Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Everybody else is wrong today

Well, no, they aren’t. But today I find myself disagreeing with a lot of smart people from whom I often take guidance, and so it seems that way.

Why Andrew Smith is wrong

Andrew's blog has interesting thoughts on the origins of the Canadian banking system. I hope he publishes his paper or adds it to his blog soon. But he seems, ah, unpersuasive in his argument that Canada’s strong banking system reflects the anti-democratic culture in Canada. Andrew declares (I’ve added numbers to his sentences) that --
the political culture and institutions of Canada were, in the 1860s and 1870s, significantly less democratic than the United States. 1) Although a higher proportion of adult males in Canada enjoyed the right to vote than in Disraeli’s Britain, politicians in Canada still regarded “democracy” as an American, and therefore suspect, concept. In the northern United States, nearly every white man had the right to vote, but the franchise in Canada was restricted by a variety of property qualifications. 2) Canada’s elites believed in a system that blended monarchy and aristocracy with democracy. 3) Even today, there is considerable resistance in Canada to the idea of direct democracy. 4) Most politicians in Canada and the United Kingdom still look with horror upon the idea of elected judges and the frequent use of referenda in California and other American states!
This seems wrong in every sentence.

Sentence 1. Who votes? I'd guess a larger proportion of adult males voted in Canada than in the United States at confederation. Smith’s assumption that non-white males don’t count in the tally sounds like what the framers of the American constitution believed, and many other Americans were discouraged from registering and otherwise voting. But in any case most Canadian adult males voted. John Garner’s The Franchise and Politics in British North America, 1755-1867 (1969) remains the most detailed study of this topic (alas). In British North America, Garner wrote, “no numerous and important segment of the population was excluded from exercise [of the vote]. The general populace had it within their power to choose general assemblies to their liking.” That’s slightly too rosy a picture, true, but something close to universal manhood suffrage applied in much of Confederation-era British North America. The legend that voting was limited to some imaginary elite has lasted far too long.

Sentence 2. What did elites believe? I’ll add one more newspaper quote to Andrew’s collection:
“We are a democratic people.”
That’s George Brown (or his editorial writers reflecting his views) in The Globe, October 26, 1864. Brown is “elite” if anyone is. When this description of 1864-era Canadians was printed, he was wielding great influence at the confederation conference in Quebec. His declaration of democracy was part of his vigorous explanation of why the Quebec Conference would ensure that the unrepresentative, “aristocratic” Senate would be weak, a mere show pony, while the rep-by-pop legislatures would be the focus of authority in Ottawa and in each province. Still seems a good idea to me.

Sentences 3 & 4. Resistance to direct democracy? Damn right there was and is, and nothing to be sneered at. Actually, the Ameican founders resisted direct democracy too. They preferred “republican” values to “democratic” ones, equating democracy with mob rule, and put in many controls to limit the power of the ordinary voter. It’s worth remembering that as recently as 2000 the "democratic" American system put the candidate who was defeated in the popular vote into the White House, that in the very powerful American Senate the 2 million people of South Dakota and Wyoming have as much representation as the 50 million of California and New York. I won’t belabour the point; those interested in pursuing the degree to which democratic theory prevails in American practice might consult the 2002 work of the distinguished American political scientist and constitutional scholar Robert A. Dahl, How Democratic is the American Constitution? (Hint: not so much.)

But, more to the point, to define democracy as plebiscitary rule is to abuse the language. There is nothing anti-democratic in preferring representative democracy over direct democracy. They are both forms of democracy and, given the disaster that budget-making-by-plebiscite has created in California in recent decades, all those theorists and constitution-makers, both American and Canadian, who have preferred the representative kind as inherently more just and more effective, do not deserve to be called either elitist or anti-democratic.

Why the Mowat Centre is wrong

The Mowat Centre, a thinkthingee at the University of Toronto, declares that Canada’s House of Commons is uniquely unrepresentative.

This claim seems absurd on the face of it – see my note above about the unrepresentativeness-by-design of, to take one nearby example, the immensely powerful American Senate and Presidency. It is true and unfortunate that the House of Commons has drifted away from the rep-by-pop principles adopted by the makers of confederation in 1864. But frankly the slight over-representation of rural Canada in today's Commons hardly poses an existential threat to Canadian government.

What is most striking about the Mowat study is how the critique of the Commons seems mostly advanced to support the authors’ true goal: Senate reform. For the Senate is spectacularly unrepresentative of the population, and most reform proposals (Triple-E) are intended to make it even more unrepresentative. How serious can the authors of this study be about representation if they want to shift power from a slightly unrepresentative Commons to an entirely unrepresentative Senate?

Why Patrick Monahan and David Schneiderman are wrong

The two constitutional scholars were on As It Happens Tuesday night (audio may be here, though I have not listened to it all to check) discussing the cabinet’s refusal to yield to Parliament’s demand for delivery of certain documents. Monahan seemed more supportive of an unaccountable executive than Schneiderman, but both men seemed to take it for granted that Parliament is and should be largely decorative. Both believed, as legal scholars often do nowadays, that the important contest was not between the executive and the legislature, but between the executive and the courts. If Parliament could pass the right laws, Schneiderman ventured, then the courts might be able to enforce them on the executive. But the idea of an executive directly accountable to an elected legislature seemed entirely foreign to both legal scholars.

Why Janet Ajzenstat is wrong, maybe

Mostly I agree with Janet’s argument about free speech traditions in Canada. And I’m not sure if she is actually arguing that Ann Coulter’s failure to speak in Ottawa last night was a blow to free speech.

I have doubts, to say the least, about most of our hate-speech laws and regulations. But the solution is to work to get the laws amended, limited, or off the books.

When controversialists comes to Canada specifically to practise polemical hate-speaking, I’m inclined to let them. But I don’t think it’s improper for a host university to point out to one of them that anti-hate laws do currently exist in Canada and her stock-in-trade remarks might fall afoul of them.
Follow @CmedMoore