Western Standard

The Shotgun Blog

« Agriculture producers honoured for innovative business-building ideas: AgChoices conference | Main | Shut up CAW »

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Wilkinson on "Canadian freedom"

Will Wilkinson -- in my opinion, one of the finest libertarians writing today -- has put up a new post comparing freedom in the United States to freedom in Canada. In it, he poses an interesting question to American libertarians.

If I look at actual indices that attempt, however imperfectly, to measure various freedoms, the U.S. and Canada come out pretty much identical on a classical liberal conception of freedom. And Canada comes out ahead on contemporary capabilities conceptions of positive liberty. To my mind, the evidence pretty strongly supports the conclusion that Canada is at least as free as the United States. Why is this a problem for some Americans?

Wilkinson claims that, in terms of "culture and political tradition", the U.S. is more libertarian, or at least more hospitable to libertarianism than Canada. But in terms of practice, he argues, Canada and the United States are not that much different when it comes to individual liberty.

In the comments to his post, I suggested that, at least on the left, there is a great deal of antipathy toward "unbridled, 'American-style' freedom of speech" in Canada. The left's support for section 13(1) of the CHRA along with its provincial equivalents seems like a good example of this. In my own experience, the left here in the U.S. is almost as hostile toward Canadian-style hate speech laws as Canadian libertarians are.

On any plausible ranking of liberties, freedom of speech ought to be high on the list: the kind of liberty that ought not to be restricted except under the most extreme circumstances. Arguably, the U.S. Bill of Rights recognizes this, as it states that "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech", whereas the Second Amendment prohibits Congress from infringing "the right of the people to keep and bear arms." The "abridging" language establishes a more stringent barrier to state interference than the "infringing" language.

It would be very difficult, if not impossible, for Canadian-style hate speech laws to pass constitutional muster in the United States.

In any event, while in practice the U.S. and Canada may be similar in terms of liberty, they are not identical in terms of freedom of speech. And, since freedom of speech is an extremely important liberty, this suggests that Canada may be less free than the United States, in terms of the freedoms that matter the most.

Check out Wilkinson's post for more discussion!

Posted by Terrence Watson on February 11, 2009 | Permalink


I've been trying to make the case that Canada is at least as free as the U.S. for a long, long time.

I even think our (Canada's) history is similar to U.S. history, with respect to love of liberty. We just forgot our history with Pearson-Trudeau ushering in a new dawn of Canadianness. It's like Canada didn't exist prior to these two clowns coming along and mucking things up.

We can focus on freedom of speech, but we would do well to attend to private property as well. Surely, freedom to own and enjoy property is as important as freedom of speech. And while, in America, they've got fancy pieces of paper with fancy language to the effect that the U.S. respects private property, "that" recent Supreme Court decision (which shall not be named) has cast doubt on the status of private property in the U.S. Meanwhile, in Canada, while we've never put the right to paper, our common law protections seem at least as good as U.S. protections. Maybe better!

At any rate, marking a significant difference between the two countries is ridiculous in a global context. Canada and the U.S. are nearly identical, with me putting Canada probably slightly ahead of the U.S. (civil liberties are much more secure in Canada, and our drug war is peanuts compared to the elephant down south.)

We really need to a) make it plain to everybody that Canada is a free country (damnit) and attempts to squelch our freedoms (like restrictions on expression) are unCanadian; b) emphasize our proud history and tradition of liberty, so that no one will say something stupid and historically ignorant like "freedom is what Americans care about, Canadians care about, uhm, togetherness and community and good government and candy canes and sugar pops," and c) more of a) and b).

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-02-11 3:06:03 PM


As one of my old (stupid) professors used to say, Canadians care about "soft power", and "togetherness and community and stuff."

What a jerk that guy was.

Anyway, I don't know how you can make the case that Canada is more CULTURALLY liberty-loving than the United States. To some extent, that's due to historical happenstance: Americans know their founders fought against government oppression, and that story still resonates with them quite a bit (historical nuances notwithstanding.)

Do Canadians have a similar mythology to ground a deep-seated suspicion of government authority? I don't know, but it's never seemed like it, at least to me.

At the same time, Wilkinson's probably right: institutionally, Canada and the U.S. are at similar levels of liberty. Maybe the point is that "institutions matter more than attitudes." For surely, the American gave way, almost from the beginning -- with the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798 -- to certain forms of oppression.

But that raises a puzzle for libertarians: given two societies, one more "institutionally" libertarian, the other more "culturally" libertarian, which would you choose to live in?

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-02-11 3:26:01 PM

Terrence, I'll choose institutional libertarianism over cultural libertarianism, although neither would last long without the other.

On a different matter, what does Wilkenson mean by "postive liberty"?

As for free speech and expression, the Muslim who complained against Maclean's and Steyn argued that their exclusion from the editorial pages of Maclean's was a violation of free speech and expression.

This is an excellent case to remind us free speech and expression rest on property rights. If not, the concept is meaningless or worse -- tyranical.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-02-11 3:45:07 PM

I guess I was too quick on the draw to catch the all-important qualifier.

Culturally, I think the U.S. is probably freer, and probably a touch more hostile to the state.

But, then again, I'm reminded of the war on drugs, the war on terror, and the kind of big government that Rush Limbaugh-style conservatives love, love, love. And while it's a stretch to think of Canadians as a country of people who make religious icons of various state institutions and politicians (Trudeau is an exception), Americans are busy constructing cathedrals to their presidents past and present, and basically taking a knee whenever confronted with the holy visage of Obama.

I hope I'm right about this, but I just can't see Canadians falling for the ridiculous idolatry of the politician-as-saviour quite like Americans have in the person of Obama. Maybe that culture of hostility to the state is waning or dying, Terrence. Maybe Obama is sounding the death-knell to that proud heritage and tradition of anti-state liberalism in America.

Just how liberty-loving can a culture be if they welcome their most recent snake-oil salesman with such glee and such heartfelt passion? I don't know. You tell me. Did they just misread Obama? Did they think that Obama was promising less government, less intervention, and more liberty? That's hard to believe.

The most interesting thing to say about Canada's identity is that it is at least as much about hockey as it is about some government document, government building, or politician. And I love it. It's about time a people's culture had less to do with the schmucks who sit in political office and more to do with the folks who don't instinctively think that every problem can be fixed by getting the guns and clobbering the non-consenters.

Having said all that, I'll still agree that, culturally, there may be more liberty-loving in the U.S. than Canada. But I do have reasons to doubt this story. At least since Obama came along...

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-02-11 3:52:11 PM


Wilkinson means all that crazy stuff I think you and I disagree about. :-)

But I agree that driving a vast gulf between institutional and cultural libertarianism is probably not a good idea. Except, maybe, for one thing: institutions have a kind of inertia, as well as internal motivation, that may produce surprising outcomes.

Public choice economists make much of this, because they'll point out that even a well-intentioned politician will often fail to meet his objectives because of the institutions he has to work with.

So when a libertarian politician (Harper? heh) has to work with bad institutions, the result will be something less than ideal. This isn't to say that institutions trump culture, only that they might be subject to different laws, incentive structures, etc.

So there's room for a gap, maybe, but not over the long run.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-02-11 3:56:34 PM


Obama wouldn't have been elected if not for (a) George W. Bush, and (b) the economic crisis. Or, at least, I doubt he'd be worshiped the way he is if not for those things.

It's true that Americans do find ways to worship their past presidents. I think that's an interesting side effect of the mythos: they're always on the look out for the next Jefferson or (more likely) the next Lincoln.

Of course, Jefferson, if not Lincoln, would have detested that kind of worship.

At this time, Obama fits the bill. He's coming in on the cusp of a crisis. He sounds good, a hell of a lot better than Bush. In many respects, he fits the profile of the Great Leaders of the Past (tm.) Thus, Americans have a lot of confidence in him.

He's a symbol. As long as he remains confident and looks and sounds like he can pull the country through the crisis, they're going to love the guy, almost no matter what.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-02-11 4:04:22 PM

Does that mean Wilkinson would support a government order to provide editorial pages in Maclean's to the Muslim complainants in the Steyn case?

Would he force eHarmony to provide match-making services to gays? I read about that in this issue of Reason magazine.

We'll have to have a beer sometime -- maybe many beers -- so that you can explain to me how this consistent with libertarianism.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-02-11 4:07:00 PM


You should ask him. I doubt he'd agree with those things (and neither would I, as a matter of fact.)

When he talks about positive freedom, I thinks he has in mind the public provision of health care. Being sick and not being able to afford medical care may (on this conception of freedom) leave one with less freedom.

I've argued on my blog that a robust conception of freedom can entail such things. The question then becomes, what, if anything, should the state do about it?

You can agree (a) that a person who broke both his legs in an accident has less freedom than he did before, but also (b) that, even then, it would be wrong for the state to coerce others into providing for his medical care.

I do agree with (a), and I think most people who aren't already libertarians talk about freedom in a similar way. The disagreement is over (b), the limits of state power. In the past, I've suggested that if you think freedom is valuable, and that this is why it ought to be protected, then you should also explain why, at least in some cases, it ought not also be promoted.

If you think freedom ought to be protected for some other reason (a consent story?) then this isn't something you have to explain. Although consent/social contract stories have their own problems...

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-02-11 4:20:26 PM

I should add that almost everyone credible on the liberal side of things agrees that private property is required for the kind of autonomy they promote (believe me, I've read almost all of them: Raz, Nagel, Rawls, Dworkin, etc.)

They do disagree about the _limits_ of private property. It might be that one can live a worthwhile, autonomous life without keeping 100% of one's pretax income. It may also be that the state would be ineffective at promoting autonomy, anyway: that, for example, a government-run health care system would be even worse for us than the fully private alternative.

But that's a different point, one regarding what the state CAN do, versus what it SHOULD do.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-02-11 4:30:25 PM

"When he talks about positive freedom, I thinks he has in mind the public provision of health care. Being sick and not being able to afford medical care may (on this conception of freedom) leave one with less freedom."

And this guy is your hero as well, Peter?

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-02-11 4:30:59 PM

I'm curious to know why Peter dates the decline of Canadian freedom to Pearson-Trudeau. It seems to me that things started going downhill when Laurier lost the 1911 election.

Posted by: Matt | 2009-02-11 4:45:07 PM

I think I prefer Limbaugh over Wilkinson.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-02-11 4:59:31 PM

"It seems to me that things started going downhill when Laurier lost the 1911 election."

I'm not tip-top on Canadian history, but the 1930s seemed like very losing years in the struggle against state power in Canada. So many state institutions and programs (including the Bank of Canada, Canadian Wheat Board, CBC etc.) have their roots in that era.

Posted by: Kalim Kassam | 2009-02-11 5:14:19 PM

Yeah but at least we have public healthcare.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-02-11 5:17:01 PM

"I think I prefer Limbaugh over Wilkinson."

If it's tearing down left-liberals that you like, maybe you just need to watch Wilkinson lull this one into a false sense of security, before striking at the core of his thesis with clear argumentation and winning major concessions. A delightful performance, with subtlety, charity, and intelligence I have never seen Limbaugh demonstrate: http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/17524

Posted by: Kalim Kassam | 2009-02-11 5:18:26 PM

I gave up listening.

These pompus idiots needs to get to the point a little faster.

And I'm not in a charitable mood.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-02-11 6:02:49 PM


The 1930s were definitely a bad time. I picked the 1911 election because until that point the Liberal Party had something resembling a classical liberal ideology. Once that was gone the rot set in Prime Ministers of both stripes began implementing bad policies.

Posted by: Matt | 2009-02-11 9:43:10 PM

No way Canada is as free as the US. I mean our political leadership is far more statist - one man has all the power. In any case, yes, there is free speech. There is also the fact that the CRTC censors what we can watch on TV. Then we have a state sponsored media in the CBC. Something unique to soviet era countries. And of course lack of choice and freedom in healthcare. So tell me again how Canada is as free as the United States. Oh, one more, there are US states that have right to work laws - something non-existant in Canada.

One could argue that one time in history, under Laurier, we were much more economically free than the FDR America. But that was then.

Posted by: Faramir | 2009-02-12 12:01:19 AM

Oh, and how is defending the security of the motherland from wild eyed men looking to saw off all our heads not preserving our freedom? Frankly you don't know a damn thing about Rush if you think he loves big government conservatism.

Posted by: Faramir | 2009-02-12 12:04:41 AM

>It would be very difficult, if not impossible, for Canadian-style hate speech laws to pass constitutional muster in the United States.

In 1952 the US Supreme Court upheld the following Illinois state law:

"It shall be unlawful for any person, firm or corporation to manufacture, sell, or offer for sale, advertise or publish, present or exhibit in any public place in this state any lithograph, moving picture, play, drama or sketch, which publication or exhibition portrays depravity, criminality, unchastity, or lack of virtue of a class of citizens, of any race, color, creed or religion which said publication or exhibition exposes the citizens of any race, color, creed or religion to contempt, derision, or obloquy or which is productive of breach of the peace or riots. . . ."
-Beauharnais v. Illinois

Though the decision has since been narrowed considerably it has never been expressly overturned .

Posted by: Nbob | 2009-02-12 1:36:28 AM

is there some weirdness here - I see my last post is listed under "recent comments" but the actual comment doesn't appear ??
does this one? Testing 1.2.3.....

Posted by: Nbob | 2009-02-12 1:47:07 AM


Yeah, you reminded me of the Illinois law about a year or so ago. But it was narrowed. It doesn't have to be expressly overturned. The Supreme Court never explicitly overturned the Alien and Sedition laws, did it? But we both know there's no way those laws would be upheld, if they were challenged (now or even in the past.)

Besides, even granting that a state hate speech law might be allowed to stand, what about a federal one?

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-02-12 4:06:05 AM

"Frankly you don't know a damn thing about Rush if you think he loves big government conservatism."

Faramir, he may not love it, but he sure embraces it with enthusiasm:

"If they can give ACORN $4.1 billion then we can start paying our groups with federal money. We're going to do exactly to them what they have done to us. We're going to build and use the big government that they have built and turn it right against them. We are gonna turn the power of government against the left, and against Democrats in ways they cannot imagine. They will not know what hit them. They are using the law. They are using government to advance a cause that is un-American. . . . We are going to use the power that left is centralizing in the federal government to punish them, to break 'em up, and to make them pay for this. It's time for tit-for-tat. Nice guy playing by the rules when they don't, is over. It's time they got a taste of their own medicine, and it's going to happen, folks, because they're not going to hold power forever."

Posted by: Kalim Kassam | 2009-02-13 9:12:35 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.