‘Nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action,
but not the execution of any human design.’
Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)

14 November 2011

Canada Sidesteps the Bureaucrats

Students of public choice theory will recognise the rationale behind the Canadian government’s recent effort to cut waste.

In response to an access-to-information request, the Treasury Board released a ‘Statement of Work’ announcing that a private consulting firm was hired to recommend ways to eliminate the federal deficit by 2014-15 (currently between CAN $32-36 billion); specifically to ‘advise the government on the Strategic and Operating Review ... that will eventually trim $4 billion from $80 billion in annual program spending.’

In a contract that began 15 August and will run to the end of March, the firm will be paid $19.8 million — on average $90,000 a day.

Replying in the House of Commons, Jim Flaherty, Minister of Finance, said that ‘there actually is some waste in government. Governments can actually reduce their expenses. We should not do it ourselves solely. We should get advice and expertise from the private sector. For every $1 of spending on experts, we expect $200 of savings, which is a pretty good deal.’

Criticism has taken two recognisable forms. First among them are the Keynesian defenders of public spending — and for government economic intervention regardless — especially at a time of chronic unemployment.

The second tranche of critics, however, has clear implications for public choice: Why, it is argued, with a cache of experienced and knowledgeable civil servants, is the government hiring a private firm to advise it?

‘If bureaucrats are ordinary men, they will make most of (not all) their decisions in terms of what benefits them, not society as a whole,’ was Gordon Tullock’s response in the public choice classic, The Vote Motive. ‘As a general rule, a bureaucrat will find that his possibilities for promotion increase, his power, influence, and public respect improve, and even the physical conditions of his office improve, if the bureaucracy in which he works expands.’

Relying on the public sector alone may not suit a government committed to reduction, but does it have the right to sidestep the civil service? It does, for as Ludwig von Mises argued in Bureaucracy, ‘It is not for the personnel of the administration and for the judges to inquire what should be done for the public welfare and how the public funds should be spent. This is the task of the sovereign, the people, and their representatives.’

But von Mises’s endorsement comes with a caveat: While the objectives of profit management are easy to calculate — ‘profit’, the criterion for which the consultants were ostensibly hired — those of bureaucratic management are far less so.
They sometimes turn out to be the result of special political and institutional conditions or of an attempt to come to an arrangement with a problem for which a more satisfactory solution could not be found. A detailed scrutiny of all the difficulties involved may convince an honest investigator that, given the general state of political forces, he himself would not have known how to deal with the matter in a less objectionable way.
They must conform to laws and regulations — in particular, they must adapt to political considerations which require a high degree of skill to master. (In Canada, for example, the governing ministry must balance regional and linguistic concerns, nowhere more so than with respect to Québec.)

The ideal outcome is a compromise, consisting of public servants, private consultants, and elected officials, all working together to realise best practices that eliminate government waste, while safeguarding government programmes that are demonstrably in the public interest.

In The Vote Motive, for instance, Tullock promotes competition ‘within bureaus’ and ‘between bureaus’ for cost-saving measures, while a columnist for the National Post presents a helpful suggestion:
Make the fee a percentage of the savings found and open the process to everyone — consultants, academics, members of the public, even civil servants. [...] Many bureaucrats, too, know how to make their departments more efficient, but are stymied by institutional inertia or internal politics. But if the budget-cutting process is opened up to all comers and if everyone proposing a useful solution is awarded 10% or even 5% of the savings their ideas generate, then sit back and watch the good ideas come from inside the public service itself.
Are civil servants up to the challenge and willing to call public choice theory’s bluff?

UPDATE: There have been developments since this essay was written in late September (and not posted until now due to ancillary difficulties): The Government of Canada has decided to incentivise the public service by linking bonuses to programme cuts. According to CBC News, Treasury Board president Tony Clement announced ‘that 40 per cent of “at risk” pay for senior managers would be tied to their ability to find the $4 billion in permanent savings the government is looking for in the next budget.’

26 July 2011

America’s Sublime Debt Ceiling Crisis

For many watching the ongoing debate in American politics about raising the level of the debt ceiling, the experience has been sublime — to use Edmund Burke’s definition to describe ‘whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror’.

At the heart of the debate are fundamental questions of politics: How much government do Americans want? Are they willing to pay for it? What are the socio-economic repercussions of the Welfare State?

Democrats see more government as an aid to individual freedom and self-realisation, whereas Republicans argue that more government is a detriment to those ends and will benefit primarily the political class alone. It becomes an existential contest between equality and liberty, respectively.

In the short term, the issue of increasing the federal government’s borrowing limits has been an opportunity for partisans to mount their favourite hobby horses, whether it’s spending cuts to grow the economy or in taxing the rich to make them pay their fair share — rationalising expenditure priorities and the possibility of the U.S. defaulting on its debt obligations have been relegated to the periphery.

One side only, I offer, has economic fundamentals in its favour, and they manifest themselves in the long-term consequences for capitalism and the free economy.

Click here for my full argument at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

ADDENDUM: The negative impact of tax rises beyond the ‘governing optimum’ of the Rahn curve — and more specifically, the ‘tax burden’ of the Laffer curve — has been brilliantly summarised by Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron: ‘By reducing the income of households and the profits of businesses, higher tax rates discourage consumption and investment, slowing the economy in the short run. By reducing hiring, savings, and investment, they reduce economic growth in the long run. And higher tax rates are undermined by tax evasion and avoidance, making them an inefficient way to raise revenues.’

01 July 2011

Will the Canadian Crown Go the Way of Dominion Day?

To-day, the anniversary of 144 years of Confederation, is to be a day of national celebration and joyous good cheer. Far be it for me to introduce a note of gloom into the Canadian visit by their royal highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Yet for those who steadfastly persist in marking the occasion as Dominion Day, there is an underlying sombre message for Canada’s monarchical heritage.

For this far-flung northern country was once known as the ‘Dominion of Canada’, another testament to our propensity for compromise. The initial choice by the Fathers of Confederation was ‘Kingdom of Canada’, a fierce acknowledgement of our British connexion and, we may assume, a way of distinguishing ourselves from the Republic (and indigenous republican sentiments) to the south.

Yet a British official at the time — and remember, this was soon after the end of the American Civil War and during continuing Fenian raids across the border — thought this was needlessly provocative, and so an alternative nomenclature was called for:

It was desired to call the confederation the Kingdom of Canada, and thus fix the monarchical basis of the constitution. The French were especially attached to this idea. The word Kingdom appeared in an early draft of the bill as it came from the conference. But it was vetoed by the foreign secretary, Lord Stanley, who thought that the republican sensibilities of the United States would be wounded. [...] There is a story, probably invented, that when ‘Dominion’ was under consideration, a member of the conference, well versed in the Scriptures, found a verse which, as a piece of descriptive prophecy, at once clinched the matter: ‘And his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth.’1
And so, every July 1st became ‘Dominion Day’ in honour of the Dominion of Canada. That is, until 1982, when a private member’s bill was passed in the House of Commons, under dubious circumstances, changing the name to ‘Canada Day’. It appears innocuous enough, except if seen in the context of a concerted effort to deny and rewrite Canadian history. Witness other egregious examples, the Red Ensign making way for ‘Pearson’s pennant’ and the renaming of the British North America Act, 1867 to the Constitution Act, 1867.

A distinctly Canadian designation, crafted on these shores (and not engineered specifically from Westminster and Whitehall) succumbed to bland political correctness. It is an inconceivable patriotic sabotage in other countries, proud of their national heritage. Try to imagine ‘Independence Day’ giving way to ‘America Day’, or ‘Bastille Day’ becoming ‘France Day’.

This blatant exercise of historical social engineering at the hands of government fiat was resolutely fought by Canadians proud of their unique heritage, but protests and umbrage faded with the passing of years. The Globe and Mail’s editorial board was one of the last hold-outs, but even it too succumbed to what it considered the inevitability of progress.

David Warren, columnist for The Ottawa Citizen, is among the last public personalities who will take a stand. In 2006 he wrote,

I like to start all Dominion Day columns with a renewed expression of outrage for how the Trudeau government did in this fine proud word, ‘Dominion’, in 1982, as part of a longer-running Liberal Party effort to flush our national heritage ... I remain, as I was born, a native of the Dominion of Canada, and this is our Dominion Day, to which there is so much more than paper Pearson flags, and picnic faces painted in red maple lipstick.
‘I will not, and vow I will never, call it “Canada Day” without inverted commas,’ Warren asserted again in 2009. ‘It would not matter to me if every other living Canadian called it that without further thought. It continues to be Dominion Day, in my view: the patriotic anniversary of my own country. God Himself cannot rewrite history; I recognize no Act of Parliament that attempts to do so.’

Now, it may be wondered, what does all this have to do with the 2011 Royal Tour and the continuing relevance of the Crown to Canada’s constitutional stability? Didn’t the warm, jubilant crowds that flocked to the arrival of Prince William and his bride demonstrate our enduring love and respect for monarchy? Didn’t the celebrations on Parliament Hill put to rest any continuing fears about the Crown’s role in Canadian politics and culture?

Well, Dominion Day itself was once proclaimed and cheered by the Canadian people and, by a simple Act of Parliament and a deluge of government propaganda, all that changed. The future of the royal tradition in Canada rests upon equally uncertain foundations. At best, only half favour the Crown’s continuing role in Canada, and support at the time of the succession of the next crowned monarch does not look promising. When interviewed yesterday by roving reporters, spectators who had turned out to watch the arrival of the Duke and Duchess most often alluded to the celebrity nature of the royal couple — their glamour, their youthfulness, their fashion sense — with few acknowledging the constitutional ties and imperatives. Behind the façade of enthusiasm lies disquieting complacency.

Constitutional monarchists must be ever vigilant, especially since the Crown is more than the Head of State, but is at the apex of a governing system that guarantees the personal liberties and natural rights of all Canadians.

God Save the Queen! Happy Dominion Day!


1. A.H.U. Colquhoun, The Fathers of Confederation: A Chronicle of the Birth of the Dominion (Toronto: Glasgow, Brook & Co., 1920), 128-29. The Father of Confederation in question was Samuel Leonard Tilley, premier of New Brunswick. This Biblical passage is also the obvious source of the Canadian motto, ‘a mari usque ad mare (Zechariah, 9:10)’.

29 June 2011

Public Choice Theory and Lords Reform

While preparing my partial study, Reform of the Senate of Canada: A Progressive Conservative Perspective, it struck me how amenable public choice theory is for Anglo-Canadian proponents of appointed upper chambers. This appeared to be an unexplored avenue well-worth following up, and the result is House of Lords reform: lessons from public choice theory.

Public choice — the application of economics to politics — has two main principles:

First, it argues that we are all motivated primarily by self-interest, whether in our private or public personas. An elected upper chamber, therefore, will not automatically be more selflessly devoted to the commonweal than an appointed chamber — indeed, on this point, who can fault the existing body? — and, given the incentives to solicit votes by offering electoral inducements, may be an even worse example of institutional democracy.

Second, in acknowledging the fact that markets are imperfect, public choice teaches that the answer is not necessarily to be found in the State: that ‘government failure’ is a more intractable problem than its market counterpart. Elected upper chambers, therefore, are no panacea for what ails us politically. In fact, they are probably a far worse option than the appointed chambers in the Westminster parliamentary tradition, especially for those who favour limited government and fear ever-more State intrusion into personal liberty.

(It puzzles me why libertarians disproportionately advocate for an elected upper chamber, unless, as anarcho-capitalists, they mischievously wish to undermine the political process through a ‘scorched-earth-policy’ approach, where the legislative work in both lower and upper houses grinds to a halt through deadlock.

Significant, too, is the tension between utilitarian, majoritarian democracy versus deontological questions of natural rights, to which more government will contribute and which libertarians — theoretically at least — should oppose in the name of freedom.)

I apply these public choice principles to the composition of the House of Lords, in my blog column for the British think-tank Institute of Economic Affairs. My thanks to Richard Wellings and Philip Booth for their assistance. An in-depth analysis will be published in Economic Affairs this autumn.

Click here for my full argument.

05 June 2011

Senate Reform: The Conservative Approach

With the May election of a majority Conservative government in Ottawa, I knew that the question of Senate reform — particularly, if the past is any guide, of introducing elected senators and term limits — would once more be on the political agenda, this time with more force than in the previous minority parliaments.

The Canadian Government has asked the provinces to weigh-in, notably with respect to establishing electoral mechanisms for Senate elections. Anticipating the response from Atlantic Canada, I wrote a ‘partial study’ as a quick guide: Reform of the Senate of Canada: A Progressive Conservative Perspective.

The study has four main sections:
  • Progressive Conservatism and the Red Chamber
  • Reasons to Favour the Appointed Chamber
  • What Role for the Provinces?
  • Some Modest Proposals for Senate Reform
There is an overview of the progressive conservative philosophy and how it relates to the Canadian Senate, along with arguments in favour of appointed Upper Chambers, as well as some of the unintended consequences of the elective option. The provincial context comes next — especially as laid down by the Fathers of Confederation — followed with a few ideas on making the Red Chamber an even more invaluable institution in the Parliament of Canada.

Though my study is addressed primarily to the Progressive Conservative parties of Atlantic Canada — and internet links were forwarded to each of the four parties — I hope that my personal defence will find widespread appeal from sympathetic Senate supporters across Canada.

My arguments on behalf of the Senate are by no means unique — and may be considered by some to be strangely idiosyncratic (particularly my perspective on the role of the provinces) — but one novel aspect that may entice is the attempt to defend the appointed Red Chamber by specifically conservative principles, especially when it has been Canadian Conservatives (comprising former Progressive Conservatives and members of the Canadian Alliance) who have been at the 21st-century vanguard for an elected Senate.

This study was written in some haste, as my intention was to provide a wide-ranging sketch lauding the Red Chamber, before its Conservative critics in Atlantic Canada dominated the field — hoping that my slight contribution might have some positive effect.

If the response is favourable, a more complete examination is planned for the autumn; meanwhile, I welcome your contributions, feedback, and constructive criticism.

Huzzah for Canada’s appointed, unique, and still fit-for-purpose Red Chamber!

04 May 2011

Tradition Is the Anchor of Royal Succession

The Royal Wedding last week between Prince William and Kate Middleton has led to renewed interest in the line of succession, which has hitherto followed the example of primogeniture, with the Crown passed onto the eldest son. This practice has been criticised as antiquated and sexist; reforms have been proposed whereby the first-born becomes first-in-line, whether the child is male or female.

Yet as innocuous as this change in the royal succession may appear, there are inherent dangers. Tradition is one of the Crown’s greatest assets, and this reform strikes at the heart of Britain’s (and the Royal Commonwealth’s) constitutional strength: the stability which the Crown imparts to political life which, in turn, is a key raison d’être for the monarchy itself.

In an essay written for the independent British think-tank ResPublica, I examine some of the ramifications and unintended consequences to reform of the royal succession and urge caution before any such innovations are undertaken — with apropos quotations from Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli.

Thanks to Phillip Blond and Adam Schoenborn for allowing me an opportunity to express opinions that run counter to the prevailing zeitgeist, but which I believe deserve a hearing before reforms to the royal succession are implemented.

Click here for my full argument.

26 April 2011

Whither the Canadian Senate after the Federal Election?

The sleeper issue in this federal election? Why, reform of the Senate of Canada, of course!

I jest, although it does tell you something about its constitutional importance that, when fabricating a wedge issue, the Harper Conservatives harp on the Red Chamber’s supposed institutional failure. Yet, during an election campaign, when pressing national issues are discussed and debated, the relative strengths and weaknesses of political party programmes weighed in the balance, there is general silence concerning the future rôle of the Canadian Senate.

A cursory examination of the three main parties’ platforms reveals what one would expect:

The governing Conservative Party recycles its message from elections past:

  • re-introduce and pass legislation setting term limits for senators;

  • continue to encourage the provinces to work with us to establish a democratic process for selecting senators;

  • appoint those who are selected through democratic processes; and

  • in provinces that do not take us up on our offer, we will fill Senate vacancies with individuals who support our Senate reform goals, including our goal of an elected Senate. (see pages 62-63)

Apart from its patronising tone and the effrontery of speaking of the ‘Stephen Harper Government’ — it’s ‘Her Majesty’s Government’, thank you very much! — throughout the document, this approach to understanding the Senate is decidedly ‘un-conservative’. As Sir John A. Macdonald argued during the Confederation debates in the legislature of the United Province of Canada:

There would be no use of an Upper House, if it did not exercise, when it thought proper, the right of opposing or amending or postponing the legislation of the Lower House. It would be of no value whatever were it a mere chamber for registering the decrees of the Lower House. It must be an independent House, having a free action of its own, for it is only valuable as being a regulating body, calmly considering the legislation initiated by the popular branch, and preventing any hasty or ill considered legislation which may come from that body, but it will never set itself in opposition against the deliberate and understood wishes of the people. 1

Macdonald’s views on the Senate can be usefully augmented by reference to his amanuensis and early biographer, Sir Joseph Pope:

It is true that, at an early period of his career, he favoured an elective Upper House, but eight years’ experience of this system was sufficient to change his views, and to convert him into a firm upholder of the nominative principle. Every year since Confederation strengthened the conviction of his matured judgment, and showed him more and more clearly the advantages of the nominative over the elective system. To his mind the chief among the objections to a Senate chosen by the popular vote, was the ever-present danger of its members claiming the right to deal with money Bills, and the consequent possibility of disputes with the House of Commons. The proposal that the provincial legislatures, whose members are elected for purely local purposes, should choose the senators to legislate on matters of general concern, was also objectionable, being opposed to the spirit of the constitution, which confined the local assemblies to a strictly limited sphere of action. He held that the system unanimously agreed to at the Quebec Conference had worked well, and should be undisturbed. A senatorship, in his opinion, was an important and dignified office, and a worthy object of ambition to any Canadian.2

No more need be written in comparing the principled Tory philosophy of yesteryear with its craven contemporary.

The New Democratic Party, meanwhile, stands by its pledge to abolish the Upper Chamber:

  • We will propose the abolition of the Senate. All Canadian provincial legislatures have done this many years ago, abolishing their un-elected second chambers to the benefit of democracy.

  • In the meantime, to limit Senate abuses, we will bar failed candidates and party insiders from being appointed to the Senate, and ban senators from fundraising for political parties. (page 23)

The provincial example has serious problems. While the Dominion Parliament is responsible for national issues that may not be the daily bread of the average voter, the provincial legislatures — as they pressed during the Confederation debates — are responsible for local issues that regularly affect their constituents. It may be assumed, therefore, by applying the principle of subsidiarity, that the provinces will receive far more popular scrutiny than the national government, and so in the latter case additional oversight is prudent. To take an American example, James Madison wrote in The Federalist, No. 46:

...the first and most natural attachment of the people, will be to the governments of their respective states. Into the administration of these, a greater number of individuals will expect to rise. From the gift of these, a greater number of offices and emoluments will flow. By the superintending care of these, all the more domestic and personal interests of the people will be regulated and provided for. With the affairs of these, the people will be more familiarly and minutely conversant: and with the members of these, will a greater proportion of the people have the ties of personal acquaintance and friendship, and of family and party attachments. On the side of these, therefore, the popular bias may well be expected most strongly to incline.3

As to the NDP’s second recommendation, it neglects to look at the quality of Senate appointees, but tars them at the outset as partisan hacks; though the second proposal to ban them from fundraising functions may have some merit.

Curiously, the Liberal Party platform is silent on specific Senate reform. Take it as you will; friends of the Senate, however, should be wary of interpreting it as tacit support, for Liberals would doubtless generate reforms ad nauseam were they to garner an electoral advantage.

So, the Red Chamber does not take precedence in the Canadian psyche of hot-button issues; that is reserved for the sputtering economy, the growing deficit and debt, and the uncertain provision of universal healthcare — with a dollop of Québec sovereignty and national unity thrown in for good measure.

Perhaps this sleeping dog should not be disturbed but, throwing caution to the wind, allow me to summarise quickly why the Senate reform that has marked this debate in the past — either for abolition or for elected senators — is bad for the Dominion of Canada.

First, to address the question of abolition: As G.K. Chesterton once opined about the papacy, if the Senate of Canada didn’t exist, it would have to be invented. I refer, of course, to the Senate’s most widely accepted virtue, that of serving as a chamber of sober second thought. Everyone admits — privately, if not publicly — that the House of Commons does a poor job of vetting legislation. It is a partisan chamber where too often rhetorical enthusiasm overtakes reasoned discourse.

In addition, due to a plethora of legislative initiatives and truncated working days (can anyone say ‘prorogation of Parliament’?), the House has too much work for too few days (not that limiting MPs’ time on Parliament Hill is necessarily a bad thing, but that’s a different story). If there were no Senate, you can be sure that think tanks would be busying themselves devising structures and procedures &c. wherein prospective legislation would be scrutinised by disinterested experts for the national benefit. Fortunately, such a body already exists.

Now as to the Senate’s method of composition, an appointed versus an elected model. Canadians already benefit from the latter option, and it’s called the House of Commons. Were an elected system to be introduced into the Upper House, we would at best be duplicating an existing legislative function, without introducing an element of uniqueness — that is to say, of ‘shaking up the system’ — to our Parliamentary system. As Benjamin Disraeli observed, ‘Assuredly I cannot understand how an efficient senate is to be secured by merely instituting another elective chamber, the members of which, being the deputies of their constituents, must be the echo of the Lower House’.4

Worse, an elected Senate would encourage several bad things: Popularly chosen senators would challenge the accountability of the Lower House. Under current constitutional arrangements, their limited numbers vis-à-vis MPs would mean that their electoral legitimacy could possibly be greater, as they would represent far more constituents than their Commons counterparts: Ontario’s 24 senators versus its 106 MPs, for instance. The prospects for gridlock are even more ominous when considering the Senate’s shared coterminous powers with the Commons, an equality of legislative authority (save for the introduction of money bills). Partisanship would also undoubted rise.

Another disincentive of a photo-copy Senate is in the make-up of its members themselves. The ideal chamber is a body of appointed men and women who bring a wealth of expertise and life experience to the legislative process, most of whom would never have chosen otherwise to enter political life. Plurality thus becomes an option for the Senate that is introduced in the House by truncating the liberty of voter intention (either through closed nomination processes or quotas).

It has been suggested that senatorial provisions be the purview of the provinces (as the Conservatives have done), as in the American model. But this suggestion goes against the very spirit of Confederation, as Macdonald noted. The U.S. Constitution provided for state appointments because the states were sovereign entities, and their appointment of senators to Washington cemented their unique ‘confederated’ agreement.5 This sovereignty also accounts for the equal number of state representation in the Senate — the lopsidedness of which was redressed by the rep-by-pop requirements of the House of Representatives, addressed in The Federalist.6 This is one of the more egregious errors of Canada’s Triple-E Senate campaign: with Prince Edward Island enjoying equal stature with Ontario in the Red Chamber.

In passing, let it not be thought that I am a sanguine supporter of the existing Senate status quo and refuse to entertain the notion of reform. There are two easy improvements that I heartily endorse, which do not entail the thorny issue of constitutional amendment. They do involve the exercise of prime ministerial integrity, and so are at the whim of political character.

The first measure I would propose is for the age of appointment to be raised in practice. A current criticism is that the maximum duration of appointment could be as long as forty-five years, under the legal parameters of summons at thirty years of age and mandatory retirement at seventy-five. For reformers who clamour for limited terms, this must be galling indeed. The original terms were set when life expectancy was much shorter, and the emphasis on expertise and experience not so great (‘property ownership’ being the key criterion). Let the prime minister use his prerogative, then, and recommend for appointment worthy men and women of no less than fifty years of age, as an example. Most will have reached the apex of their professional careers and will welcome a period of disinterested public service.

The second measure proposed will probably find widespread approval, too, but because it touches upon the very partisan nature of Canadian politics, may be more difficult to enact. It is for the appointment of Canadians who will add value to the revising abilities of the Senate and not according to party affiliation; who will bring more to the Red Chamber than a party membership, but will be conspicuous for a plethora of talents to be a potent force in legislative scrutiny and public policy development. Yet, almost from the institution’s birth, it has been a sinecure for political fixers and bagmen, a place for the prime minister to repay past party devotion with future acquiescence to party needs. This must stop.

So, whither the Senate of Canada? Its foundation is strong and its structure still ‘fit for purpose’. But it will remain so only if the public appreciates its constitutional responsibilities in Parliament and charge their representatives with its ongoing care and to maintain its relevance.

The Red Chamber remains an important guarantor of the people’s liberties; in turn, Canadians must defend its ability to be an independent voice for the commonweal.

See Advocacy for Appointed Upper Chambers (pdf file) for more information.


1. Parliamentary Debates on the Subject of the Confederation of the British North American Provinces, 3rd Session, 8th Provincial Parliament of Canada (Quebec: Hunter, Rose & Co., 1865), 36.

2. Joseph Pope, Memoirs of the Right Honourable Sir John Alexander Macdonald, Volume II (Ottawa: J. Durie & Son, 1894), 235.

3. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, The Federalist, The Gideon Edition, G.W. Carey and James McClellan, eds. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001), 243.

4. Benjamin Disraeli, ‘Vindication of the English Constitution’, in Whigs and Whiggism: Political Writings, William Hutcheon, ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1914), 196.

5. See The Federalist, No. 43, 228.

6. See The Federalist; e.g., No. 58, 300-05.

14 April 2011

The Mediaeval Rise of Free-Market Universities

Life in mediaeval universities has been an abiding interest, and so it was serendipity itself that a recent column by The Telegraph’s Simon Heffer extolled the virtues of a BBC Radio 4 programme ‘In Our Time’. Its host is the Labour peer Melvin Bragg who, along with a guest panel each week, discusses a variety of that would normally be categorised as ‘high culture’; in Heffer’s words, ‘it informs, educates and entertains.’

I scrolled through the comprehensive list of available episodes — which may prove material for future postings — and found one from a month ago, ‘The Medieval University’.

It was a fascinating account about the rise and consolidation of universities in what is considered the High Middle Ages, from the twelfth to thirteenth centuries: how they arose out of nowhere from the demands of churchmen and statesmen for educated assistants, becoming intellectual centres in the study of theology, law, and medicine.

The system of university education was so successful that it remains a powerful force to this day in the arts and sciences. In this broad category we owe the notion of the artes liberales — the ‘liberal arts’ — disciplines pursued not as means to an ulterior goal (the ‘servile arts’ or artes serviles) but as ends in their own right.

In our day, the term ‘liberal’ has come to have many meanings, oftentimes diametrically opposed to each other. Contemporaneously it has become synonymous with activist government promoting social welfare policies, a far contrast with its popular usage originating in the Enlightenment to mean less State interference and more personal freedom.

Yet listening to Lord Bragg and his guests these same impulses can be attributed to the rise of mediaeval universities, which ought to come as no surprise to anyone aware of the Austrian School of Economics and its efforts — successful to my mind — to rehabilitate the liberal, market advances that were pioneered during the Middle Ages. 1

The most noticeable free market characteristic of the rise of mediaeval universities is their ‘spontaneous order’ à la Friedrich von Hayek by ‘an invisible hand’ à la Adam Smith, without any originating central planning or oversight from either Church or State.

Universities in large urban centres, such as Paris, enjoyed an early advantage over smaller colleagues in less populated areas; as Adam Smith would describe in The Wealth of Nations:

As it is the power of exchanging that gives occasion to the division of labour, so the extent of this division must always be limited by the extent of that power, or, in other words, by the extent of the market. When the market is very small, no person can have any encouragement to dedicate himself entirely to one employment, for want of the power to exchange all that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men’s labour as he has occasion for (I.iii.1).2

Population size impacted the development and variety of business opportunities, with greater numbers influencing a greater selection of trades — one of which was education; at the university level, this meant that a greater number of students would seek a greater choice or ‘supply’ of subject-courses, necessitating the ‘demand’ for a greater diversity of teachers, and the die was cast in favour of innovation and specialisation.

Aspects of free trade were also in existence, as masters and students travelled from one university to another across the European continent and into the British Isles, searching for the ‘university product’ — whether it be salary, tuition costs, or programme of study, that met their needs — with Latin as the ‘gold standard’ of academic discourse. A standardised canon and licentiate also ensured that university graduates could offer their learning with credentials that were widely recognised and accepted.

Universities could not have arisen without the widespread use of money, as more primitive methods of exchange would have been unfeasible in this international enterprise. Private wealth itself was a contributing factor — although some Italian universities were financed by the towns in which they took root — as it was the bounty of the rich and their endowments that allowed the universities to take shape, and whose benevolence supported both their own offspring and the worthy poor. Voluntary charity and noblesse oblige, then, funded the great spread of universities in the high Middle Ages. This fact is borne out by the Oxbridge college system.

Competition, too, was the rule, not only within the university between masters and masters, students and students, and masters and students, but also between the universities themselves, in their rivalry to attract leading scholars and the best scholarship of the time so as to entice the best young students. Then, as now, a rising reputation translated into increased financial support and patronage.

Likewise, students were ‘sovereign consumers’ (in the terminology of Austrian economics), whose desire and demand for the teaching of specific subjects influenced the development of the curricula and the promotion or rejection of the teaching staff. What is taken to be a new marketing ploy of student-centred activities and outreach is rather very old indeed.

Throughout this free-market rise of universities, though, can be seen the ‘visible’ hand of ‘Tory’ interests; that is, the interventions of both Church and State in imposing order upon divergent, disparate action; the granting of charters and setting up the formal university structure, both in infrastructure and in the establishment of curricula and degrees: universitas is synonymous with the corporate guilds that help to define the Middle Ages.

‘Town-Gown’ conflicts and riots called forth the firm control the law. Unacceptable topics of scholastic debate, oftentimes in opposition to the powers that be, were suppressed by ecclesial and secular authorities.

In time, too, with the decline of organic Christendom and the development of the nation-state, universities grew less ‘free’ and more the instruments of national will, serving the interests of their local communities and of their royal patrons.

Factions also were to be found among the hallowed halls themselves; sometimes this was beneficial, as when a group of scholars decamped from the University of Oxford after such a dispute and took up residence in remote Cambridgeshire. Oftentimes the results were less inviting, as when academia became the instrument of stifling dissent. The trial of Joan of Arc, under partial supervision of faculty from the University of Paris, is one example. (In our own time, we can point to ‘political correctness’ and the pressures exerted against freedom of speech as trends against the animating spirit of the original universities.)

Here, too, is evidence of why universities slowly lost their predominance and influence in the later Middle Ages: an exhaustion with the curricula set in, aided in part by frustrations induced by the burgeoning internal bureaucracy and the demands of special ‘cloistered’ interests. Masters and students, unable to teach or to be taught as they pleased, escaped to cities where innovation was welcomed, authority less strict, and the new Humanism was taking hold of Renaissance minds.

Universities, of course, didn’t pass away, and their continuing relevance is witnessed by the liberal arts colleges that thrive in the United States. But their dominance has waned and been superseded in many respects by the ‘think-tank’ phenomenon and by private research organisations.

Yet universities may be the only significant institutions serving as repositories of Western civilisation, charged with the preservation and transmission of culture. While they may no longer assume the leading role in its creation, the university ideal of universality, of the artes liberales, is unique in to-day’s world of partisan and applied research.

Many may recoil from a free-market interpretation of universities, yet their mediaeval origins owe much to the free interplay of individuals and ideas implied by the free economy. By continued emphasis upon innovation and competition — by ensuring that they can be the best that they can be — can universities ensure their success for another millennium.


1. See, for instance,‘The Major Contributions of the Scholastics to Economics (Mises Daily, 3 December 2010)’ by Gerard N. Casey, ‘The School of Salamanca Saw This Coming (Mises Daily, 26 August 2009)’ by Jerzy Strzelecki, ‘The World of Salamanca (Mises Daily, 27 October 2009)’ by Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr., and volume 1 of Murray N. Rothbard’s history of economic thought, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, especially chapters 2-5 inclusive.

2. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner, eds. Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith. Vol. 2a. Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1981.

07 April 2011

‘Mediaeval Toryism’: Anglo-Canadian Conservatism and Its Mediaeval Sensibilities

A long time ago, when I entertained thoughts of pursuing a doctoral programme in political philosophy, my aim was to examine the roots of a species of British Toryism that were exemplified by Benjamin Disraeli and his Young England colleagues, and that were echoed, to a significant degree, by Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.

Many of the tenets of this Toryism — known in some quarters, with more or less accuracy, as ‘One Nation Toryism’ or ‘wet’ Toryism or ‘progressive conservatism’ — owe their origins to a mediaeval sensibility of organic obligation and reciprocal responsibilities that grew up in the fertile soil of feudal society. To acknowledge this debt to the Middle Ages, I termed my particular approach ‘Mediaeval Toryism’.

One correspondent to whom I broached the viability of my thesis pointed out the anachronistic nature of my appellation: there being no ‘Tories’ cognisant of that description in that period. Upon reflexion, revisions were made and, given the particular ‘Victorian’ nature of the time frame I wished to explore, a working dichotomy was established between ‘Disraelian Toryism’ and ‘Peelite Conservatism’, the former taking its exemplars from the ‘communal’ Middle Ages, the latter from the ‘individualistic’ Enlightenment period. Over time, as my reading became more comprehensive and analytical, the Victorian backdrop became less prominent and a new nomenclature reflected that shift in emphasis: ‘Organic Toryism’.

My focus was on the tried-and-true, and revolved around the familiar themes of the individual, civil society, and the State — each with the aim of realising the Common Good. For me, the State was a far more amenable (and less odious) character in the triad. Catholic Social Teaching was an additional avenue to discover feudal impulses (along with their religious and ethical underpinning) in modern political thought and action.

In the new year I re-read Joseph Rickaby’s slim volume on mediaeval thought, Scholasticism, and my desire to limn conservatism’s antecedents was rekindled. I resolved to see if I could bring a fresh perspective to the reigning orthodoxy, or at least challenge the prevailing zeitgeist.

In many ways the political beliefs of Disraeli and Macdonald still influence my approach, but mediaeval philosophy comes more to the fore, whether in the form of individuation, or personalism, or natural law. Likewise, political economy has assumed a larger role in my thinking — thanks to the Austrian School of Economics — with what is called the market economy or ‘the free economy’ being no longer restricted to an Enlightenment foundation. Instead, many of the themes often credited to the study of economics originating with Adam Smith can trace their provenance at least to the Late Middle Ages (if not before), attaining their apogee in the scholastic economic treatises of the School of Salamanca.

The original Disraeli and Macdonald template also adheres with respect to politics proper, observable in the development of constitutionalism (as understood, for instance, in the CST principles of ‘subsidiarity’ and ‘solidarity’). The British North America Act, 1867 is a fine example of Anglo-Canadian conservatism at work. In contrast, the Enlightenment liberal (or libertarian) values which serve so well as opposites to this mediaeval mindset find their best expression in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, so an element of American political theory will also have a role to play.

While the State no longer assumes as prominent a part in my thesis — due to the influence of public choice economics or the theory of ‘government failure’ — it has come to resemble not the laisser-faire State of classical liberalism but what I consider the pis-aller State: intervening in affairs of personal independence only as a ‘last resort’.

Thus outlined, this is quite an all-encompassing topic, too broad to do it justice. As such, much narrowing of the field is necessary. My hope is to focus on specific questions and to write about them for The Organic Tory and, with luck, for publication in journals and periodicals, seeing what ideas will develop both during the writing process and in relation to public reaction.

Much of the research will overlap with this blog’s regular themes of organic Toryism, although it will have the dimension of a concerted effort to link aspects of Anglo-Canadian conservatism to a patrimony located in the Middle Ages. And so, to distinguish this added feature — with apologies to scholarly pendants! — essays in this bent will be labelled ‘Mediaeval Toryism’.


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30 March 2011

Leaders’ Debate: Players Only Need Apply

As the first full week of the Canadian election campaign unfolds, one interesting controversy — apart from what constitutes ‘a coalition’ — concerns the yet-to-be finalised leaders’ debate. Already, though, we have been told by the media consortium that runs this staple of prime time info-tainment that Elizabeth May, leader of the Green party, will not be invited.

May’s exclusion has elicited the usual round of anguish from political commentators. Denunciations of this ‘travesty of justice’ and ‘slur to the democratic process’ abound. Not surprisingly, the Green’s leader has hired a lawyer to overturn the decision, saying ‘This is an unacceptable, outrageous, high-handed attempt to shut down democracy in this country.’ Yet, a few voices are willing to run counter to prevailing opinion, and offer a dissenting view.

David Akin, the National Bureau Chief for Sun Media, tweeted: ‘Excellent decision by the networks. The barrier to clear is simple: Get an MP; get in the debates.’ Whereas Andrew Potter, who writes for Maclean’s magazine, opines
I’m genuinely agnostic on the question of whether May should be there; I think there are defensible arguments to be made for both sides. But the question over whether to include her or not contains a tacit assumption, viz., that the leaders’ debates—as currently run—are themselves worthy democratic exercises. I think they are not.
Allow me to join them with a few thoughts of my own.

First: The problem lies in nomenclature: the leaders’ debates. In fact, what is really at issue in this forum is the character of the party — and, perhaps as important, the party leader — that will form the next Government of Canada.

Second: From this perspective, then, only those leaders who have a reasonable chance of forming the next government ought to be seated at the debate table. (As events currently stand, while both main leaders have made all the necessary, pro forma statements protesting their willingness for an open debate forum, Michael Ignatieff has signalled his willingness to debate Stephen Harper one-on-one, a challenge which the Prime Minister has taken up.)

Third: The only exception to this guideline, given the nature of our Westminster parliamentary democracy and the likelihood of minority governments — where no one party receives the majority of seats in the House of Commons — is to also invite the leaders of parties who may have a hand in deciding which party forms the next government; participating, perhaps, in a reduced capacity. (I confess this last point admits of great variation.)

Under this framework, it is easy to see why both the Conservative party and the Liberal party are, as a matter of course, invited to the leaders’ debate. History has shown that either one or the other becomes prime minister. It is also clear, from past experience, why the leaders of the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québécois are asked to join the forum. But it is not clear why the leader of the Green party should also have a voice, given the above criterion: that of forming, or of influencing the formation of, the next federal ministry.

Based solely on past election returns, Green MPs in the House are unlikely to have a say in who will become the next prime minister. Indeed, the party does not currently have any seats in Parliament. Were they to break this record of underachievement and elect a significant number of members, and if no party received a majority of seats in the House so that negotiations would have to be undertaken — either in a formal coalition or by way of agreement to throw support behind a party that would enjoy the confidence of the House — then at that time would the Greens have an active role. But not before.

The alternative is to permit anyone who leads a recognised political party (by Elections Canada registration standards) to enter the fray, or to devise arbitrary figures encompassing number of sitting MPs and vote percentages from the last election. What would result — as has been witnessed from previous encounters where the doors were thrown open — is an amorphous free-for-all with minor players competing for attention while major players (especially those unwilling to risk favourable polling numbers) wait to run down the clock.

For any debate format to be effective the two main contenders for office must be allowed an opportunity to criticise each other’s record and campaign platform and to defend their own. This is why the John Turner-Brian Mulroney debates of 1984 and 1988 were so decisive and memorable. Anything else is a distraction.

The problem at present partly involves the confusion that arises when there are no hard-and-fast guidelines in determining the representation at these leaders’ debates (made more obscure by the profusion of parties). Such rules that exist obviously don’t garner widespread respect. Instead, too much time is being expended arguing about the minutiae of party standings, vote percentages, public outpourings of umbrage and indignation, &c. — much of it with ulterior motives, either by partisan political jockeying or by media requirements to fill air time and newspaper columns. We are encouraged not to see the forest for the trees.

Were we to focus, rather, on the true purpose of the leaders’ debates — Who will be Her Majesty’s first minister for the Dominion of Canada? — then the miasma of electoral obfuscation would dissipate. Invite only those leaders who will either directly command or indirectly mould the confidence of the 41st Parliament of Canada, and let all others engage from the periphery, much as they would in the House itself.

11 January 2011

The Conflicting Legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald

To-day, 11th January, conservatives in Canada celebrate the birthday of Sir John Alexander Macdonald (1815): principal author of the British North America Act, first Dominion prime minister, and enduring role model of Anglo-Canadian Toryism.

Yet while the general outlines of Macdonald’s legacy is clear, specific beliefs are less certain in the popular mind, particularly when it comes to charting a contemporary course. Thus he has been made the exemplar for every ideological and mutually exclusive position. Poor Sir John A! If he could find his way to a bar—or a bottle—in his present capacity, surely no angelic observer (I refuse to countenance the alternative!) would begrudge him.

With the merger of the Reform-Alliance and the Progressive Conservative parties in 2003, the dominance of the former has resulted in a Macdonald who is portrayed as a proponent of ‘provincial rights’ on the American states’ rights model and of an elected Senate, just to name two offences of the right.

On the left, too, Macdonald has been claimed as the guiding spirit of active government and the social and economic interventions of the welfare state.

Macdonald, his advocates notwithstanding, was by no means a supporter of greater provincial autonomy; every school child knows (or should!) that a unitary government was his first choice for Canada—indeed, his hope was that the provinces would shrink to little more than municipal entities, with the Dominion government eventually assuming the preponderance of authority. Sir George-Étienne Cartier and French delegates at the Quebec conference were instrumental in convincing him that without local guarantees of French religious, language, and cultural rights, there would be no Confederation.

Likewise, while Macdonald may have harboured early favour for an elected upper chamber, the experiences of the united Province of Canada in the 1850s soon soured his sympathies. As his colleague and biographer Joseph Pope remarked in his Memoirs of Macdonald,

It is true that, at an early period of his career, he favoured an elective Upper House, but eight years’ experience of this system was sufficient to change his views, and to convert him into a firm upholder of the nominative principle. Every year since Confederation strengthened the conviction of his matured judgment, and showed him more and more clearly the advantages of the nominative over the elective system. To his mind the chief among the objections to a Senate chosen by the popular vote, was the ever-present danger of its members claiming the right to deal with money Bills, and the consequent possibility of disputes with the House of Commons. The proposal that the provincial legislatures, whose members are elected for purely local purposes, should choose the senators to legislate on matters of general concern, was also objectionable, being opposed to the spirit of the constitution, which confined the local assemblies to a strictly limited sphere of action. He held that the system unanimously agreed to at the Quebec Conference had worked well, and should be undisturbed. A senatorship, in his opinion, was an important and dignified office, and a worthy object of ambition to any Canadian. [1]

The left is guilty of a similar story of dissimulation. The Liberal-Conservative party which Macdonald led in its formative years of existence and in the House of Commons as premier was not the social democratic party that is often betrayed by the sobriquet Red Tory. It was a merger of moderate Liberals and moderate Conservatives who were not, respectively, either Grits or ultra Tories. And, although Macdonald did speak of himself as a progressive conservative, he spoke much as did Sir Robert Peel in his famous Tamworth Manifesto:

...if the spirit of the Reform Bill implies a careful review of institutions [...] undertaken in a friendly temper combining, with the firm maintenance of established rights, the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances,—in that case, I can for myself and colleagues undertake to act in such a spirit and with such intentions.

Indeed, the Liberal-Conservative label did not denote Progressive Conservatism per se, as contemporaneously understood, but simply the merger of like-minded Liberals and Conservatives. Think rather of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, or the Cunard-White Star line.

As such, the Liberal-Conservative party may best be considered a mix between Liberals of the ‘night-watchman state’ with the latter appropriating pis aller responsibilities—i.e., in addition to law and order oversight, welfare prerogatives as a last resort, when individual and voluntary associations are overwhelmed—and Tories who still have faith in the ability of the State to foster the Common Good: the ‘National Policy’ and the Canadian Pacific Railway were nation-building exercises undertaken in co-operation between government and the business community.

‘Free Trade’, then, was a fine principle in the abstract, and no doubt true, but the young Dominion—with fledgling business interests, her trade competing with powerful countries with varying degrees of protection and with strong robust industries of their own—was at a distinct disadvantage. Moreover, Macdonald had a nation to build on the North American continent, its very existence an irritant to the American behemoth to the south, whose siren call of wealth and opportunity was siphoning off Canada’s youth and future promise.

And so, in the economic depression of the mid-1870s that struck during the Reform ministry of Alexander Mackenzie, Macdonald raised a motion in the House of Commons:

...the welfare of Canada requires the adoption of a National Policy, which, by a judicious readjustment of the Tariff, will benefit and foster the Agricultural, the Mining, the Manufacturing and other interests of the Dominion; that such a policy will retain in Canada thousands of our fellow countrymen now obliged to expatriate themselves in search of the employment denied them at home, will restore prosperity to our struggling industries, now so sadly depressed, will prevent Canada from being made a sacrifice market, will encourage and develop an active interprovincial trade, and moving (as it ought to do) in the direction of a reciprocity of Tariffs with our neighbours, so far as the varied interests of Canada may demand, will greatly tend to procure for this country, eventually, a reciprocity of Trade (12 March 1878). [2]

If not exactly free trade, nor is it an unflinching nationalist programme: Macdonald would accept economic liberalisation, but only with reciprocal responsibilities. Free market adherents may deride Sir John’s protectionist programme, but its ‘open borders’ under-current can give no comfort to economic autarkists. [3]

Furthermore, if Macdonald wanted to campaign under the banner of social democracy, the works of Marx and Engels and their brethren were undoubtedly at his disposal, as were the theories of Rousseau’s collectivised general will. That he did not do so is an indication that he was first a believer in the free economy, if not necessarily a capitalism left to furrow the field unaided or unscrutinised.

Sir John’s legacy, then, provides challenges for his twenty-first century admirers. While a few of his ideas have fallen into disfavour and desuetude—such as the withering away of the provinces—many more remain resilient and key to Canada’s continuing prosperity. Strong central government with ‘holistic’ oversight over the country; the complementary, symbiotic roles of Ottawa’s upper and lower parliamentary chambers; accommodating and respecting the cultures of the founding peoples, while welcoming all immigrants who aspire to adopt the Canadian identity as their own; fealty to the monarchical principle and to the Commonwealth of shared history and traditions—all this, and more, we owe to Macdonald.

So long as the Dominion endures, Macdonald will live on. A supporter once cheered in a crowd, ‘Sir John A., you’ll never die!’ We echo those sentiments on his birthday.

For more on Macdonald and his legacy, see the Centre for Confederation Politics.


1. Joseph Pope, Memoirs of the Right Honourable Sir John Alexander Macdonald, Volume II (Ottawa: J. Durie & Son, 1894), 235 (emphasis added). Nor is this view of upper chambers in the Westminster parliamentary system antiquated; see the Parliamentary Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber and the excellent essay by Lord Norton of Louth, ‘Complementing the Commons’.

2. Quoted in Pope, Memoirs, 200.

3. Any serious student of contemporary Toryism—with its economic roots firmly planted in the soil of protectionism—must reconcile his beliefs with the free market critique of state intervention and its consequences. See Ludwig von Mises’s Planning for Freedom (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008)—its eponymous first essay plus ‘Middle-of-the-Road Policy Leads to Socialism’.