, and its spending fell from $84 billion in 1945 to under $30 billion in 1946. By 1947, the government was paying back its massive wartime debts by running a budget surplus of close to 6 percent of GDP. The military released around 10 million Americans back into civilian life. Most economic controls were lifted, and all were gone less than a year after V-J Day. In short, the economy underwent what the historian Jack Stokes Ballard refers to as the “shock of peace.” From the economy’s perspective, it was the “shock of de-stimulus.”
At present the greatest threats to the economy in every western country are the deficit and the debt. The sooner that these issues are dealt with the better it will be for the long term strength of economic development. There is no convincing argument to delay the cuts that are needed.
Evidence that the Census is useless
In early May I posted a link to an article from the Freeman that explained why government census is not an effective way for calculating demand. Part of the inefficiency of government is that they assign resources where it doesn’t match demand. The census is meant to help with this problem but it is deceptively unhelpful. Demand can only truly be calculated by the price of a service or good on in open market.
As if to prove the point, an article from the Ottawa Citizen is reporting an organized effort to lie in the 2006 census. The idea was that if Francophones claim to be unable to speak English, the government would then give more resources to programs for Francophones outside of Quebec. This campaign was so successful that Statistics Canada warns that their own data is unreliable. Thus demonstrating how easy it would be to manipulate the process for a political agenda.
The census: nothing but an invasion of privacy.
This is one of my favourite Milton Friedman lines:
A Scandinavian economist once stated to Milton Friedman: "In Scandinavia we have no poverty." Milton Friedman replied, "That's interesting, because in America among Scandinavians, we have no poverty either."
It's a vital point often missed by free marketers. Culture matters. A whole hell of a lot. In our enthusiasm to convince people that markets work, and government generally doesn't, we miss that markets themselves are only a mechanism. While markets efficiently allocate resources, they don't describe the goals of production. That's something exogenous to the market, it can be termed consumer preference. What forms consumer preferences is culture. A half century ago the music industry was able to provide millions of American fans a seemingly endless stream of classic albums by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. Today the few record stores still around are flooded with atonal rubbish. Ditto with iTunes. The market is efficient at delivering gold and crap. Thus the very latest in HD television techno-wizardry is used to give us "Reality TV." Nothing like seeing people prove Hobbes right, with stunning visual precision and colour rendering.
Just as the goals of production are culturally determined, so to an extent are the methods of production, who does what and how. The large scale presence of married women in the modern workforce is the product of cultural change, not economic change. The relative success of certain ethnic groups, as alluded in the quote, is a perfect example. There is little in economic theory to explain the higher than average incomes of Scandinavians, Jews or people of Scottish descent. Yet it's not too hard to point out important cultural traits. An emphasis on practically minded education, thrift, hard-work and risk-taking. To an economist labour is just labour, and capital is just capital. So much of each will produce a good or service. That some individuals or groups are better at generating capital, or offering high-level skills, is an enigma. You can't measure cultural values in a test tube, and statistical analysis often says more about the drafters of the regression models than about the people being examined. It's something qualitative. An attitude or sense of life. Political and economic freedom can make the most out of that attitude, it can certainly encourage it, but it cannot create it from scratch.
Saturday, May 29, 2010
A Necessary Retreat?
Being the reasonable, self-aware man that I sometimes am, I can admit when I am wrong, or at least - partly wrong. My recent review of the Organica California Cabernet Sauvignon was somewhat glowing. Particularly attractive to me was the approximate $15 price tag and widespread availability of this bottling at the Real Canadian Superstore liquor store.
Friday, May 28, 2010
Corporate taxes are unfair
Yesterday I wrote a post that described why Capital Gains taxes are unfair. It seems that Maxime Bernier was doing the same thing the day before, except with corporate taxes. In an article that can only make me jump for joy that it was written by an elected official, Mr. Bernier describes how it is that everyone pays for corporate taxes:
From the perspective of corporations, taxes are an additional cost of doing business. If you increase their taxes, to remain profitable they will have to find ways to lower other costs, or to increase revenues.
How does a corporation do this? One way is to reduce the returns to its owners and investors. In that sense, it becomes the equivalent of a capital tax, or a capital gains tax. It is not the corporation that pays the tax, but rather its owners and investors. And since capital is mobile, there is a limit to how much you can tax it. The result, as with the capital tax, is that we end up discouraging capital accumulation and investments in Canada.
Another way for corporations to shift the burden of their income tax is to increase the price of what they produce. In that sense, it becomes the equivalent of a tax on consumption. It is the consumers who pay it, not the corporation.
A corporation can also decide to cut down on its factors of production by laying off workers, reducing their wages, investing less in new equipment, or buying fewer inputs from its suppliers. Once again, in the end, it is real people who will pay the tax, either the company’s workers or the workers of other companies that do business with it.
So to recap, we all pay corporate taxes through higher prices and loss of jobs. Those who invest pay taxes twice on their investment: once through corporate taxes and once through their personal income tax.
A strong argument for lowering income taxes is that it makes Canada a competitive option for global investors. But even if Canada was the sole country in the world, lowering income taxes would still be the intelligent economic policy. As Mr. Bernier points out, lower corporate taxes means more jobs and greater spending power. This means that there is more wealth in the country and greater productivity. The group of people that proportionally benefit the most from increased productivity and wealth is the poor.
You want to help the poor?
Lower corporate taxes.
You Furnish the Myth, We'll Furnish the History
What William Randolph Hearst never said:
Notably, Thomas embraced the media-driven myth of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain–a vow supposedly contained in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington, on assignment in Cuba.
It is perhaps American journalism’s best-known tale. But as I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the anecdote almost certainly is apocryphal.
It lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation. It lives on even though the telegram Hearst’s reputedly sent has never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.
And it lives on despite an obvious and irreconcilable internal inconsistency: It would have been absurd for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war—specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule—was the reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.
A good narrative trumps good history about nine times out of ten. Hearst was one of the most powerful men in turn of the century America. That a media baron could drive a nation to war, overriding the wishes of its elected President, was perfect illustration of the new power of the fourth estate. Except it wasn't all that true or new. The term fourth-estate was probably coined by Edmund Burke, just before the French Revolution. Early newspapers helped drive the speculation of the South Sea Bubble. If something fits into a pattern, people are likely to believe it. If it's a clever anecdote, all the more so. If it becomes ubiquitous in print, it becomes gospel.
For the last time, Harper is not a social conservative
This is getting really tiring. Here is yet another media report warning of the ‘ultra-conservative religious right’ close connection to the Conservative Party of Canada. The evidence this time? Some Conservative MPs showed up to a dinner being hosted by Opus Dei:
MPs from all parties had been invited, it seems, but most of the 20 or so who showed up were Conservatives, with none from the NDP or the Bloc QuÈbÈcois.
I’m not sure I know exactly what ‘20 or so’ means, but for the sake of argument let us say that there was exactly 20 MPs at this dinner. There are 144 Conservative MPs, this means that Opus Dei is so important to the Conservative Party that only 14% of the caucus bothered to show up to score, what was presumably, a free meal.
But wait, not all of those 20 MPs were Conservatives. The article says that Conservatives were there but not the NDP or the BQ. It doesn’t mention any Liberals but if only ‘most’ of the 20 were Conservative then that only leaves the possibility that the remaining MPs were Liberals. So why isn’t this article about the ‘theo-conservative’ influence on the Liberal Party?
Saying that a multi-party dinner hosted by a religious group is evidence of the Conservative Party’s religious agenda is incredibly desperate. Especially when you consider that government movement on social issues has been lacking. For goodness sake, Mr. Harper himself has come out and said that he would not vote to criminalize abortions. What more do people want to hear as proof that Stephen Harper is not now nor has he ever been a social conservative?
Why don’t we ask a social conservative about what they think of Mr. Harper?
Paul Tuns at the Interim points out that social conservatives have never supported Mr. Harper in his leadership races and in 2006 The Interim gave him a ‘C’ for his social policy. Mr. Tuns considered that mark to be over generous. Mr. Harper has never enjoyed the support of social conservatism as a movement. So how exactly would anyone argue that Mr. Harper is a social conservative?
I’m not Stephen Harper’s number 1 fan. Also as someone who is politically liberal on social issues, I too would fear a religious takeover of the Conservative Party. But that takeover is just not happening. There is no credible evidence of strong religious influence on government policy. The best anyone has come up with is that a couple of Mr. Harper’s advisers go to church. At the same time there is a large amount of evidence that social conservatives have failed to influence Mr. Haper’s decisions.
All of this fear mongering seems to be about trying to shut social conservatives out of the debate for policy. And that is just despicable.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Oh, Those Wacky Libertarians
In the run-up to Rand Paul's, son of Ron, victory in the Kentucky GOP primary, I kept finding rather nasty articles about the libertarian firebrand. Not from the usual suspects on the Left, who believe that anti-statists in general are prophets of the small government Anti-Christ, but from conservatives. Case in point, this little screed from the National Post:
In an interview (he just can’t stop talking!) Friday morning on ABC’s Good Morning America, Paul said the Obama administration’s criticism of oil giant BP was “un-American.” We’re not exactly sure why, but given Paul’s world view, it’s likely because he thinks private businesses are so sacrosanct as to be beyond reproach from government – whether they discriminate based on race or preside over ecological disaster.
Not quite. He openly critcized those provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned discrimination on private property. Basically the same stand taken by then Senator Barry Goldwater, who voted against the act. Paul was advocating for old fashioned private property. If you own something that means it is yours, and the government cannot tell you what to do with it unless you clearly threaten the rights of others. No one has a right to eat a meal on your property.
One of the trickiest parts about being a classical liberal, or libertarian, is trying to explain the difference between the legal and the moral. The two are constantly being conflated. It is morally wrong to be bigoted. But being a bigot is a personal opinion. The government isn't going to change my mind by forcing me to serve people I hate. Just as the state isn't going to convince a crack addict that he is killing himself by throwing him in jail. Being a classical liberal, or libertarian, is about saying that individual rights are sacrosanct enough that you allow, even those you despise, those rights. We don't get to pick and choose which opinions are to be legally tolerated on the airwaves, or in print, or on the Internet. We don't get to play God over the lives of others and say that you are not conforming, and therefore must be punished. The state as all-knowing father has a long pedigree, though not a glorious one.
Every age has its particular version of evil, and its own inquisitors to fight it. In modern Canada they are the Human Rights Tribunals, whose original rationale was to fight discrimination in housing and employment. Many critics of the Tribunals describe them as a noble idea that was perverted. No, they were a perverted idea that was simply taken to its logical extremes. If a landlord and restauranteur can no longer exercise their own judgement in deciding whom to serve, then they no longer own their properties or businesses. The state has arrogated to itself the authority to substitute its judgement for those of private citizens. It did so under morally impeccable cover. But so are most infringements of liberty.
Rand Paul was simply making a consistent case for liberty, though he has since backtracked. In the 1960s this case for liberty was seen as nothing more than a thin disguise for bigotry. Nearly a century earlier, when Jim Crow was coming into being, a handful of American classical liberals objected that laws mandating segregation on private property, like railways and public transit, were infringements on private property. The legislators of the Old South thought their moral ideal, racial purity, entitled them to over-ride the property rights of business people who did not want to discriminate. Jim Crow, government mandated bigotry, should be a cautionary tale to those who believe that a government can be wiser than its people. The argument that Canada's Human Rights Tribunals, or certain provisions of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, destroyed widespread racism fails to understand that these were the products of social change, not their cause. The majority of Americans and Canadians in the 1960s thought bigotry abhorrent enough that the state should act to protect minorities. Earlier, when the majority of Canadians and American thought differently, Jim Crow and racially based exclusion of certain immigrant groups, was the norm. The state is no wiser than its people.
The power of backbenchers: Canada versus UK
It always amuses me when British commentators complain that the UK Prime Minister has too much power. The strength and pure potential for intimidation at the disposal of Number 10 pales in comparison to Langevin Block.
Consider this recent example of a UK Conservative MP speaking out against the policy of his own government. In Canada, any government MP or even opposition MP that dared to say anything against their leader or party’s policy would be kicked out of caucus. MPs can only question their leader behind closed doors, and even then they have to be careful about it. On the other hand in the UK, MPs can publicly differ from the party line and such rebellion is considered relatively routine.
Part of the problem is the meekness of the Canadian MPs. If David Cameron had given rebel MPs the boot it would have created an uproar that could have ended Mr. Cameron’s leadership, or at least have hamstrung his government. I can’t think of anytime that MPs have rushed to defend their fellow caucus member’s right to speak their opinion in public. Really they usually seem delighted that a potential opponent for a Ministerial position has been eliminated.
Another difference between Canadian Conservatives and UK Conservatives is the existence of the 1922 Committee. This can be considered the governing body of UK Conservative backbenchers. It gives MPs a certain amount of protection from the leadership and it provides a mechanism for MPs to challenge the leader’s right to lead. If you like, you can consider it as a sort of union for backbench MPs.
So as Canadians debate ways to weaken the might of the PMO, we should look at the ancient home of the Westminster system. And consider ways that we can embolden Members of Parliament.
Capital Gains tax is unfair
Some UK Conservative backbenchers are objecting to the proposed increase in the capital gains tax. They argue, correctly, that it is a tax on the virtuous; the capital gains tax harms people who invest in the economy. Investment is exactly what the government wants for the economy to climb out of recession. So it would indeed appear counterproductive to tax the hand that feeds you.
The Liberal Democrats argue that the tax increase is needed to restore ‘fairness’ to the tax system. Liberal Democrat MP Vince Cable claims that increasing the capital gains tax would put in an to ‘tax avoidance.’ He says that it is important, for some reason, to tax income and wealth at the same time.
Looking at the Liberal Democratic position I have trouble understanding their argument. How is buying a house then selling it twenty years later translate into tax avoidance? How would selling shares to pay for retirement assist anyone in paying fewer taxes? Really they are paying taxes three times, once when they buy it, once when they sell it, and again when they report the sale as income. So I ask again, where is the avoidance? How does taxing the economy’s most important foot soldiers, the investors, more than anyone else create a more fair tax system?
Mr. Cable says that he is unconcerned because no ‘working class’ people are going to be affected. I guess if you define working class as anyone who doesn’t own capital that appreciates, then this is true. But that is beside the point.
A fair system is not a system that proportionally punishes one group than another. A fair system is one that will tax all people proportionally.
Here is a video that talks about Capital Gains tax in the United States. Most of what is said in this video easily applies to the UK and every other country with a capital gains tax:
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
The Right to be a Fool?
The Supreme Court deliberates:
Richard's fight against Time began in 1999, when he received an Official Sweepstake Notification in the mail, along with an offer for a discount magazine subscription.
"Our sweepstakes results are now final: Mr. Jean Marc Richard has won a cash prize of $833,337.00," the headline declared in bold print.
"You could start thinking about the things you WANT to do and stop worrying about the things you HAVE to do."
Richard filled out the form, signed up for a subscription and mailed it, awaiting the cheque that the letter promised was "on its way." What he didn't do was read the small print, which revealed he was merely eligible to enter the contest for the grand prize. Richard, from the Montreal suburb of Blainville, sued when his magazine subscription arrived but his winnings did not.
Yeah, that nasty fine print. The Quebec Superior Court awarded Richard $101,000 in damages. Being La Belle Province, and M Richards being a francophone, and the letter being in English, additional offence has been caused. Being fleeced in your own language, one supposes, is less aggravating. Still, that's a heck of a return on the price of a magazine subscription. Yes, the wording was very misleading. Advertising often walks that very fine line between grotesque promotion and misrepresentation. Which side of that line a piece of advertising falls on depends on common sense, what would an ordinary person in that context have understood. It's not an especially scientific definition of human conduct, but humans don't necessary behave or think logically. The law deals with ordinary people going about their business and cannot be easily divorced from the culture they swim in. Another place and time, and perhaps M Richards would have had a case. But since when do the organizers of sweepstakes - in Canada - tell you that you've won, and then offer to sell you a ticket? Which in this case was a subscription. Surely that defeats the point of it being a lottery? The uncertainly of winning and losing. Yet this case has made it all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Bienvenue au Canada. Beyond satire.
Europe needs to do more
With Italy announcing the Italian austerity plan, the pattern of how Europe wants to deal with its debt crisis is clear. They are making cuts to public sector worker’s pay and pension, where possible they are cutting transfers to lower levels of government, and most of all they don’t have an actual plan to eliminate the deficit. Each country is making cuts designed to only lower the deficit.
It is good thing that these Southern European countries are taking steps to cut spending. It is a matter of pure survival at this point. Even if they would have been fine by themselves, the Euro ties them all to the anvil of the Greek economy. So these steps are desperately needed to stave off the immediate disaster.
But that is all they are doing, staving off the immediate disaster. They are not dealing with the core problem or the reality of their situation. The European welfare state is too large. It is being financed by debt, and debt unpaid will always lead to a disaster.
Greece, Spain, Portugal, and now Italy, none of them have announced any sweeping reforms to their economy. None of them have announced withdrawal of welfare provisions. None of them are even trying to get out of the red. All of them are merely postponing the reckoning that will certainly come.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Flanagan is right: the issue is government is too big
Tom Flanagan is absolutely right when he says in this opinion piece that the real problem of the Conservative government is that it has not acted conservative enough. Dr. Flanagan points out the three most damaging recent issues for the government could have been avoided if the Conservatives had been reducing the size of government rather than increasing the size of government.
Could have been avoided if the taps for corporate welfare were being turned off, or at least being slowed to a trickle. There would be no reason for a business to hire someone purely for their connections with the PMO (real or imagined) if there was little prospect of getting their hands on the government’s purse strings.
This whole re-emergence of the abortion debate began when the government committed itself to more, as Dr. Flanagan puts it, government to government aid. There is plenty of data to support the conclusion that this sort of aid does more harm to good. In fact many conservatives have been arguing that for a generation. The answer lies in open trade, enforcement of property rights, and perhaps micro-loans. If the Harper government had been saying that from the beginning, abortion would not have gotten on the agenda.
Gay pride parade:
The government was accused of being homophobic because they stopped funding the gay pride parade. A more important issue was why were they funding the parade in the first place? Also, why are the funding any parade anywhere? Why is this an appropriate role for the government. If the Conservatives had not increased funding for cultural events but instead cut back on all events, this would never have been an issue.
I’ll go farther and say that most of our modern day hot button emotional issues originate from government being too big. There has been a lot of talk about a culture war in Canada and the United States. At the core of this ‘war’ is the assumption that the government has a role to play in directing the culture and course of society. The very fact that this debate is taking place shows that there is no consensus on how people should live or what choices they should make.
So then why should one person be forced to pay for the life style of another? Why should Torontonians be forced to pay for parades in Calgary and vice versa? Why should government pick the winners and losers of the business world by handing out tax dollars? Why should we be forced to send money to reinforce corrupt regimes and dysfunctional economies?
There will always be a debate in society about how we should best live our lives. But that debate will only be civilized if it can be won by demonstrating the validity of your choices by living them, instead of forcing others to live them with you.
Fighting the Old Ennui
Neither In or Out:
One pollster says Quebeckers appear to have grown tired of rehashing the same old questions about federalism and sovereignty.
The comment from CROP’s Alain Giguere came after a survey in which 22 per cent of respondents said they were partly federalist and sovereigntist, and 25 per cent said they were neither.
“It’s as if the Quebec population is slowly distancing itself from traditional political debates and is having trouble finding political projects that touch them,” Mr. Giguere said Tuesday.
“Behind these results, (the voters) seem to be screaming, ‘Talk to us about something different.’ ”
As we approach the 143rd anniversary of this marriage of convenience, the boredom has really set in. How can you be "partly" a sovereigntist? Can you be partly dead and pregnant as well? Mais, dans la belle province, all things are possible. Sovereignty, which is really just a code for French-Canadian ethnic nationalism, is no longer, if it ever was, a coherent intellectual position. There is no legitimate and rational reason for Quebec to become an independent country. Its civil liberties would not be enhanced by such a change, it would gain few new levers of public policy, the new republic would have to be take upon itself the burdens of an independent state, all with uncompetitive labour costs and precarious public finances. As Trudeau rightly pointed out - one of the few times I have ever typed those words - Quebec nationalism is very, well, provincial. In a globalizing world the collectivists of the St Lawrence want to create their own little fortress. The most eloquent expression of this Little Quebec syndrome is, of course, the Tongue Troopers, who strive to ensure that French fonts are always bigger than English (or other languages) on commercial signs. A culture that dispatches agents of the state to monitor font sizes is not long for this world. It's the sort of tribalism one expects from Balkan backwater tribalists, not those occupying some of the finest real estate in modern North America.
What began, half a century ago, as an expression of nationalist resentment has morphed into a political bargaining chip. One that has been used so often that even the user has little enthusiasm for it. As a whole the Quebecois do not love Canada, they find it convenient. The threat of independence has ceased to be useful because it is no longer credible. Neither French or English speaking Canadians care enough. The ROC of Canada has matured greatly since 1995. There is a sense that this country would stay together even if Quebec left. The psychological break-through moment was Free Trade. Protectionism was more than an economic policy, it was mental security blanket to reassure ourselves that Canada would not be absorbed into the United States. A generation after its enactment Canadians realized, albeit quietly, that we are held together by something stronger than a common trade policy. That growing up moment has given English speaking Canada the confidence just not to care, and French Canada the wisdom not to press its luck any further.
What boredom and fatigue has established, a nationalist-federalist stalemate in Quebec, demography will soon enough end. You can't have an ethnic nationalist state when you run out of ethnics. Once the descendants of the original Canadien become a minority in their own province, the game is up. Some of the immigrant Francophone population might continue to go through the nationalist motions, to keep money coming down the federal sluice, but it will fail to have much of an impact. The power of of Quebec nationalism rests on collective memory. The Plains of Abraham have little meaning for the Haitian or Algerian. Immigrants from other parts of the Francophonie sense that they will never be fully accepted by the pure laine. The ROC never defined itself on an essentially ethnic basis, and so is more accepting of immigrant minorities. Simple self-interest will keep these groups loyal to Canada as a whole.
For an enterprising federal politician, of which there are few these days, this is an opportunity. Quebec nationalism has not been this weak in at least fifty, if not a hundred years. It's time to call their bluff. You're not leaving, so there is no point in upping the bribe - transfer payment - level. A call for provincial self-reliance, which would go over well in B.C., Alberta and Ontario, would be matched with an assurance to respect areas of provincial jurisdiction, including over health care. The genius of federalism is that it allows each province to experiment freely, giving the other provinces opportunities to examine the results and copy as they deem fit. A one size-fits all federalism makes little sense in a country as diverse as Canada. It would also help kill off the ridiculous conflation of national unity with big federal government spending projects. We are not a more united country because the federal government spends our money, rather than their provincial counterparts, on this program or that.
Fixed Elections in a Westminster System
One of the policy deals that the Conservative Party in the UK had to concede to their coalition partners, the Liberal-Democrats, is to have a fixed election date. Perhaps the British government should take a look at Canada to see how exactly this would work in a Westminster system.
I offer two case studies. The first is the 2007 Ontario election. In this election the government of Ontario set the date years in advance. The opposition parties were able to plan their strategy around a set date and gear up for a certain election.
The fixed election date in Ontario had its merits and deficiencies but it basically worked. It prevented the Premier from arbitrarily deciding the election date that would best suit his own party. It cut down on some of the advantage of incumbency, which appears to be the goal of set election advocates.
The other case study is the federal election of 2008. This election was called long before the set date established by the Federal Government. The timing of the election was made based on partisan considerations and the government apparently broke its own law.
The reality is much more complicated. No law passed by Parliament can nor should interfere with the Crown’s prerogative to end a Parliament. This is an intricate part of the system that would require massive constitutional overhaul to change. In the Westminster system the Crown has control over the beginning and ending of Parliament and the Prime Minister’s duty is to advice the Crown on when it should act.
Really in a Westminster system a law that sets the date of an election has no teeth, but, as in the Ontario case, it can serve as a general guideline for when the opposition parties can expect the next election. There may be some merit to that, but that is what we are talking about when we talk about fixed elections in a Westminster system.
The Vision of Sir Wilfrid Laurier
I have yet to read Brian Lee Crowley’s The Canadian Century: Moving Out of America’s Shadow but so far everything I have heard makes it the most important book for anyone who cares about Canada’s future. In it Mr. Crowley et al. describe the vision of Canada that Wilfrid Laurier set out more than a century ago. They then describe how this vision can be applied to Canada today and how this vision would lead us to new heights.
Neil Reynolds describes the basic tenants of Sir Laurier’s vision:
1) British Liberty
As someone who likes to read Laurier speeches in his free time I can tell you that Wilfrid Laurier had a very clear idea of what it means to be free. For Laurier and his Liberal contemporaries, liberty meant limited government interference and personal responsibility. People should be able to make their own choices and the role of government is limited to the protection of those rights.
2) A fiscally restrained state
This meant low taxation, at least lower than that of the United States. It meant paying down debt and it meant avoiding deficits. It is important to note here that Canada did very well on this front for most of our history. Mr. Reynolds marks the return to these principles in the 1990s, but the departure was only in the 1960s. It is only with the Pearson and Trudeau governments did Canada abandon the good fiscal sense of Wilfrid Laurier. The 30 years of irresponsibility is a mere hick up in our history, though a very damaging hick up.
3 ) Self confidence
Sir Laurier believed in Canada and though he respected both the United States and the United Kingdom he felt that Canada should strive to be their equals in world affairs. It is hard to measure what exactly self confidence would look like or how we can achieve it. But we as a nation have to stop our insecure sneering at the Americans.
4) Free trade
A version of free trade was achieved in the 1980s and 1990s. It isn’t completely free trade; NAFTA is an agreement on how to regulate trade not an agreement to end all trade restrictions. Still Canada has moved forward with a free trade agenda. It should be the goal of Canada to be the greatest open port for the markets of the world.
Wilfrid Laurier is undoubtedly (in my mind) the greatest Prime Minister in Canada’s history. His ideas should inspire leaders of all political parties.
Monday, May 24, 2010
Redeeming Laurier's Plan
Brian Lee Crowley, whom we last saw in his 2009 book Fearful Symmetry, is out with a new effort: The Canadian Century. Co-written with Niels Veldhuis (Fraser Institute), Jason Clemens (Pacific Research Institute) The Canadian Century takes as its starting point Wilfred Laurier famous declaration that the twentieth century belonged to Canada. For much of the rest of that century Laurier's comment was taken as patriotic hyperbole. How was the century to belong to Canada, when the United States, ten times our size, was the global hegemon? The Canada that Laurier ruled, however, was a rapidly growing power, with plenty of land, resources and opportunities to exploit. Crowley et al put forward the argument that Canada failed to live up to Laurier's expectations not because they were unrealistic, but because successive Canadian governments abandoned four key pillars of Laurier's public policy. Over the last two decades there has been a slow return to Laurier's vision, beginning with free trade and efforts at balancing the budget. With America lurching to the Left under President Obama, there is a golden opportunity for Canada to become the freer and the more dynamic of the two transcontinental giants:
The first principle was the protection of “British liberty” – the rule of law, freedom of speech, parliamentary democracy and, equally important, minimal state interference in the lives of ordinary people. For Laurier, “British liberty” meant that people were responsible for themselves and for their families; an expansive welfare state (as the alternative would be subsequently styled) would lead to stagnation and inexorable decline.
The second principle was limited government, and the fiscal discipline it implies. Laurier held this principle sacred, partly for pragmatic reasons. Canada, he insisted, should never permit Canadian taxes to exceed American taxes. Canada could forever ensure a competitive advantage simply by keeping its taxes low and keeping its books balanced.
The third principle was self-confident, competitive Canadian engagement with the United States. Although he was a strict nationalist, Laurier held that Canada could prevail against its dynamic neighbour provided (in the words of Canadian Century) “it play[ed] cleverly and well the few cards that it had been dealt.”
The fourth principle was a corollary of the third: free trade – with the U.S. for sure but with as many other countries as possible. (“Our policy will be to seek markets,” Laurier said, “wherever markets are to be found.”)
I have not read the book, but it is sounds quite promising. If nothing else it will remind Canada that we are not, historically, a socialist-paternalistic nanny state. For most of our history we followed a roughly classical liberal policy, foolishly abandoned in the aftermath of the Second World War.
"just as ignorant and rather more cretinous"
From deep within Canadian Academia, a retiring professor admits the sad truth:
It's the handiwork of Robert Martin, professor of law, emeritus, at the University of Western Ontario.
Martin warms up with a little tune about university students: "Each fall, a horde of illiterate, ignorant cretins enters Canada's universities. A few years later, they all move on, just as illiterate, just as ignorant and rather more cretinous, but now armed with bits of paper, which most of them are probably not able to read, called degrees."
Then, in deeper tones, Martin sounds off about universities: "Canadian universities are closed and fearful institutions, which actively enforce uniformity on their members."
Queen's University, he writes, in 2008 "announced that it would establish a cadre of students to spy on other students. These weasels, to be given the chilling and vacuous title 'dialogue facilitators', would eavesdrop on the conversations of other students and, were anything blasphemous or heretical to be said, intervene to steer the conversation in an acceptable direction."
The idea of universities as bastions of independent thought, either in modern times or in the distant past, was always something of a myth. The medieval university was a handmaiden of the Church, and in some cases the temporal authorities as well. Once the continentals began substituting state for church, the European university became an organ of the state. Instead of churning out priests, lawyers and the odd classical scholar, they began graduating bureaucrats, lawyers, engineers and the odd post-modern linguistic theorist. Even Oxbridge, which only began admitting non-Anglicans in the mid-nineteenth century, was more a finishing school for the British elite than a place of intellectual awakenings. The American schools tended to be far better, and still are, for the simple reason that many of them were privately owned and financed. In Canada, by contrast, the university has been on the dole since almost the beginning of post-secondary education in this country.
The University of Toronto began life as King's College at York, an Anglicans only college dedicated to turning out, you guessed it, priests and lawyers. It took a decade of political wrangling for a classical liberal (self-styled Reform) government to secularize King's College, and change its name. Still each major religious denomination had to have its own college. The Methodists went to Victoria, the Anglicans to Trinity and the Catholics to St Michael's. The goal of the Victorian university in Canada was not free inquiry, quite the opposite, it was to give students the intellectual tools to defend a basically Christian conception of Canada and the British Empire. Whatever the merits of that approach, and it did have some good ones, conformity was par for the course then as now. A more dignified conformity than today, these were Victorians after all, but conformity none the less.
It was not unusual, at the time, for a provincial cabinet minister, or even the premier, to interview candidates for professorships. While overt political influence has largely disappeared, the Golden Rule still applies: He who has the gold, makes the rules. In post-secondary education the government has almost all the gold. One of my more amusing experiences as an undergraduate, many moons ago, was watching the over the top reactions of the semi-professional activists on campus - the sort who take seven years to complete a three-year degree - regarding the funding of medical research by pharmaceutical companies. They complained, with some merit, that corporate funding would lead to corporate influence in setting research priorities. Fair enough. Their solution, however, was to increase government spending. Corporate spending always came with strings attached. Government spending, however, was manna from heaven.
The mediocrity and conformity of Canadian universities stems from their nature as adjuncts of the state. They may object to this or that government policy, but always on the same grounds, that the government isn't spending or doing enough. Many academics are government paid government lobbyists. Their radicalism grants them the appearance of independence, yet the goal is the same. Two out of the three major political parties in Canada are statist, and the third is statist or anti-statist depending on the political climate. The typical difference between the Minister of Colleges and Universities, and the academics who attack him or her, is only a matter of degrees. Give it a generation or two, and what was once considered an intellectual fetish of the university hothouse, sure enough becomes government policy.
Saturday, May 22, 2010
Should Pride be able to exclude people?
The Star reported yesterday that the term ‘Israeli Apartheid’ cannot be used in the Gay Pride parade in Toronto. The organizers of the parade say that they will not ban anyone from participating but they do not want that term used or associated with the parade. The group ‘Queers Against Israeli Apartheid’ naturally objected, claiming that this was an effective ban of the group.
I have some sympathy for that point of view. Yes the group can still show up and yes all individuals can still participate, but if they can’t say who they are who make clear their message, what would be the point?
The right of the parade organizers to exclude words or people from the parade is questionable. Yes they are a private organization, but despite no longer receiving federal funding they are still funded by municipal and provincial tax dollars. This makes it far more ambiguous if they have the same rights as a completely privately funded organization. The member’s of QAIA are paying taxes that fund the event so they should have a right to join in and have their say. If Pride wants to exclude they should refuse public funding.
On the other hand, it is still a private organization and any group or individual should have the right to not associate with people or ideas. In fact what makes free speech work is the ability to socially isolate people with unacceptable messages. If Pride is not given this right then there is nothing to stop a group that could call itself ‘Gays for Hitler’ or ‘Fags against greedy Jews’ from participating. As I said, it is ambiguous. I am not totally sure I know what side of the fence I sit on and welcome comments.
(Don’t construe any of this as me supporting the message of QAIA. Frankly if the gay community were going to have any sympathy for either side I would expect it would be for the side that doesn’t hang people for being gay.)
Friday, May 21, 2010
Ignatieff did a number on himself
A few years ago, in my golden youth, I was at a Campus Conservative convention listening to a certain expert on political campaigns discussing negative ads. The thrust of is presentation was that negative ads work, and they work best when they are true. If you doubt this you only have to look at what happened with Stephane Dion. If he had shown any leadership ability the Conservatives calling him not a leader would have fallen flat.
This is not what happened with Michael Ignatieff. Sure it looks very similar. A new leader of the opposition is bombarded with attack ads that make an impression in the public mind. There is an air of truth to the ads, enough so that Mr. Ignatieff has demonstrated a lack of ability to effectively respond. Jane Taber at the Globe & Mail writes that Mr. Ignatieff claims that they ‘did a number’ on him.
But this is not his real problem.
His real problem has nothing to do with the Conservatives and has everything to do with his own lack of vision. He seems unable to present a clear message of what an Ignatieff led Canada would look like. John Ivison from the National Post puts it well:
The one thing that Liberals at all levels of the party agree on, is that Mr. Ignatieff has to offer more specifics on how he is different from Mr. Harper and what a Liberal government would offer Canadians. “Embarrassing the government is what the Libs are all about. Offering alternatives in the form of good governing is non-existent,” said one life-long grass-roots Liberal.
“Ignatieff hasn’t unveiled any substance yet and until he does, he can’t move anywhere. As such, Harper is the only game in town,” said one senior insider. “Saying that what the government is doing is bad won’t change anyone’s vote.”
Everyone (at least everyone on the Liberal side) hoped that after Michael Ignatieff’s ‘thinking conference’ he would come out with a fresh vision and a new message. Yet since then things have only become more confused. All the dire issues that were talked about at that conference, and the Liberal Party has yet to offer any solutions. Why would anyone support a party that doesn’t have an idea of how to fix problems that the party itself says are the most crucial?
No Michael, no one did a number on you. You did it to yourself.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
The Other Grand Coalition
Why there and not here?
Two of Britain's political parties negotiated a coalition government this week that will enable them to rule in tandem for the next five years. It was a momentous change. It took five days to organize. The country did not collapse in rubble.
Makes you wonder: Could Canada survive with a coalition government? But wait a minute, we already know the answer to that: Of course we couldn't. Because Canada is uniquely ungovernable by more than one party at a time. We learned that last year when the Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois agreed to a pact that came close to forcing Stephen Harper's government from office. The reason it only came close, and didn't succeed, is that the outcry across the land made clear Canadians wouldn't stand for anything so outrageous. We may not love the Tories, but we like them more than any hare-brained idea like a coalition.
Well, the Liberal-Democrats are technically centre-left, but they have a scattering of positions that range across the political spectrum. There is just enough common ground between the Cleggian Lib-Dems, and the Diet-Toryism of David Cameron, to make some kind of a government workable. They're basically in agreement on rolling back many of the Labourites infringements on civil liberties, notably dropping the idea of a national ID card, and roughly on the deficit. There are also three major parties in Britain, not four as in Canada. Thus one party can more easily play kingmaker. By having more working parts a Canadian minority parliament makes it easier to play the opposition parties off against each other.
Kelly McParland, the above author, goes onto note the high level of detail put into party manifestos in Britain compared to Canada. Two reasons for that. In Britain, even post-Blair, many of the best and brightest still go into politics. Until the expenses scandal, there was something of a cache to being an MP, something which will probably return in time. The typical Canadian Cabinet is, by comparison, made of poorer quality timbers. The average minister of the crown, here in the Elder Dominion, might make it as a parliamentary secretary back in the Mother Country. Our best and brightest go into business, science and down South. In Canada, those who can't do, teach, those who can't teach, teach gym, and those who fail at that run for elected office. There are exceptions. Very few.
The other reason British parties are, relatively, more principled than their Canadian derivatives is national unity. Until about the mid-1990s, no one seriously talked about the break up of the United Kingdom. Even the bleeding ulcer of Ulster was unlikely to be resolved by uniting North and South. This is not the case in Canada. On pretty much every major national issue of the last century and a half - Catholic Schools, prohibition, conscription, foreign policy, Medicare, Afghanistan - English speaking Canada leans one way, and French Canada the other. Raise controversial issues and you might start reminding the Solitudes how much they dislike each other. Thus our national politics has the colour, consistency and firmness of oatmeal. It's why Mackenzie King, the Great Equivocator, was our longest serving Prime Minister.
Globe & Mail bias on Greek crisis?
Reading the Globe and Mail story on the latest strike in Greece I have to wonder, are they taking the side of the strikers?
The article describes the government cuts as ‘harsh’ three times, and not in quotes either. Also they described the cuts as ‘deep’ and the tax increases as ‘steep.’ It isn’t like these words are really needed to report the story. Here is an article from the BBC on the exact same story without any use of normative adjectives.
Why exactly did the journalist, Elena Becatoros, feel compelled to help the strikers make their case instead of using neutral language? And why exactly didn’t the Globe and Mail editors call Ms. Becatoros on this bias?
Spineless Liberals on Mandatory Minimums
The Liberal Party is contemplating reversing their position on mandatory minimums for growing a small amount of marijuana. Last year they supported the government’s bill to bring in such mandatory minimums, but now they are being more cautious and considering their position carefully. This is good news since neither the NDP nor the BQ supported the bill the first time, and without Liberal support this fundamentally flawed public policy will not see the light of day.
One question that comes to mind is why has the Liberal’s appeared to change their mind?
Perhaps a better question would be why did they support the mandatory minimums in the first place?
For 13 years of government the Liberals had resisted exactly this sort of policy move. In fact under the previous government, marijuana laws were heading in the opposite direction of the current government. The mandatory minimums bill is exactly the sort of law that Liberal Party members, in general, would oppose. So what was behind the Liberal leader’s support for the government? Was Michael Ignatieff taking a bold stand against his own party’s traditional views for an issue he truly believes in?
He was bullied into it.
Mr. Ignatieff was afraid that Mr. Harper would call an election and spend a month accusing the Liberals of being “soft on crime.” The Liberal leader abandoned the long stand views of his party not out of principle but out of fear that he could not win the argument.
So what changed? Well there has been an increase in the public scrutiny of not just the cost of the Conservative government’s crime bills but the effectiveness as well. So now the Liberal Party has the political coverage to attack the bill without seeming to be on the side of drug kingpins.
But hang on, isn’t the Liberal Party suppose to be the official opposition? Are they not exactly the people that are supposed to bring questions like cost and effectiveness into the public debate? Isn’t that their constitutional role in our Parliamentary democracy? Aren’t they supposed to be the leaders of opposing government policy rather than the followers?
It isn’t like they didn’t know the arguments against mandatory minimums. All those MPs and MP staff that have spent their lives in politics must have had this debate at least once before. So why couldn’t they muster up the will to oppose the government from the very beginning?
It is because the Liberal Party of Canada, the most successful political party in the history of representative democracy, is completely spineless.
Armageddon Factor good for Harper?
Gerry Nicholls has a point that I didn’t consider, perhaps The Armageddon Factor is good for Stephen Harper. The Armageddon Factor is a book by Marci McDonald that accuses the Harper government of secretly plotting for a theocratic takeover of the state. I haven’t read this book, but everything I’ve heard about it makes me think that it is about as reliable a source as a Michael Moore movie.
Much like Michael Moore, it is meant to scare people. Almost like the Canadian version of Fahrenheit 9-11, this book is painting a picture of a dark and secretive government full of conspiracy. The so-cons are out to get us all. Presumably we secular voters will run away in fear (except I already ran away in fear of his economic policy).
Mr. Nicholls argues that this book will not really scare anyone away. The only people that Marci McDonald is likely to convince are people that already agree with her. For everyone else, the arguments are way too silly to convince anyone neutral.
In fact social conservatives themselves may read this book and suddenly find themselves supporting Stephen Harper, despite the fact that many social conservatives are unhappy with the Harper government. I don’t think they will read the book and sign on to this conspiracy that they have to know doesn’t exist. No they will find themselves supporting Stephen Harper because they dislike the people that hate him.
I am willing to bet that social conservatives who want to read and be angry at it make up the most significant market for this book. They will read it and despise Marci McDonald and like Mr. Harper all the more because Ms. McDonald hates him. Since the Conservatives are the bad guys in the book’s fantasy tale, they will become the good guys in the minds of the so-cons.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
The Logic of Hate
Meet the latest victims of Canada's "hate" industry: Nazis
Yes, that’s right: victim. According to a report presented to the Toronto Police Service last month, the victim category of “Nazi” now appears on the police bureaucracy’s official, group-by-group list of hate crimes. True, only one crime is listed in the Nazi category — a “mischief” offence within 13 Division (the details of which have not been released). Nevertheless, it is jarring to see the words “Nazi” and “victim” equated in any way.
If I believed in God, I'd have to say that He's got a fantastic, but very dark, sense of humour. Nazis are certainly a minority group in Canada, one of the smallest in fact. They're very much discriminated against, try saying how great Adolf Hitler was at a cocktail party and you'll find yourself in the hallway pretty quickly. Ranting about Jews can get you in front of a Human Rights Tribunal fairly quickly too. One can definitely say there is a lot of hate directed at Nazis in Canada. In fact the Canadian Armed forces were quite well known as Nazi killers, once upon a time. Can't get much more hateful than that. The logic of hate crimes is ultimately circular. Thus a legal regime set up to fight the hate spread by neo-Nazis, instead becomes a tool by which neo-Nazis become classified victims.
You can't legislate an emotion. There is nothing wrong with hate, in and of itself. Sane, rational and decent people are quite right to hate Nazism and everything it stood for, and the tiny band of bigoted cranks to who carry forth that label today. There are people who are legitimately to be hated and denounced in a free society. This does not mean violence, simply the use of peaceful expression to identify those who deserve to be criticized, and even, where necessary, to be despised and ostracized from society. This is an essential aspect of a free society, the ability of civil society to regulate itself by promoting some values, and opposing others that are harmful. What those ideas should be is a matter of public debate, another key organizational element of civil society. The same disconnected emotionalism is also seen with the word tolerance. Its origins are honourable, John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration was arguably the ur-text of classical liberalism, a plea for the seventeenth century English government to stop persecuting its citizens who refused to belong to the Church of England. Locke meant the toleration of people and practices that were neither fraudulent or coercive. The word's meaning has changed to something closer to being extremely non-judgemental. Yet you cannot tolerate everything, otherwise you will tolerate yourself out of existence.
The illogic of the hate and tolerance industries is only superficial. As Ellsworth Toohey, the villain of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, advised, don't question something that seems irrational, ask only what it accomplishes. The hate industry creates an environment in which freedom of speech ceases to become a natural right, and becomes instead a dispensation of unaccountable government bureaucrats. The anti-concept of tolerance works as an adjunct to the hate industry. Tolerance is the carrot, the goal the good citizen is meant to aspire to, which is unobtainable because it means nothing in its modern sense. The state again acts as arbiter of what is tolerance, just as it does hate. Good and evil become not concepts discussed and debated by civil society, but instead statist rubrics. The emergence of the Human Rights Tribunals gave Canadians a glimpse of a phenomenon wearily familiar to people in other countries, an unaccountable government agency setting itself up as judge, jury and executioner. With the classification, by the country's largest police force no less, of Nazis as legal victims of "hate" the fraud has been completely exposed. It's not the fault of the police, they're simply enforcing as best as possible an arbitrary law. What has become now unambiguously clear is how arbitrary it truly is, how much a tool it is of the state. The hate industry was sold to Canadians as a way of protecting from bigoted abuse certain traditionally discriminated against groups. Now the bigots are victims.
Con-Libs to repeal laws
Nick Clegg will announce that he wants to set about repealing laws and wants to empower the public to nominate laws that should be repealed:
He will also accuse the previous government of "obsessive lawmaking" and pledge to "get rid of the unnecessary laws" and "introduce a mechanism to block pointless new criminal offences".
He will also pledge to ask the public "which laws you think should go" as they "tear through the statute book".
Mr. Clegg is absolutely right in describing the Labour government as an obsessive lawmaker. It is truly heartening to see a politician take a good solid look at the criminal code and wonder what should be removed. Such a process will hopefully lead to greater individual liberty.
I have said it before but I’ll say it again, if the Con-Lib coalition makes good on its civil liberty agenda, it will likely be the greatest achievement of this government.
Rand Paul wins primary
Yesterday Rand Paul, the son of Ron Paul, won the Republican primary for the Senate. The news media is portraying him as a Tea Party backed anti-establishment candidate that is giving voice to dissatisfaction. Which is fair enough, but he is also more than that.
Rand Paul as a Senator would bring a message to the halls of Washington that cannot be easily ignored; he will bring a message of free markets and individual liberty.
His father, sadly, has often been isolated or marginalized in the House of Representatives, but as a Senator Rand Paul would be able to wield more influence. And as a much younger man than his father, the possibility of his future career is exciting. Let us hope that Rand Paul takes up the mantle of his father as the voice of reason in US politics.
Granted that he still has a general election to win, but you will excuse me if I get excited and a little gushy. There are not a lot of victories for those of us that believe in individual liberty, and Rand Paul just winning the primary is a victory that we can celebrate.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Rent Seeking in Drag
The Tories pull funding for Toronto's Gay Pride Parade:
At first, Clement suggested the purpose of the Marquee Tourism Events program, part of the government’s two-year stimulus package rolled out in last year’s budget, was changed in year two to favour smaller centers.
“The truth of the matter is the program was designed this year to make sure that other urban centers also have access to the program,” he told reporters.
Canada's Conservative Government: Spreading the Pork. No one is quite buying Minister Clement's story, if only because of the horrible optics of a Conservative government funding a parade its grassroots find repugnant. Liberal MP Navdeep Bains questioned the Minister's motives:
“(The) Pride (festival) leaves a $100 million economic footprint, creates 650 jobs and generates $18 million in tax revenue. Why does ideology trump economics in this Conservative government?”
The amusing thing about the modern Liberal Party is its sheer chutzpah. They think we don't notice. For practical, administrative reasons, the government simply cannot give money to every group that goes to Ottawa begging. Otherwise the country would be going broke at a speed that would make even the Greeks stop rioting and take notice. There has to be a criteria to judge which applicants deserve funding and which do not. Since the decision is ultimately made by elected officials it will, amazingly enough, be made along political lines. Politicians are elected based on the policies and ideas they expound, however logically incoherent they might be.
When a politician makes a decision based on the values he was elected upon he is, wait for it, doing his job. When the Chretien government decided that funding Canada boosting events in Quebec was necessary for national unity, that was an "ideological" decision. The Liberals are a federalist party that believes government intervention can help keep the country together. It was a decision consonant with its values. That it became the corrupt boondoggle known as Adscam was simply the nature of the government beast. When governments spend money, as sure as night follows day, some of it will go "missing" into the pockets of supporters. Some got caught, some did not. Again, that too is the nature of government. Though Minister Clement is not being honest enough to admit it, he is making a political decision. He was doing his job. Denouncing his actions as "ideological" is the equivalent of attacking him for sticking to his principles and risking the wrath of some portion of the electorate. Only a Liberal MP would criticize someone for not being a complete hypocrite.
The real scandal here is not the government deciding to stop funding a parade, which is popular in Toronto, yet provides little benefit to the rest of the country, it's that the government is involved in funding parades and festivals as such. Many supporters of the Conservative Party consider homosexually to be either morally questionable, or an outright sin. I believe homosexuality to be natural, in the sense that orientation is probably genetically determined. Maybe Old Publius is wrong about that, maybe the "lover the sinner, hate the sin" crowd is right. Neither my mind, nor theirs, will be convinced through government subsidy or coercion. You can't force the human mind to believe what it refuses to believe. For centuries adherents of various religious sects slaughtered each other, and continue today in parts of the Third World, for their beliefs. The truth, for them, could not tolerate dissension. Largely out of sheer exhaustion a compromise was reached, church and state would be, roughly, separated. Religion was henceforth to be private matter of conscience. The state was to remove itself from the pews of the nation, and the church from the state. One could certainly advocate for policies based on one's private principles, but such advocacy was not done on the public's dime. Separation of church and state was the first great breakthrough in the development of modern freedom. If getting government out of religion helped preserve the peace of the realm, the question was raised about the value of getting government out of other matters. A totalitarian state considers all private matters to be a public concern, there is no dividing line between private and public. Everything is the government's problem, requiring its attempt at a solution. A classical liberal state works from the reverse assumption. Only when matters cannot be handled privately, and voluntarily, do we consider turning to the state. Government, to the classical liberal, is always the last resort.
A Conservative government has cut funding for the Toronto Gay Pride Parade. A Liberal government would probably restore it. Government has been turned from a protector of rights to a destroyer. Instead of protecting the rights of people, Proud and Phobe, to spend their income as they see fit, it has instead stolen money from one group and given it to another. The great immorality here is not in supporting or opposing homosexuality, but in demanding those who disagree to financially support their critics', even their avowed enemies, positions and activities. It is as morally obscene to force a Christian, who believes in the sinfulness of homosexuality, to finance the Gay Pride Parade, as it is to force a homosexual to pay for repairs to a Catholic Church. What Canada needs is to create a new rule of public policy, the separation of state and parades.
Monday, May 17, 2010
Martyr to Freedom
From Cannabis Culture Magazine:
CANNABIS CULTURE - Supporters of imprisoned marijuana activist Marc Emery will show their support in cities around the world on SATURDAY MAY 22, 2010 in the Worldwide Rally to Free Marc Emery.
Marc Emery is a Canadian political prisoner about to be extradited to the United States for selling cannabis seeds on the internet and using the money to fund marijuana legalization groups. The DEA wanted him, and now they've got him thanks to Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada.
Marc is just one of hundreds of thousands of North Americans imprisoned for marijuana. Now is the time to STAND UP and demand an end to the destructive DRUG WAR and the imprisonment of non-violent cannabis growers and consumers!
The Drug Wars in general, and the case of Marc Emery in particular, are a litmus test for those who say they believe in freedom. Everyone is for freedom, their own. It's everyone else's that makes them uncomfortable. It is easy to be for low taxes and light government regulation, when you run a business. It is easy to be for freedom of speech, when your livelihood depends on your keypad and fingers. It is easy enough to feel sympathetic for those whose freedom is taken away, when they are like you, when you can see yourself in their position. There, but by grace, go I. But this is not advocacy of freedom. It is nothing more than special pleading. The businessman who demands low taxes, and government subsidies, is not for freedom. The journalist who cries out when some powerful politician tries to silence him, then turns around and supports the Human Rights Tribunals, is not for freedom. The ordinary citizen, who is also the member of a minority ethnic group, who becomes indignant when the rights of his group are threatened, but shrugs his shoulders when those of other groups are trampled upon, he is not for freedom.
Canada is free, declared Wilfred Laurier, and freedom is its nationality. It was boilerplate stuff a century ago, when Canada and the rest of the English speaking world lived in the soft afterglow of classical liberalism's great nineteenth century triumphs. Today the words have become alien. A strange word uttered by some Americans and certain columnists and bloggers. We have become not a nation of special interest groups, but a nation of special pleaders. Give me my rights. The appeal is not to principles, but to personal preferences and altruism. Lower taxes on my business, and I'll generate more money to be taxed and redistributed to others. Allow me my freedom to write, and I'll defend the "underdogs" of society. Protect the rights of my group, because we are victims. The calls are hypocritical. The businessman really wants to keep more money for himself. The writer wants to keep eking out his living in peace. The ethnic just wants to be left alone. They defend their freedom pragmatically. The businessman sees it as easier to appease the dominant cultural attitudes. Being selfish is bad, so I'll plead my case by showing how I benefit society. The journalist makes the same mistake. The ethnic knows he will get more sympathy by playing the victim, rather than by merely asserting his rights as an individual Canadian citizen. In making special pleadings for their freedom, they ultimately undermine it.
The difference between being principled, advocating and adhering to certain values over time, and being pragmatic, saying and doing whatever works in the context of the moment, is also the difference between the long and short-term. Being principled isn't simply admirable, a nice-to-have character trait, it is a necessity. A businessman who looks out for his long-term self-interests will be principled. He'll demand that taxes be lowered because he has earned that income, that wealth morally belongs to him. It is true that in his hands wealth will be better applied, to generating more wealth, than in the hands of government officials, but that is only a consequence. A journalist will be of immeasurably greater value to society by being able to ask provocative and necessary questions, rather than being intimidated by government censors, acting at the behest of primitive religious fanatics. Yet his value to society is not the essential question. To make society, which in practice means the government, the arbiter of what is acceptable is to willing accept the status of a serf. The writer writes because his words have value to him. The ethnic should advocate for freedom because he is a thinking individual, not some chip off a monolithic collective. When the businessman, the journalist and ethnic minority fail to fight for freedom as a matter of principle, they concede that their claims are just one of many. The state must then play arbiter, deciding which businessmen deserve special favour, which journalists immunity from harassment, and which ethnic groups protective status. None have genuine rights. They are each just another pressure group wanting their stake.
A few generations of such special pleading corrodes freedom. The ordinary citizen ceases to understand or even recognize it. The public discourse is overwhelmingly dominated by it. Tobacco smoking is banned on private property, few object at such an obvious travesty of individual rights, something which would have been vigorously opposed, on principle, even two generations back. The rights of property owners must be "balanced" by the public heath effects of tobacco smoking. We now see the same process repeated for unhealthy foods. It's not about whether something is bad for you, or good. It's about your right to decide for yourself, risking only your own neck and money in the process. This simple statement is no longer a clarion call. Your freedom, your property, your life and happiness are just "facts" to be weighted by a paternalistic government.
Now look at Marc Emery and his supporters. I will confess my personal biases in looking. I don't much like marijuana or "marijuana culture." I don't much like neo-hippies, who seem to dominate that culture. I'm basically a Young Fogey. My instincts are with the guys in the three piece suits in the oak panelled clubs, not the ill-shaven rabble outside. In university I collected signatures to help start a war, and cheered on the police as they broke up a riot stage by "poverty protestors" on the steps of Queen's Park. If marijuana remained banned for the rest of my days, it would disturb my daily routine and life not one iota. The Drug Wars are fought far away from me. The police don't stop me on the street, I'm the well dressed commuter going to work. To borrow a phrase popularized by James Baker, the Elder Bush's Secretary of State, I don't really have a dog in this fight. Not in the short-term anyway. Yet I spend my time, for whatever it may be worth, scribbling away about the right of people, most of whom I would never associate with, to smoke something I've never touched and never will. The reason I do this is simple: If they don't own their bodies, neither do I.
I began watching Paul McKeever's excellent biography of Marc Emery with admiration, and finished it with bitter disappointment. Seeing someone articulately defending Objectivist values, and then see them, two hours later, comparing himself to Gandhi and Jesus, was a bleak arc. How far to take civil disobedience, the morally justified breaking of immoral laws, is a practical question. If Marc Emery's time in jail was to prove the breach in ending the Drug Wars, and stopping the vast destruction of property and life they entail, it would be a "noble sacrifice," akin to a solider risking his life in a just war. Understood properly it would not be altruistic. It would be a profound and dramatic victory for freedom, throwing into question a myriad of statist controls that strangle the social and economic life of both Canada and the United States, ranging from Civil Asset Forfeiture to the authority of the FDA. I don't, however, believe that Marc Emery's sacrifice will do that.
About half of the American people still opposes the legalization of marijuana, and the overwhelming majority the legalization of hard drugs. Civil disobedience works in opposing unpopular laws, in highlighting the state's suppression of rights that are generally recognized. It awakens the moral ire, but only in certain circumstances. Martin Luther King Jr succeeded because he pointed out the contradictions between the Declaration of Independence and Jim Crow. Gandhi succeeded because he used the values of the British Empire against itself, to little practical benefit for the people of India. Marc Emery isn't really fighting the American government, he is fighting half the American people, at least, who support the Drug Wars. They will not see him as a freedom fighter, simply as a drug dealer being sent to prison. Two decades ago Marc Emery gave up the battle of ideas, and instead began trying to emotionally persuade proponents and fellow travellers of the Drug Regime. Emotions, however, come from ideas and values. Until you change people's minds, you will never change their hearts. He defended freedom pragmatically, trying to take the short cut of emotionalism. You're only a martyr, however, to people who agree with you already.
Marc Emery's mistakes do not excuse the actions of the American government, which has sought to destroy him because of the large sums he spent in supporting anti-drug law activism. He was simply politically obnoxious, his persecution a political act by a foreign power. The militantly anti-American core of the Canadian Left, which shrieked for years about a trade deal with the United States, and spends much of its time these days in a bizarre obsession over Canadian water supplies, raised only token objections on the Emery case. When an actual infringement of Canadian sovereignty occurs, at the behest of the American government, the Left goes AWOL.
The guilt, however, is arguably far worse for the Canadian government. The Canadian public is far more skeptical of the anti-drug regime, and this is with little public debate so far. The Canadian government caved, in part due to ideological sympathy with their American counterparts, and in part out of cowardice. Defying the Americans can carry a price, a price any sober statesman needs to weigh carefully, but we did so before in sheltering draft-dodgers during the Vietnam War. Defending the rights of a native born Canadian is all the more necessary.
The bitter irony here is that had Emery used his considerable talents, and been patient, he might have sparked a widespread debate in Canada on legalization. He has certainly moved the issue to public prominence, but less as an articulate critic of bad laws, and instead as a noisy protestor, one among many competing for the public's attention. Pierre Burton once said that you could get away with saying anything in Canada, so long as you wore a bow-tie. As a bow-tie wearing socialist and atheist he proved the point, starting his career way back when being either carried a significant social stigma. Berton's meaning was that Canadians respond to reasoned and civil argument far better than theatrics. The dominance of the statist Left in Canada comes from its monopoly over key cultural institutions, and Canada having - thus far - too small or too unfree a media market to provide alternate voices. When exposed to opinions dissenting from the orthodoxy, Canadians respond favourably. For nearly a century a free trade deal with America was the Third Rail of Canadian politics. Brian Mulroney, a Red Tory of all things, changed his own mind and that of the Canadian people on the issue. The people who fought for the deal, for all its faults, did not engage in protests in the streets, they entered the marketplace of ideas and made their case. They appealed to Canadians' reason, not their emotions. They left the emotionalism to the deal's critics, who made spectacles of themselves and failed decisively.
A week from now Marc Emery's supporters will try to spark a series of world-wide rallies, to protest his extradition to the United States and unjust prison sentence. Best of luck to them. I hope they succeed. I hope they force the hand of either the Canadian or American governments. But I rather doubt they will. The public will not see a hero being imprisoned, for they do not understand that he is one. They will see a drug dealer being punished for his crimes. The tragedy is not Marc's imprisonment, it is, I fear, its sheer futility. In that, I hope I'm wrong.
We Could Not Use A Man Like R.B. Bennett Again
I'm not one to disagree with Isabel Paterson, the Canadian born libertarian writer. She briefly worked for R.B. Bennett, Canada's Prime Minister from 1930 to 1935, back when he was still a lawyer in Calgary. While disagreeing strongly with Bennett on politics, Paterson did say that he was a "good egg." So it seems.
R.B., or “Dick,” as he was known to friends, liked the smell, taste, feel and exercise of power. He wasn’t long in office before a cartoonist at the Winnipeg Free Press depicted a cabinet room in which every man at the table was Bennett.
The showpiece of Bennett’s stewardship was his dramatic shift to the left with a Canadian version of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He introduced it without telling anyone in his cabinet. The only exceptions were his foreign minister and minister of finance. They were well briefed.
Not much has been known about R.B. Bennett. Amazingly, no full-scale biography was written about him until now, 75 years on. John Boyko, the dean of history at Lakefield College, has finally done the deed and indeed he has done it well.
It being a Monday, let me rant here. It is appalling that a political figure as important as Bennett has lacked a proper biography for so long. How badly we treat our history in Canada. That said he was clearly a statist - the Tories being the relatively more statist party at the time - even by Canadian standards in the 1930s. In the 1930 election campaign he argued that hiking tariffs would help boost Canadian trade. Today, I'd expect he'd be considered as some sort of free market reactionary by the MSM. The goal posts have moved in the wrong direction.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
The Cozy Confines of the Buffet Hotel
The last few Jimmy Buffett albums have been like that restaurant that you've loved for many years that is sometimes past its prime, yet still beckons you to visit because every time you do, the meal, while far from flawless in its entirety, still has moments of immeasurable joy. Sure, maybe the entree was awful, but wow, that appetizer was unreal. Buffett's albums of late have had some real gems - from "Bama Breeze" and "Duke's On Sunday" off of the otherwise dreadful Take The Weather With You, to "Trip Around The Sun", "Boats To Build" (both covers) and "Coast of Carolina" from the otherwise predominantly silly License to Chill - Buffett's albums have satisfied his loyal Parrotheads, but have left even those fanatically loyal fans wanting more (Knox counts himself as one of that group). So like my returns to The Manor in Edmonton (formerly the Manor Cafe and now the Manor Casual Bistro where I still go for the schnitzel, despite the fact that it isn't what it was when I went to school in Edmonton over a decade ago), I returned to Buffett and checked out, or perhaps more appropriately, checked-in, to his new album - Buffet Hotel.
Yes, "Buffet", not "Buffett" Hotel, named after a hotel Jimmy saw on a recent trip to Africa. Let me tell you at the outset, this is a decent, and surprising, album. The opener "Nobody From Nowhere" is one of the best tracks on the album. An upbeat number with the full Coral Reefer Band, this one, while not written by Buffett, sounds like Buffett. The old Buffett, who wasn't afraid to be a musician as opposed to a carnival act or cheesy party favour. Hopefully, it will find its way into the odd set list on Buffett's perennial summer tour, which I've enjoyed in Toronto on several occasions. More standout tracks include this albums cover of a Bruce Cockburn song (the Canadian seems to be justifiably included at least once on Buffett's recent albums) entitled "Life Short Call Now", "Big Top" (an homage to the Parrotheads and their antics at said summer tours), "We Learned To Be Cool From You" and "Wings", the latter 3 of which were either written or co-written by Buffett (still got it Bubba). The balance of the tracks are either a tad morose or a tad cheesy, but for the most part, they are listenable. "A Lot To Drink About" is an entertaining rant akin to early Buffett ditties like "God's Own Drunk" and "This Hotel Room" with more political overtones ("We've got the price of oil, the war of the spoils, here's your bucket for the big bailout. Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, we've got a lot to drink about").
Friends, if you need an album to help you slide your way into summer, a Buffett album is usually just the medicine that your doctor ordered. This one is a stronger dose than most recent Buffett albums and is worth a spin. Based on my experience this weekend, the album seems to pair nicely with a Miller Chill lime-infused beer, a simultaneous Skoal "Bandit" chewing tobacco pouch and a pair of flip-flops. Now that's good living.
As you were……….
Saturday, May 15, 2010
Spain's budget cuts are not enough
Spain has taken steps to reduce their budget deficit from 11% of GDP to 6% of GDP by 2011. This is in apparent contradiction to my prediction that the bailout fund would result in a lack of interest for politicians to tackle the financial problems of their country. I do hope that Spain’s austerity measures are indeed the beginning of action but on its own it is not sufficient to deal with the problem.
6% of GDP deficit is not a 0% of GDP deficit. Spain will still be taking on debt if the economy (and thus government revenue) doesn’t improve enough to make up the difference. Even if the Spanish economy does recover soon, the government still needs a strategy to reduce and ultimately eliminate their massive debt.
The BBC appears to believe that the Spanish Prime Minister is bringing forward austerity measures due to pressure from the European Commission. But there is a limit to what the Commission can accomplish to push Spain into real action. All that Spain would have to do is demonstrate that they were taking some measures, even of those measures are not sufficient. Then the Commission’s much lauded ‘soft power’ will lose most of its potency.
With the bailout fund giving economic coverage, Spain’s leaders have less of an incentive to take the political risks of real large scale cutbacks to the welfare state. It remains to be seen if Spain will possess the political will to eliminate the deficit and manage its debt.
I don't care about Helena Guergis and neither does the PM
I don’t generally talk about scandals on this blog. For one thing, everyone does so if someone is interested in such a topic they can easily find it somewhere else and I usually don’t have a unique or interesting perspective on scandal. For another thing scandals are usually a boring and normal by-product of government.
Every government in the history of mankind has had some corruption, it is the nature of the beast (the beast being Humanity). Certainly those that are caught should be punished and publicly shamed but there is no way to stomp it out and no political party is completely innocent. All that we can hope for is that mechanisms can be in place to deal with corruption adequately enough that it doesn’t become rampant or too severe. If you don’t like that you can always join the anarchist league. You can sign up wherever their meetings spontaneously occur.
So I am only interested in scandals if they appear to have wider policy or political repercussions. This Helena Guergis business, however, doesn’t seem to have any legs to it. Polling data shows that the Conservatives aren’t being hurt and the damage is being isolated to a Minister that was pretty useless to begin with. Honestly I think the opposition should just take their victory and move on.
I was motivated to write this blog after reading a column from Stephen Harper’s most inarticulate critic, Tabatha Southey of the Globe & Mail. In her column, much to her own shock, she agrees that Mr. Harper did the right thing by removing Ms. Guergis. She rightly takes the Liberals to task for trying to turn her into a martyr and she writes that Mr. Harper had a right to ‘ruin her life’ because “he also largely made her life. He made her a cabinet minister. That's big.”
Her point appears to be that, in the words of Sir Humphry Appleby, “The Prime Minister giveth and the Prime Minister taketh away, blessed be the name of the Prime Minister,” and every politician worth her/his salt should know this. In a sense this is true but ultimately I don’t think it was the scandal that caused the Prime Minister to taketh. It was her incompetence.
Since the beginning of Stephen Harper’s Premiership, Helena Guergis has been steadily moving down in the ranks. The Prime Minister showed such a consistent lack of faith in her abilities that it is a wonder why he didn’t just ice her before. Except it isn’t a wonder because Helena Guergis is a woman and the media and women’s groups would scream bloody murder if this Prime Minister fired a highly visible woman.
In fact I will go farther and claim the only reason why she was a Minister to begin with is because she is a woman; this gives irony to the complaints of some that she is being treated differently from Maxime Bernier because of her gender. Stephen Harper waited until there would be minimal political cost to getting rid of her, and then got rid of her.
The story of Helena Guergis is much more a story of the failure of identity politics than it is a story of corruption. And I really don’t care about her ultimate fate.
Friday, May 14, 2010
The Purloined Government
The plot of Edgar Allan Poe's famous short-story, The Purloined Letter, hinges on a stolen letter being hidden in plain sight, rather than in some exotic location. The thief reasons, correctly, that the police will assume that he was not so stupid as to leave the letter on his desk, in plain view. The story often reminds me of how governments operate. Missing the obvious is a common issue with our political masters:
Almost exactly two years after the Conservative government launched a sweeping strategy to combat the rapid growth of illegal cigarette trafficking, Parliament and the public got their first look at the government's progress so far.
At a Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security hearing last week members questioned the nearly two years it took to issue the annual progress report, and raised concerns that enforcement was falling behind the flourishing black market in unregulated cheap cigarettes that have flooded the central Canadian market and, more recently, the Atlantic and Western provinces.
The article goes onto mention the role of smuggling on aboriginal reserves and the emergence of illegal factories on Canadian soil. The remainder of the piece details the vast efforts of authorities to combat the distribution of an otherwise legal product, by illegal means. There are hysterical quotes from self-righteous MPs, demanding that something be done. There is the Tobacco Lobby, here painted in somewhat sympathetic tones, demanding that their illegal competitors be put out of business. There is the gentle shrugging of shoulders by police officers, who are already over-stretched, following the whims of their elected bosses. Like the Purloined Letter, the problem is right in front of everyone's face:
While legal cartons typically sell for $80 or $90, illegal cigarette cartons are usually offered for as little as $6, and are frequently available to minors. The RCMP estimates that provincial and federal governments lose roughly $2.5-billion in annual taxes to the underground trade.
Yeap. Avaricious governments have driven up, through taxation, the price of cigarettes to such high levels that it is now quite lucrative for people to risk and limb to avoid paying those taxes. In the late 18th the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger was also confronted with an upsurge in smuggling. A keen admirer of Adam Smith, Pitt decided that a stronger regime of enforcement, including yet more draconian penalties, was pointless. The harsher the laws became, the more lucrative the smuggling industry became. Many small ports on the southern English coast derived a fair portion of their livelihoods from turning a blind eye to smugglers, who were in turn regarded almost as folk-heroes. Instead, Pitt gathered information on the average profit margins of the smugglers, and then set the import taxes at such a level as to make it unprofitable for them to conduct business. Combined with the savings from reduced enforcement, the government began to yield more tax revenue than before. Better to collect less tax on more goods, than more tax on fewer goods. It's not that I'm in the business of giving governments advice on how to fleece their populations, but we need governments and governments, so far in history, need taxes to operate. This ham fisted approach of combating cigarette smuggling wastes police resources, wastes taxpayer money and undermines basic civil liberties in a quest to achieve the impossible. You can't, however, completely blame the legislators for missing the obvious. When you're a statist, every problems seems to require the "solution" of more government.
A Mooch is a Mooch for All That
Stop me if this gets familiar:
Look to the map and towards Hadrian’s Wall for both reason and solution. Cameron got 306 seats (against Brown’s 258), just 20 seats short of an overall majority. But Brown’s 258 included 41 from Scotland (out of 59 Scottish constituencies). Without these Scottish seats, the Labour party would have got only 217 to the Conservatives’ 305 and Clegg’s 46 (to which he would be reduced if he did not have his current 11 Lib Dem seats in Scotland).
This injustice could be put right simply by saying politely to the Scots that we would like to separate, psephologically and politically. Let them run Scotland their own way. They are perfectly well equipped to do so. They could even turn themselves into a rich tax haven, a mini Switzerland, given their wealth of world-beating financial services, lawyers and golf courses.
Though no one has really had the guts to point this out in Canada, but Stephen Harper already has a majority government, in English Canada. What applies above to Scotland, applies equally to Quebec. Though I doubt the Quebecois would turn themselves into a New World Switzerland.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Britain's Top Ten Prime Ministers
As second guessing the professional media is the raison d'être of this, and come to think of it, most blogs, we provide a counter list to the Top 50 British Prime Ministers proposed by the Times. My criteria? High marks for successful leadership in a conflict which threatened the survival of Britain. Pushing through a major piece of constitutional reform - Mr Blair's efforts were not reform but a vanity inspired bit vandalism - is also a big plus. Generally keeping in mind that people create wealth, not governments, also earns high marks in calculating the following list. The goal here is more to show those who most influenced the course of subsequent history, rather than those whom the author personally admirers.
10. Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) - Saving Britain from socialist driven collapse was, of course, her signature achievement. Playing Robin to Reagan's Batman in the last days of the Cold War, enough alone to earn her that statue in the Parliamentary lobby. The Falkland War was significant not for its military success, it could easily have become a disaster, but its symbolic importance. A free nation had not tamely submitted to a brazen act of aggression. Having left the NHS in place was her greatest failure, yet like Canadian Medicare, the reverence for this socialistic relic made it politically untouchable. Her biggest mistake was in cutting defense spending in real terms through out her eleven years in office. In early 1982 she had approved of major cuts to the navy, including the sale of the two aircraft carriers, HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes. Had the Argentinian invasion come a year or so later, when the cuts had taken effect, the Falkland campaign could not have been fought.
9. David Lloyd George (1916-1922) - One of my least liked PMs, yet he would no doubt have made a fascinating dinner guest. I can imagine him and Dizzy trying to one-up the other. Who would be more charismatic, the smooth talking Welshman or the elegant lapsed Jew? The headline accomplishment for Lloyd George was having held the country together during the last two years of the First World War. A politician of lesser talent could have let the Empire and even the country fall to bits. He is today better remember for emasculating the House of Lords, and being - along with his predecessor H.H. Asquith - a major architect of the British welfare state. I rank him so high not, I repeat, out of personal admiration but recognition of his enormous influence on subsequent British history. Even if most of that influence was bad.
8 Herbert Henry Asquith (1908-1916) - If David Lloyd George was Britain's Trudeau, then its Pearson was H.H. Asquith. Contrasting sharply with the Welshman's easy eloquence and keen sense of high drama, Asquith's understated style, and careful plotting, gave ballast and direction to one of the most influential ministries in British history. Along with Lloyd George, and a very young Winston Churchill, he helped lay the foundations of the British welfare state. He was broken by the First World War, driven from power just shy of the half-way mark of Europe's first serious attempt at mass suicide.
7. Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey (1830-1834) - Napoleon had a brandy named after him, Wellington a dinner course and the shepherd of the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, a tea. The simplest thing to say about Earl Grey is that he fought for all the right causes, in about as intelligent a manner as possible, for most of the right reasons, for pretty much the whole of his career. He was, instinctively a Burkean, indeed he even helped manage the Warren Hastings trial, and wherever possible tried to introduce change gradually, allowing people time to adjust to new circumstances. He pushed for dramatic change only when necessary. In describing his landmark Reform Act of 1832, which dramatically increased the number of people who could vote, he said that any further expansion of the electoral roles would be done "according to the increased intelligence of the people, and the necessities of the times." He was no starry eyed utopian, but a practical statesman of shrewd vision.
6. William Pitt, the Younger (1783-1801, 1804-1806) - His career beggars belief. This Minerva-like political genius became Prime Minister just before his twenty-fifth birthday, and this was after he had been Chancellor of the Exchequer at twenty-three. His meteoric ascent was due to good fortune, most of the other plausible candidates (Shelburne, Rockingham) had died unexpectedly, were discredited (North) or viscerally despised by George III (Charles Fox). After the third request, Pitt accepted George III's offer to form a government. Despite losing a succession of parliamentary votes, including clear no confidence measures, Pitt hung onto power with the King's support. Eventually the opposition collapsed and Pitt's power was only seriously threatened again by the temporary madness of the King. The French Revolution ended Pitt's plans for parliamentary reform, as well as his elaborate Sinking Fund for paying off the national debt. It solidified his hold on power and the opposition shrunk to a handful of members. He died with Napoleon dominating much of Europe, yet he had laid the foundations for eventual British victory nearly a decade later.
5. William Pitt, the Elder (1766-68) - The year was 1759, the annus mirabilis. Pitt was not Prime Minister then, yet from his perch as Secretary of State for the Southern Department (a kind of super-ministry that combined elements of defense, home, colonial and foreign affairs) he dominated the Duke of Newcastle's ministry. In his youth he had opposed Sir Robert Walpole's refusal to intervene in continental affairs, and had an uneasy relationship with George III, particularly when the monarch tried to force an early end to the Seven Years War. It was in that war that Pitt engineered a military turnaround unprecedented in the country's history. From the verge of defeat, with only Prussia as an ally, Pitt snatched key French colonies in North America, the Caribbean and India, while laying the groundwork for later successful attacks on Cuba and a defense of Portugal from Franco-Spanish invasion in 1762. It was from this point on that Britain assumed its place as a global power, which it would retain until the Suez Crisis almost exactly two centuries later. His actual time as Prime Minister was short and disastrous. A defender of the interests of the American colonists, he was too ill to resist the meddling efforts of his ministers, especially Charles Townshend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and his government succeeded only in further alienating America. For the remainder of his political career he continued to fight for American liberty, only to be dismissed as a spent force at home, and as a hypocrite in America for having allowed Townshend to impose a new series of taxes without American consent. His last days were, like so much of his life, something out of Grand Opera. Delivering an impassioned speech in the House of Lords, urging reconciliation with America, pleading once again for the liberties of the subject, he collapsed. "If we must fall, let us fall like men" were suppose to have been his last words before being carried home. He could not have chosen them better.
4. Sir Robert Peel (1834-5, 1841-1846) - Like his hero Pitt the Younger, Peel was a prodigy, being made Chief Secretary for Ireland (effectively running the Irish government) while still in his twenties. At 34 he was made Home Secretary and launched a series of sweeping legal reforms, simplifying and consolidating the criminal law and reducing the number of capital crimes. In 1828 he established the world's first professional police force for Metropolitan London. An opponent of Catholic Emancipation - the granting of civil liberties of Catholics - he gave way out of fear of widespread unrest in Ireland. He made another vain effort to prevent the passage of the Great Reform Act. It's immediate effect was to make the old aristocratic Tory party obsolete. Issuing the first campaign manifesto in history, named after his family seat at Tamworth, he remodelled the Tories party so as to appeal to the new middle class electors. It is from this point that the modern Conservative Party marks its origins. His first ministry was unsuccessful, but in returning to power in 1841 he began gradually striping away Britain's long standing mercantilist policies, abolishing or reducing tariffs on some 1200 items. The last major hurdle to free trade, the necessity of which Peel had been convinced of for decades, was a series of tariffs on the importation of grain, know as the Corn Laws. The wealth of much of his agrarian political base was tied to high tariffs on grain imports, and they rejected his proposals. In 1846 Peel, with the support of the Whig opposition, passed a phased abolition of the Corn Laws. Shortly thereafter his own backbenchers combined with the Whigs to vote him out of office. In his last speech as Prime Minister he declared:
I shall leave a name execrated by every monopolist...but it may be...sometimes remembered with expressions of goodwill in the abodes of those whose lot it is to labour and to earn their daily bread in the sweat of their brow, when they shall recruit their exhausted strength with abundant and untaxed food, the sweeter because it is no longer leavened by a sense of injustice.
3. William Ewart Gladstone (1868-74, 1880-85, 1886 and 1892-4) - A keen student of mathematics and classics, he retained all his life a mastery of numbers and details. He once spent an hour, from memory, explaining to his cabinet colleagues the details of a budget he had just finished drafting. Beginning his career as the most reactionary of Tories, he at one point argued that the slaves members of his family owned were quite happy, he entered parliament in 1832. It was the beginning of a three decade long odyssey which saw Gladstone move from High Torydom to becoming the paragon of Victorian classical liberalism. His political Damascus moment, an appropriate metaphor given Gladstone's piety, was his appointment to Sir Robert Peel's second cabinet. Peel gradually talked Gladstone out of his reactionary and paternalistic attitudes, including one bizarre proposal to nationalized the new railroad industry. He followed Peel into opposition, and after the great man's death became one of the leaders of the Peelite faction in the Commons. By 1859 he brought the Peelites, and what remained of the Whig party under Lord Palmerston, to help form the new Liberal Party. It was in his role as Chancellor of Exchequer that he continued to reduce taxes and government spending wherever possible. He was obsessed with abolishing the income tax, introduce by the Younger Pitt to fight Napoleon, and re-introudced by Peel to help finance the transition to free trade. A naval arms race with France prevented Gladstone from achieving his goal. He did succeed, after much opposition, in abolishing taxes on paper, a long-standing policy intended on limiting newspaper distribution among the working class. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter hailed Gladstone's time as Chancellor:
Gladstonian finance was the finance of the system of 'natural liberty,' laissez-faire, and free trade...the most important thing was to remove fiscal obstructions to private activity. And for this, in turn, it was necessary to keep public expenditure low. Retrenchment was the victorious slogan of the day...it means the reduction of the functions of the state to a minimum...retrenchment means rationalization of the remaining functions of the state, which among other things implies as small a military establishment as possible.
Upon becoming Prime Minister in 1868 he fought to separate - disestablish - church and state in Ireland, despite his strong Anglican convictions. He pushed for an expansion of the franchise (the right to vote). The Army, the Civil Service and the Poor Laws were all modernized. His view of the emerging socialist movement was blunt:
...they are not your friends, but they are your enemies in fact, though not in intention, who teach you to look to the Legislature for the radical removal of the evils that afflict human life...It is the individual mind and conscience, it is the individual character, on which mainly human happiness or misery depends.
One could elicit Gladstone's sympathies for the sick and lame, for the rent seekers, of all classes, he had only implacable scorn. He was not consistently laissez-faire, having ordered the nationalization of the telegraph network, and the transformation of the Post Office into a kind of savings bank, yet he did more than any other Victorian figure to liberate British economic, political and social life. His few remaining statist instincts were mostly driven by a desire to help the thrifty and industrious poor who, through little fault of their own, fell on hard times or on a scanty retirement. He opposed socialism and collectivism, though perhaps not as heartily as he could have, thanks to his altruistic instincts. He stunned much of Europe by his regular support for trade unions and even large scale strikes, such as those of the London dock-workers in 1889. So strong was the legend of Gladstone that even Asquith and Lloyd George, fearing the rise of the socialist Labour party, invoked his memory on several occasions.
2. Sir Robert Walpole (1721-1742) - Fat, machiavellian, pragmatic and corrupt enough to have grown very rich from his two decades at the head of national affairs. His art collection was so famous that, after his death, it was bought by Catherine the Great of Russia, forming the nucleus of the Hermitage's collection of paintings. He is one of the least inspiring figures, as well as the first, to have occupied No 10 Downing Street. His enormous importance consists in having, essentially, created the office of Prime Minister. Unlike the office of President of the United States, for most of British history there was no statutory definition of the powers of the office of Prime Minister, or even the procedure for appointment. The term Prime Minister first appears in legal documents, a treaty, in 1878. In Walpole's day it was actually a term of abuse, suggesting that the minister in questions was beholden to the King and not Parliament. The office of Prime Minister was not so much created by Walpole as congealed by him over his time in power, establishing precedent with actions rather than through any expounded theory of government. With the emergence of Parliamentary supremacy after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, there became a practical constitutional issue of who wielded day to day executive power. If the King did, then what was the role of Parliament? If Parliament was to wield executive powers, who was to be invested with those powers? For practical purposes a nation cannot be run by some 650 MPs, someone has to be in charge, and after the authoritarian bungling of the Stuarts, it was less and less likely to be the monarch.
Walpole essentially bridged the constitutional gap, taking the existing office of First Lord of the Treasury, effectively the government financial controller, and leveraged its power over his colleagues in the Cabinet. By happy coincidence the reigning monarch, George I, spoke little English and stopped chairing cabinet meetings. Walpole simply replaced the King at the head of the table. While he disliked cabinet meetings, preferring to deal with ministers directly (making them easier to bully), his pre-eminence over this cabinet colleagues came from his delicate balancing of monarchical and parliamentary will. By holding the confidence of both Parliament and the King, he could effectively rule the country. This remarkable power was due to Walpole's personality, there being little legal or constitutional underpinning for his efforts. Yet it established a template, which, over the next century evolved into something resembling a modern prime ministership, including collective cabinet responsibility, non-confidence motions and the right choose ministers, regardless of the wishes of the monarch. It was the office of Prime Minister that allowed for the gradual shifting of executive powers from Crown to Parliament. It was a vital constitutional bridge, however improvised, that allowed Britain to become a modern liberal democracy, with little blood being spilled. Matched with his constitution making, though he rejected suggestions he was being innovative, was Walpole's focus on low taxation and peace. His power, he understood, came from the support of landowning backbenchers, who paid much of the country's taxes. Any increase in expenditure, sooner or later, would result in a tax increase, which would threaten Walpole's political position. The expense of war, he understood, would ruin him, as it ultimately did. He strove for peace among the Great Powers, because in peace lay his position. Taxation were generally abhorrent to Walpole, not out of deep personal conviction - he had few - but an old fashioned sense of political self-preservation. Born a few years after Walpole's political accession, Adam Smith noted the effects of the first Prime Minister's policies on the British economy, it boomed for twenty years after the collapse of the South Sea Bubble. All the while the French economy, and those of the other principal European powers, stagnated. More by accident than design, Walpole had demonstrated that less government leads to more prosperity.
1. Sir Winston Churchill (1940-1945, 1951-1955) - He was right about so many things, when so much of the political establishment was wrong. He was right to try to stop the spread of Bolshevism, including his dispatching of British and Imperial troops to aid the Whites, and assassins to kill Lenin. He was right about returning Britain to the gold standard after the inflationary growth of the First World War, though he set the price of gold in sterling at far above the market rate, forcing the Bank of England to hike interests rates to economy crippling heights. He saw the dangers of socialism, yet as one of the welfare state's godfathers he proved an inarticulate of critic of the Labour Party's post-1945 plans. During a notorious radio broadcast he said that Labour would need a "sort of Gestapo" to run the country. He saw the anarchy that would descend on much of the world when the British Empire collapsed, yet could offer only sentimental nostalgia for keeping it together. His brilliant mind saw opportunities where others saw the impossible. Sometimes the bungling of lesser men destroyed the opportunities, and nearly Churchill himself, as with the Gallipoli fiasco. He was brave to the point of reckless, having to be convinced not to join the early waves at Normandy by George VI. His faults mixed easily with his virtues. Yet at that precise moment in the history of civilization, when totalitarianism was at its maximum strength, when his ill-prepared country stood alone, he knew to act and how. In the flux of inter-war international politics, he saw the constancy of the threat. A handful of his distinguished predecessors had saved their country from its mortal enemies. In the Spring of 1940, he saved more than his country, he saved the very idea of liberty his nation had bequeath to the world.
Splitting the Truth
From Daniel Hannan
Yet again, a largely Eurosceptic country has elected a largely pro-Brussels legislature. A senior UKIP friend has run the figures, and tells me that UKIP cost the Tories 17 seats. If so, UKIP has probably let the Lib Dems into office: with five Sinn Fein MPs refusing to take their seats, 323 Conservative MPs would have constituted a bare majority.
Hannan's main point, in the quoted post, is that the split between the electorate, and the elected, over Europe has become was so great in the UK that a referendum on the EU's future is now required. It's a nice thought, but one that will never come to pass. Davy would never allow it. Mr Hannan has proven admirably loyal to party leader Tony Cameron, sorry, David Cameron. But what Hannan blogs, and Cameron says, are similar words from two very different spirits. Hannan is of Thatcherite blood. Cameron recalls Dizzy's famous quip about Sir Robert Peel's second ministry, "Tory men, Whig measures." While Hannan doesn't dwell on the point, it's quite plausible that UKIP denied the Tories a - very small - majority government.
Vote splitting, either on the Right or Left, is a famous bugbear of party strategists. The history of the divided Right in Canada seems to lend credence to the wrinkled brows at party HQs. The Reform-PC squabbling kept Jean Chretien in power for ten years. Fair enough. If your goal is partisan victory, unity at all costs should be your slogan. For the small government minded, however, tax and spending cuts are just as sweet coming from politicians wearing red ties as ones wearing blue ties. The emergence of the Reform Party kept the Chretien-Martin gang in power for a decade, but they also kept them on their toes. Fearing being outflanked on his Right, as Pearson thirty years earlier had been outflanked on his Left by the Tommy Douglas led NDP, Chretien fought to balance the budget and even cut the odd tax. It was still, no doubt about it, a Liberal government. The long-gun registry was a uniquely Grit fiasco of cost-overruns, regional pork barrelling and blithe intrusions in basic liberties. Not to be out done, the Harper Tories are proposing to import the Drug Wars from the United States. The worst thing to happen to Canadian conservatism since 2006 is the Conservative Party's grassroots providing near solid support for their leader. A complacent party base had effectively given license to the pragmatic tendencies of partisan operatives. It's hard enough winning elections, say the hacks, why make things harder by worrying about principles? The answer is very simple. Principles are the point. A Conservative Party that governs to the Left of the previous Liberal government, is a wasted effort in political duplication. Another Right of Right Party might put Stephen Harper on the unemployment lines. It might also do wonders for the cause of small government in Canada.
Blue Tory anger at David Cameron
The Telegraph is reporting that the ‘right-wing’ section of the British Conservative Party is unhappy with the Liberal Democrat coalition deal. They have a right to be unhappy, not just with the deal but with the election in general.
David Cameron followed what we would call in Canada a Red Tory strategy (they would say Wet Tory in the UK). Basically he presented a moderate front that is suppose to reach out to people that don’t traditionally vote Conservative. Specifically he was interested in gaining seats in Scotland, a region that is full of anti-Tory sentiment to such a great extent that there is legitimate fear that a Tory government could lead to Scottish separation by its very existence.
In the cause of winning Scottish and ‘moderate voters,’ David Cameron reversed classic Conservative positions on Europe, watered down Conservative economic ideas, and blatantly almost rudely distanced himself from Margaret Thatcher. Really it was a pointless exercise. Scottish Labour Party acted like it was running against Lady Thatcher not Mr. Cameron and the Scottish people voted to keep a neo-Thatcher from coming to power, even though Mr. Cameron is not a neo-Thatcher in any sense. At the same time traditional Tories, that would have wanted Mr. Cameron to defend Lady Thatcher’s legacy, were annoyed at the Conservative leader.
The proof is in the pudding. Labour has not been so unpopular in nearly thirty years and yet David Cameron failed to win outright. If it hadn’t been for the unpopularity of Gordon Brown and the tiredness of the Labour government, it is almost certain that David Cameron would have lost.
So the Red Tory strategy fell flat once again and now the Blue Tory (if I can call it that) section of the party has to swallow yet another pill: coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
I posted yesterday that there was some good in the Con-Lib coalition policy agenda. The civil liberty aspects of the deal alone will warm my heart to the new government. Still there are things that have conservatives legitimately irked. The greatest of these is the increase of the capital gains tax, which runs against all conservative economic theory for the last forty years. If David Cameron had tried to raise capital gains tax while holding a majority he would likely have faced a back bencher’s uprising.
Basically Conservative MPs and grassroots are both being told to hang tight for the sake of government. But governing is not the sole cause of a political party; the Conservative Party is more than a mere vehicle for David Cameron to win power. It is also an organization of ideological perspectives with a policy agenda.
Mr. Cameron should keep in mind that there is a limit to how much a leader can ignore that agenda.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition policy
The details of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat (Con-Lib) coalition government have been released. Here is a quick analyses of the agreed upon policy.
The Con-Libs plan on immediate action to deal with the budget deficit. They will develop a long term plan that puts the concentrate on spending cuts rather than tax raises. To begin this process they will cut £6 billion in the 2010-2011 fiscal year.
The deficit is by far the most pressing issue facing Britain at the moment. The Labour Party wanted to wait to start cutting back spending. I am happy to see that the new government will be wiser and start dealing with this problem much sooner. This is compromised by their pledge to increase spending in NHS every year. But on general principle it is comforting that they are taking the issue seriously.
The Con-Lib tax policy is a bit of a mixed bag. First of all the good news is that they have agreed to scrap the Labour’s National Insurance increase. This, if you were going to have to raise taxes, would have been among the worst taxes to increase. Also the Con-Libs have committed themselves to raising the personal exemption on income tax.
This is balanced out by the Conservatives backing off from their planned inheritance tax cut and a capital gains tax increase. It is debatable which tax cut is better, the inheritance tax cut or tax exemption increase, so I don’t have a particular problem with that trade off.
Capital gains tax increase, however, is a significant mistake. Economic recoveries are dependent on people making investments. There is little more likely to discourage investment than a higher capital gains tax. Why would people take the risk of investment if they are going to be heavily taxed on the reward?
They want to establish a ‘bank levy’ unilaterally. This bank levy is meant to create a reserve that will be drawn upon to fund any future bank bailouts. This would put British banks at a disadvantage in the short term and institutionalize a destructive bailout culture in the long term.
Relations with EU:
They will stay out of the Euro (no kidding) and hold a referendum to approve any new giving up of power to the EU. Both of these are good and reasonable policies. A bill requiring a referendum every 10 years on continued membership with the EU would have been nice to see, but not likely with the Liberal Democrats being so heavily pro-Europe.
Significantly, the Con-Libs will fight for an exemption to the Working Time Directive, which requires all EU countries to place a 45 hour limit on everyone’s work week. Why someone would want to stop someone from voluntarily working more is beyond me. Isn’t hard work something we want to encourage?
This is, for a libertarian, the most exciting area of the Con-Lib policy document. They have committed to pulling back at the encroachments made on civil liberties by the Labour government. They will scrap the ID card, protect the right to a defence of trial by jury, and so much more. They are going to aptly call these proposals the Freedom or Great Repeal Bill.
If they accomplish everything that they say they will in this section, then this would likely be the greatest legacy of the Con-Lib government.
A Unilingual Welfare Trap, By Any Other Name
Pierre Le Grande, back when he was refashioning the Dominion in his own image, conceived of multiculturalism, and mass immigration from outside the British Isles, as a way of getting Canada past the French-English dualism that had plagued the country for over two centuries. A nation that conceived of itself as a mosaic, thousands of little pieces, rather than as two monolithic solitudes, would be less likely to tear itself apart. That having many tribes, rather than two, might create another more serious problem, such as cultural balkanization, was kind of missed in the brain storming sessions in Langevin Block. The new multi-ethnic and multicultural Canada rather than weakening the traditional ethnic divide, in fact exacerbated it. While English speaking Canadians accepted, at first grudgingly, waves of immigration from non-traditional sources, Quebec opted instead for a trickling from a clutch of Francophone countries. In other words, however colourful the mosaic was to get in Ontario, B.C. and even Alberta, Quebec was intent on keeping its tiles all of the same tone. One of the Two Solitudes gave up the fight, the other just carried on as usual, with some minor cosmetic changes.
The tedious narrative of Quebecois asserting their rights, after centuries of self-imposed backwardness, against the tyranny of the Anglo-Saxons, long ago lost its nationalist passion. The rapid collapse in support for separation after the 1995 referendum confirmed what many federalists had long suspected, Quebec nationalism was less a liberation movement that a cathartic exercise which had morphed into a large scale pressure group. Had they really meant it, the aftermath of 1995 would not have seen the pushing of the issue of independence, however misdefined, onto the back burner, but instead become a rallying point for future efforts. Instead of saying, "we nearly got it that time, let's try again," the Quebec electorate balked at the suggestion of another go round. The hard core nationalists would love to go for broke - perhaps quite literally given the state of the province's finances - and hold another referendum. The soft core nationalists, who have held the balance of power in the province for at least four decades, are less keen. Calls for sovereignty are to them merely bargaining chips, something even Jean Chretien admitted, likening support of the Bloc and PQ to a strike vote. The union rank and file doesn't necessary want to walk, they're just giving the negotiating team a strong hand at the table. It's in this context that the results of the following poll should be viewed:
The survey, commissioned for a weekend conference in Montreal marking the 20th anniversary of the failure of the Meech Lake accord, found 83 per cent of Canadians outside of Quebec oppose constitutionally recognizing that Quebec is a nation, while 73 per cent of Quebecers believe the Constitution should be amended with that recognition.
The term "distinct society," like "nation" today, as Brian Mulroney pointed out when shilling for Meech Lake, would have meant precisely nothing in legal or financial terms. It was a salve to Quebec's nationalist ego. The ROC regard the idea of calling Quebec a "nation" instinctively repugnant. To them Canada is their nation. To most Quebecois, however, Canada is only a convenience. Four decades of constitutional and financial appeasement have given English-speaking Canadians a weakened sense of national identity, an overweening government and more recently a series of minority governments. The post-Pearson era of steadily escalating rounds of appeasement, countered by more blackmail, have, in effect, exported the costs of Quebec's tribal politics to the rest of the Dominion. Pierre Trudeau, trying to out shout the Gang of Eight Premiers who initially opposed his attempts at patriation, would ask at the time: "Who speaks for Canada?" After two generations of trying, in Quebec the answer is still no one.
PM hopes you won't read blog on libertarian right
If you think that the Conservative Party’s connection to the religious right is scary, then I have something even more frightening for you: many Conservative Party stalwarts have contacts with LIBERTARIANS!
I know, I know, this is a scary thought. You would prefer to think that libertarians and politics would stay far away from each other. But there is a pattern, in Mr. Harper’s own inner circle, of constant contact with organizations that are affiliated with libertarianism.
For example, just last year Minister Jason Kenney and long time Harper ally Scott Reid were seen at an event put on by the notorious Institute for Liberal Studies. This is an organization created and led by youthful people who are dedicated to their ideological message. Minister Kenney may claim that he has no connection to the organization. But he talked to them! Come on that has to mean something! Conspiracy is clearly going on here.
This is not the only connection. Mr. Harper’s former Chief of Staff has been known to speak at events put on by the Fraser Institute. And everyone knows that the Fraser Institute is a front for free market radicals. Once again the Conservatives might claim a distance from this organization but go to a Fraser Institute event and find out how many people there have ever been members of the Conservative Party. If you go to a Fraser Institute ‘student seminar’ you will likely find at least one member of a conservative provincial youth wing. What more evidence do you need? You can clearly connect plenty of doubts to show that Harper’s hidden agenda is not so hidden.
Now don’t worry, Mr. Harper’s political survival instincts dominate all considerations. So he knows that he cannot be too openly libertarian. Yet a free market policy agenda is advancing so incrementally, almost nobody notices.
Conservative liberalization of the telecommunications industry seemed like common sense. Also lowering corporate taxes sounded like a darn fine idea. Apparently these were celebrated by libertarians as signs of political triumph. For conspiracy theorists looking for hints of a libertarian takeover, this presents the Prime Minister's Office as the grassy knoll.
Many percolating issues suggest libertarian influence is gaining traction in policy. It can be argued that the important wall between libertarianism and federal politics has become so porous it's crumbling.
If this budding culture war flattens the Liberals in the next election, perhaps this is a glimpse at the operating manual of a majority Conservative government.
(Does this make no sense to you? It doesn’t to me either. So stop your pointless fear mongering about people who are religious advocating their views. All perspectives should be welcomed in any meaningful political debate.)
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
The crisis of socialism, part 2
While rioters hasten the process of reducing the remaining vestiges of the fallen Roman capital of Athens to complete ruin, the elephant in the room is waving for attention: the truth about the fiscal situation of the Western world as a whole is getting some fleeting notice.
Most to the centre-left continue to wave off concerns about deficits, and those who are concerned about government debt loads, advocate for the nationalization of banks, and have governments do absurd things like print money to pay off public debt (like Zimbabwe) or impose strict capital controls (like Venezuela and advocated for by Paul Krugman).
Even then, those exceptions that acknowledge the problem, are indecisive on when to do something about it -- certainly not now. Working class people need to be protected, after all. So keep injecting those hot heroine needles.
I’ve turned my gaze on the left on this issue, despite the fact that many on the right are actually making the same mistakes, because while the right are talking the talk and not walking the walk, people on the left actually believe in these policies which are so obviously indefensible.
People on the left actually believe that public debt taken on in the name of social justice is good thing, an acceptable thing, and the only moral choice.
People on the left actually believe that economists should be as much moralistic as anything else. For instance, those on the left think that labour is the core unit of all value, and therefore all labour should be equitably priced, as a matter of policy, irrespective of actual supply and demand of say, things like skills, specialties, and experience.
Leftist economics are moralized. They’re not purely analytical. In this sense, leftist economists conflate the science of economics into the practice of social justice. Their interpretation of economic theories are not independent of social goals. A valid economic theory therefore is contingent on, not independent of, moral conclusions about economic equality.
For this reason, I pick on the left. Because, I do not see why the leftist intelligencia cannot see the flaws in their own reasoning. That, the impending economic failure of states like Greece, and the provinces like Quebec, are because of government mismanagement of resources, and over-leveraging. Not simply a function of inadequate tax levels, and lack of government control over economic affairs.
In the example of Quebec; Quebec has among the highest income taxes, receives about 50% of all equalization payments (about $8 billion last year), has pretty much the worst healthcare in Canada (Montreal doesn’t even have an air ambulance service), etc. And they have the third-worst deficit position in the developed world, behind Greece and Italy. Quebec’s debt-to-GDP ratio is 94%.
As it turns out, the Quebec government is demanding it’s equalization payments be doubled to over $20 billion a year to -- wait for it -- reimburse them for the hardships of the higher dollar that Alberta's oil creates.
Considering that Alberta gives out about $19 billion in transfer payments every year, and Quebec accepts slightly less than that, we can basically say that Alberta completely subsidizes Quebec's equalization transfer.
I’m sure Albertans are excited about the prospect of further subsidizing Quebec’s generous social programs.
But the land of seven-dollar-a-day daycare (for which there are two-to-three year waiting lists to get into in many cases) and the cheapest universities (for their own residents) is demanding more from the rest of Canada.
The crime of the equalization program is that the worse Quebec’s fiscal position gets, relative to the rest of Canada, the more and more the rest of Canada “owes” them. It is a system that has gone from it’s original stated purpose of providing equal services for roughly equal taxes, to a system of punishing the successful and rewarding the incompetent. And if managing to get your fiscal position to the third-worst in the developed world isn’t incompetence, I don’t know what is.
If and when Quebec has a crisis with it’s government bonds, the rest of Canada will not only be required to transfer them large sums of money, but the average Canadian will see food prices and household goods prices skyrocket as the Canadian dollar is devalued to inflate our way out of the crisis.
Yet, the solution to the problem, which is for Quebec to slash social spending, and for the rest of Canada to stop rewarding their excess, is deemed “socially irresponsible” or worse, a rehash of “Thatcherism”.
We are on a collision course with disaster, in the Western world as a whole. The entitlement culture we have is driving us to the very brink. We don’t just desire unaffordable government spending: left-leaning folk demand it as a basic human right.
Healthcare is a right. Education is a right. Daycare is a right. Housing is a right. Until the government can’t pay for it anymore. But then you can always just start nationalizing industry, and expropriating whatever wealth you can find.
What people refuse to believe and understand about this crisis, is the link between government monetary inflation, the banking cartels and the credit bubble we witnessed.
People simply see the problems as manifest of uncontrolled free market. They see none of it as the result of the squandering of capital by government, either through currency devaluation or through borrowing. They see nothing in the printing trillions of dollars, giving it to private banks at a discount, and then experiencing asset bubbles perpetuated by an over-supply of cheap credit, that points to a problem with government control over money.
But in the end, the free market will be vindicated. That is, after all the world’s governments are brought to their knees by the laurels of their own failed and failing policies. The scapegoat of Wall Street or Bay Street is already starting to wane, as people are more and more, waking up to reality that the fruits of the working person’s labour, is being squandered far more efficiently by their government, than by any man with a twirly mustache.
The Virtues of OK
Repeat after me. Bland is Good, Bland is Good, Bland is...
Canada’s banks face high capital requirements and a cap on their leverage, such that their assets cannot exceed 20 times their capital (a lot less than the corresponding figure for many Wall Street firms and European banks). Canadians who take out mortgages worth more than 80% of the value of the property must also take out insurance against default from a federal agency, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The banks must insure the rest of their mortgage book with the corporation. It helped, too, that Canada has a single banking regulator. The big five banks snapped up the leading stockbroking firms in the 1990s, becoming universal banks. But, whether through luck or judgment, they never became too dependent on investment banking. And, mirabile dictu, their shareholders managed to ensure that bankers’ bonuses were kept within modest bounds.
Naturally, to the politician goes the perception of success. The economy does well, the political leadership receives applause. The economy does poorly, those in power are blamed. In the run up to the G20 summit, Stephen Harper is looking like a genius, due to the relative stability of our banking system. Yet the apparent virtue, dear Brutus, is not in the Prime Minister but in our history. Alexander Mackenzie, Canada's second Prime Minister, was honest enough to admit that at best governments have as much impact on improving an economy as "flies on a wheel." Few modern politicos display such modesty. The origins of Canada's conservative, highly diversified (by sector, function and region) and oligopolistic banking system date to before Confederation. The real credit lies with Sir John A Macdonald, who insisted on banking being a federally regulated industry, with high legal barriers to entry. This was done to avoid the perceived short-comings of wildcat banking in the United States coming north. A secure banking system, reasoned John A, was better than a free one.
There is a price to all this stability. As the article goes onto note, Canadian banks tend to be pricer and less innovative than their American and some European counterparts. This may seem like an intelligent trade-off, yet it is a false one. The article fails to mention the rotten heart of the American financial system, the ground zero of the 2008 crash, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These quasi-private firms could borrow with implicit government backing, shifting the risk to taxpayers, while privatizing the gains. Compare this to Fannie and Freddie's little known older sister, Ginnie Mae. Ginnie does the same thing that Freddie and Fannie do, package mortgages and sell them. The difference is that Ginnie is wholly owned by the US Federal government, and backed by the "full faith and credit of the United States." Because it is a government agency, its books are subject to public review and the agency is part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Compared to Ginnie Mae, it was easier for Congress to lean on Freddie and Fannie to help securitize risky mortgages for politically favoured groups. Freddie and Fannie's uncertain legal status with the federal government, its backing was only implicit, made them especially vulnerable to political blackmail. Ginnie Mae taking on increased risk would have shown up on governments books, and there were legal and constitutional safeguards that Ginnie Mae could use to fend off predatory politicians. The failure of Freddie and Fannie, and the world-wide financial cascade their near collapse triggered, was not due to the alleged free-market nature of the American banking system, but due to the quasi-private legal status of two of its main pillars. It was once said that you could not serve both God and mammon. It is certainly true, as the case of Freddie and Fannie has demonstrated, that a for-profit firm cannot serve both the market and government. That is the lesson that deserves to be remembered by students of sound banking. Not the intricacies of the over-regulated oligopoly that underserves Canadian consumers. Given the rhetoric emanating from the PMO, it's a lesson that Stephen Harper has not learned.
Ford to bring home the pork
Candidate for Mayor of Toronto Rob Ford boasted that he has connections in the federal government. He claims that this makes it easier for him to get pork from the Federal government than it is for the other candidates. Of course he didn’t call it pork but that’s what he is talking about. If you want more federal funding, Rob Ford is your man.
I find this very disappointing. Mr. Ford is supposed to be the fiscal conservative of the race. Bragging that you can get more federal funding than any other possible mayor does not strike me as something a fiscal conservative would do. He, and the other candidates, should be focused on how Toronto can take responsibility for its finances. Not talking about ways of get tax dollars from elsewhere.
It is the economy stupid/Ignatieff
Bruce Anderson, at the Globe and Mail, comments that the Liberals don’t seem to be anywhere on the economy. I would say that he has a point. It has been a while since I remember Mr. Ignatieff making a statement on the deficit, recession, debt, or any other economic issues. For the leader of the opposition it has all been scandal and outrage. This is bizarre considering that the economy is clearly the most important issue of the day, not the antics of a now dismissed Minister’s spouse.
In an effort to produce a positive message, the Liberals are now pushing for an emergency debate on MS. They want to fund a new possible treatment. I fail to see how MS constitutes an emergency (at least for the Parliament and Government of Canada), and I also fail to see what the opposition will gain by pushing this issue in this manner. It is certainly interesting and relevant that there are new possibilities for those suffering from MS, but how is this an issue that has to be pushed hard in the House of Commons? Is Mr. Ignatieff trying to politicize MS?
This is all particularly absurd because the decision to fund specific procedures is a Provincial competency not a Federal decision. So the Liberals are pushing for an emergency debate on an issue that is not an emergency, not within the Federal jurisdiction, and offers no clear political advantage.
I think I can guess the general attitude in the PMO towards Mr. Ignatieff:
With enemies like these, who needs friends?
Monday, May 10, 2010
The Census is useless for calculating demand
Census surveys are meant to aid the government in calculating how much services a particular area requires. This, however, is a fallacy. You can’t find out how many people are going to be sick or require bus services simply by counting them. Nor can you effectively do it by finding out their demographics. There is only one way to know how much of something a community needs: the price of that something in a free and open market.
Read this Freeman article for a full explanation.
Direct Competition? In Canadian Television?
Perish the thought:
Sensing a competitor in the marketplace, MusiquePlus objected to the AUX TV application, arguing the proposed programming would be directly competitive with its existing service. Avoiding direct competition has been a cornerstone of CRTC policy for many years, but it has typically been willing to define new offerings flexibly to allow for new entrants.
Despite a clear opportunity in the Quebec market and a comparable service in English, the commission rejected the application, offering a terse opinion that AUX TV would compete with MusiquePlus and that it was “not convinced that the safeguards presented in the application are sufficient to eliminate this risk.”
The risk being that the established firm, MusiquePlus, might have to, you know, compete against other firms offering a similar product. Like producers of detergent, hand soap, software, computers, fruit, petroleum, cell phones and even the televisions themselves. In modern Canada you can choose from a wide variety of flatscreen, wall mounted home theatre systems, equipped with wall shattering speakers, yet the actual content beaming out of those screens and speakers is regulated by a Trudeau-era relic of central planning.
The original rationale for the CRTC, and its forerunner the Board of Broadcast Governors, was to defend Canadian culture from the American menace. Put in nationalist tones it seemed to be a no-brainer. Just as Sir John A had defended the nascent Canadian manufacturing industry from American economies of scale, so broadcast regulation would allow Canadian culture to flourish. Taken out of the context of fervid nationalistic rhetoric, the argument for broadcast regulation appears as stark nonsense. Culture is not some floating abstraction, it is made up of the manners, mores and beliefs of a large group of people. The state does not create culture, since culture is the creation of artists and intellectuals who make it and the wider society who consume it. The second part is vital. What makes something culture is the acceptance of it by a critical mass of the population. The CRTC basically says you can skip the second part. A collection of government favoured cultural producers will tell Canadians what their culture is. What Canadians actually want is a secondary concern.
Given a choice between a contemporary American product, say Kojak, and its CanCon rival, the King of Kensington, Canadians viewers choose Telly Savalas sucking a lollipop. It might be American produced, American directed and American financed, but Canadians glued their eye balls willing to a middle aged bald man who every week said "Who loves ya baby?" Culture is what people decide is culture. It's a definition that changes over time and incorporates products of other nations. Those parts of American culture that are accepted by Canadians are Canadian culture, they are not some hostile army ready to undermine Queen and Country.
The one voice of sanity on the CRTC was the Quebec representative, Michel Morin, who dissented with the flourish: "Bring on competition as far as I am concerned!" First Maxime Bernier, now Michel Morin, a member of the CRTC no less. This remarkable outbreak of free thought, especially in a province whose politics can be characterized as Balkan tribalism sans firearms, is both surprising and welcome. Here's to hoping that all this Trudeaupian heresy spreads to Ottawa and into the PMO.
EU emergency fund is just putting off the inevitable
On Saturday German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Stephen Harper gave good advice to the industrial world, reign in your debt. Debt is a burden on every national economy and has nearly resulted in the collapse of Greece. The huge debt of these democratic societies is mostly due to ever growing welfare demands and putting off difficult decisions to a future date.
This seems to be the pattern everywhere. There is an almost universal lack of political will to make necessary cuts to ensure long term financial stability. Cuts are inevitable; eventually governments will run out of money, as Greece did. It is only a matter of time and the sooner something is done the better off everyone will be.
Sadly the Eurozone countries have not learned that lesson. They have taken measures not to enforce spending cuts and debt repayments, but to allow countries to continue to put off those tough decisions.
Yesterday it was agreed by Eurozone countries to create an emergency fund of a substantial amount of cash that is meant to prevent another Greek crisis. The problem is that now every government knows that this fund is there. Countries with shaky finances will be under less pressure to put their books in order.
Putting aside the morality of forcing taxpayers of one country to pay the debts of another country, this fund will not solve anything. All it will do is kick the need to reform down the road a little farther.
Europe should take the advice of Ms. Merkel and Mr. Harper and deal with the debt problem now, in a real substantial manner. Otherwise we will all be Greeks.
Sunday, May 09, 2010
New Experiences In The Wide World Of Wine
With spring upon us (at least officially, despite the grim weather in Western Canada over the last little while), it is high time that we flee the now restrictive surroundings of our homes and venture forth into back yards, onto lakes and out into the great outdoors at large. In Knox's eyes, no such trip is complete without a bottle of wine, to enhance already-great or to transform sometimes dull experiences into something memorable. For me, wine is like a great song that you hear during a memorable event, the memory of which then stays with you forever more. Hence, it is time for a few wine picks to start the season off right. The reds are:
Saturday, May 08, 2010
Plains of Abraham and Separatist whining
Separatists in Quebec are doing what they do best, complaining. This time they are, once again, complaining about a music festival that is taking place on the Plains of Abraham. They are claiming that the festival represents Anglophone culture and that taxpayer money should only be used to promote Francophone culture. Really this problem could be solved by the government not promoting any culture at all. That way if anyone wants to put on a French concert they can do it with their own money, but I admit that wasn’t the first thought that came to mind.
The first thought I had when I was reading the list of bands was that I really wish I could go: Iron Maiden, the Black Eyed Peas, Rush, Arcade Fire, Santana, Billy Talent and Rammstein. It sounds like an awesome time.
When I showed the list to my girlfriend she looked puzzled for a moment and said, “Isn’t Rammstein German?” A quick Wikipedia search proved that yes, Rammstein is indeed a German band.
So why aren’t the separatists afraid of promoting German culture? Could it be that the bands were not picked based on where they came from but because they are good? Could it be that the organizers wanted to attract the largest crowd and the most tourism that they could? Why are separatists so hostile to this?
This underlines the basic assumption of these ethno-nationalists. It doesn’t matter how good you are or how many people enjoy your music; if you are not one of them you are fundamentally bad.