‘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)

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!