Heresy!

The UK Supreme Court’s decision in “the Case of Prorogations” and the political constitution

I wrote last week about the UK Supreme Court’s decision in R (Miller) v Prime Minister, [2019] UKSC 41 (Miller (No 2)), which unanimously held that the Prime Minister’s advice that the Queen prorogue Parliament for five weeks was unlawful, and the prorogation itself, therefore invalid. There was, however, one aspect of Miller (No 2) that I did not discuss in any detail: that of the Court’s treatment of the “political constitution”, and the distinction between those constitutional rules that are part of constitutional law and those that are not. In this post, I want to come back to this issue.

It is useful to begin with the orthodox view of the political constitution, articulated by scholars such as A.V. Dicey and courts in cases like Re: Resolution to amend the Constitution, [1981] 1 SCR 753 (Patriation Reference) and R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, [2017] UKSC 5 (Miller (No. 1)). On the orthodox view, only some constitutional rules ― statutes and common law rules, such as those circumscribing the scope of the royal prerogative and, in part, of Parliamentary privilege ― are part of constitutional law. Other rules, known as constitutional conventions, are not constitutional law and the courts will not enforce them, although they can sometimes take note of them in resolving properly legal issues.

In the Patriation Reference, the Supreme Court of Canada suggests a number of reasons for distinguishing convention and law. First, the majority opinion on the conventional question insists that “unlike common law rules, conventions are not judge-made rules. They are not based on judicial precedents but on precedents established by the institutions of government themselves.” (880) The majority opinion on the legal question makes the same point, and adds that “[t]he very nature of a convention, as political in inception and as depending on a consistent course of political recognition … is inconsistent with its legal enforcement”. (774-75) In Miller (No 1) the majority of the UK Supreme Court put it more pithily: “[j]udges”, it said, “are neither the parents nor the guardians of political conventions”. [146]

Second, and relatedly, the Patriation Reference suggests that it would be inappropriate to enforce conventions, given their questionable pedigree. “What is desirable as a political limitation ”, it says, “does not translate into a legal limitation, without expression in imperative constitutional text or statute”. (784) Third, the majority opinion on the conventional question argues that the courts lack remedies to compel compliance with conventions. Fourth and last, the same opinion notes that conventions conflict with legal rules, and courts are bound to apply the latter. Others have also argued that conventions are too shrouded in uncertainty―that both their very existence and their implications for specific situations are too doubtful―for them to function as meaningful legal rules.

Miller (No 2)  doesn’t explicitly engage with any of this. But by the time the UK Lady Hale and Lord Reed are done with the case, not much of the old orthodoxy is left standing. They not only regularly advert to conventions (which courts can do on the orthodox view), but seem to assimilate the exercise of conventional and legal powers, and arguably provide a way for judicial enforcement of conventions, in disregard of the traditional distinction between conventions and law. This might be a good thing, but I am uneasy at the way it is accomplished.


The tone is set early on. At the beginning of the judgment, Lady Hale and Lord Reed explain what a prorogation is, and contrast it with a dissolution of Parliament. Following the latter, they note, “[t]he Government remains in office but there are conventional constraints on what it can do during that period”. [4] There is no particular need to mention these “conventional restraints”, even for the sake of the descriptive point the Court is making (which is itself unnecessary, although perhaps helpful, to explaining the decision in the case at bar). A more orthodox court would probably have avoided mentioning conventions here. Not this one.

More relevantly to the case, Lady Hale and Lord Reed say that they “know that in approving the prorogation, Her Majesty was acting on the advice of the Prime Minister”. [15] They go on to further explain that

the power to order the prorogation of Parliament is … exercised by the Crown, in this instance by the sovereign in person, acting on advice, in accordance with modern constitutional practice. It is not suggested in these appeals that Her Majesty was other than obliged by constitutional convention to accept that advice. [30]

The double negative allows the judgment to ostensibly “express no view on” [30] whether Her Majesty was indeed “obliged by constitutional convention” to accept the Prime Minister’s advice, but the fig leaf is quickly blown away. The Court proceeds to assess the lawfulness of the Prime Minister’s advice, which makes little sense unless one assumes that Her Majesty had to follow it. If the advice was in reality what it is in name, why would the Court be looking into it? This is further confirmed by the Court’s approach to the remedy. The applicants’ lawyers, implicitly adopting a more orthodox position, only sought “a declaration that the advice given to Her Majesty was unlawful”. [62] But the Court goes further, and says that this advice “led to the Order in Council [pursuant to which the prorogation was carried out] which, being founded on unlawful advice, was likewise unlawful, null and of no effect and should be quashed.” [69] Led to? Founded on? This, I am tempted to say, is an imitation fig leaf, not even the real thing. What Lady Hale and Lord Reed mean ― the only way they reasoning makes sense ― is that the advice required the order in council to be made; that it was legally determinative, not just factually causative.

Consider: If I write a letter to Boris Johnson with a devious master plan for executing no-deal Brexit, and he follows it to the letter, my letter, which will actually be advice, in the sense of a suggestion, will not be the subject of court proceedings. The relevant choices will still be the Prime Minister’s, and, should their legality be called into question, my intervention will be no more than a part of the factual background, if that, even though it would be fair to describe it as “leading to” the Prime Minister’s actions, which would be “founded on” it. Of course, my position vis-à-vis the Prime Minister is different, in a constitutionally significant way, from the Prime Minister’s vis-à-vis the Queen. But, on the orthodox view, this would significant as a matter only of political, not legal, constitutionalism. The Supreme Court sees things differently. To repeat, Lady Hale and Lord Reed’s approach only makes sense if the Prime Minister’s advice is binding on Her Majesty, so that there is no daylight between his ostensibly conventional role and the exercise of the Crown’s legal powers.

Perhaps one might argue that the UK Supreme Court’s treatment of conventions is orthodox because it is only a necessary step towards resolving a properly legal question as to the scope of the prerogative power of prorogation. The Court, on this view, does not do what the Diceyan dogma tells us is impossible: enforce a convention. But is that so? And if it is so in this case, what about others in which the Court’s reasoning might be applied? (As discussed last week, the Court claims that Miller (No 2) is a “one off”. That remains to be seen.)

It is crucial, I think, to Lady Hale and Lord Reed’s reasoning that they are able to confidently assert that, while “Parliament does not remain permanently in session … [i]n modern practice, Parliament is normally prorogued for only a short time”. [45] They rely, moreover, on a statement by a former Prime Minister to the effect that nothing more is necessary. And they conclude that constitutional principles (specifically, Parliamentary sovereignty and executive accountability) mean departures from modern practice would require justification. Without explicitly undertaking an analysis in terms of the Jennings test adopted by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Patriation Reference, Lady Hale and Lord Reed come close to showing that the relevant constitutional actors seem to be following a rule, that they feel bound by the rule (or at least that they have no reason not to follow it), and that there are reasons, in the shape of important constitutional principles, for this rule ― in other words, that, according to the Jennings test, there exists a convention. Only, in effect, Miller (No. 2) very nearly transmutes this “modern practice” into law. (Very nearly, because in principle it is still open to a Prime Minister to justify departure from the practice.)

And beyond what has or has not happened in this particular case, I think the reasoning deployed by Lady Hale and Lord Reed can serve as a blueprint for judicial enforcement of conventions in the future. In a nutshell, what Miller (No 2) says is that the exercise of the royal prerogative is subject to implicit limits imposed by constitutional principles, and that the location of these limits ― which can be inferred, in part at least, from “modern practice” ― is a justiciable question. So consider, for example, the convention requiring the sovereign to assent to legislation passed by the House of Commons and the House of Lords (or only the House of Commons legislating pursuant to the Parliament Act 1949). Courts couldn’t enforce that convention and either require the sovereign to assent or treat a bill passed by the Commons and the Lords as law without her assent, right? Well, they could say that the power to withhold assent is subject to implicit limits imposed by the democratic principle, such that any departures from the modern ― or, this case, centuries-old practice of not withholding assent ― must be justified, and… voilà!


As readers may know, I am a longtime skeptic of the Diceyan orthodoxy on the separation between conventions and law. I think that the courts should have regarded conventions as common law rules en devenir and enforced them if and when necessary, subject however to justiciability concerns ― for example when the conventional rule is vague and/or its application in a given case involves political judgment. So the outcome of Miller (No 2) is not all bad, from that perspective.

And its reasoning makes the arguments invoked in support of the orthodoxy that much more difficult to sustain. The emphasis that Lady Hale and Lord Reed put on the development of the common law constitutional rules in cases such as the Case of Proclamations shows that the disclaimers of the creative role of the judiciary and protestations about its inability to translate “what is desirable as a political limitation” into legal rule always proved too much. Similarly, their confident treatment of the question of the remedy and of the evidentiary issues shows that concerns about the courts’ ability to engage with conventional issues have been greatly exaggerated.

That said, I have my reservations about the approach the Miller (No 2) court takes. For one thing, I wish Lady Hale and Lord Reed had been more transparent about what they were doing. Miller (No 1), where the UK Supreme Court reiterated the orthodox view that a convention could not be judicially enforced ― even a convention enshrined in statute! ― was only decided a couple of years ago. Miller (No 2) is almost a complete U-turn from its namesake, yet we have little explanation about why the ladies and lords were for turning. Here as on other issues, the suspicion of results-oriented reasoning must weigh heavily on the Court. More substantively, Lady Hale and Lord Reed may be overconfident in the courts’ ability to dispose of the factual questions that may arise when the courts enter the realm of politics. As noted above, I think that these questions will sometimes ― though by no means always ― be difficult enough that non-justiciability is a real concern. The reasoning in Miller (No 2) does not acknowledge this, and in my view this is a mistake.


Miller (No 2) thus seems to be a very significant, albeit unacknowledged, development in the UK Supreme Court’s understanding of the nature of the constitution, and specifically of what used to be thought of as its political, non-legal component. Without saying so, the Court is, perhaps, in the process of correcting the mistake made by scholars and judges who saw a sharp separation between law and politics when, at the heart of the UK’s constitution, none existed. Views on the nature and status of conventions that were just recently said to be quite heretical now appear to have prevailed.

If anything, the pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction. The Court hasn’t thought through the implications of its reasoning. Perhaps this is just how the common law develops: case by case, without the courts fully understanding the consequences of one decision for those that will follow. In that sense, Miller (No. 2) might not be an innovation at all. The system works, perhaps, but it is not always a pretty sight.

Mulling over Miller

Some thoughts on the UK Supreme Court’s decision in “the case of prorogations”

It’s been a while already, but I would like to say a few things about the UK Supreme Court’s decision that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advice, last moth, that the Queen prorogue the Westminster Parliament for five weeks was unlawful, and that the prorogation is a nullity. The unanimous decision by Lady Hale and Lord Reed, R (Miller) v Prime Minister, [2019] UKSC 41 (Miller (No 2)) breaks new and, in my view, shaky constitutional ground. It is an understandable response to what Lord Sumption has accurately described as Mr. Johnson’s “constitutional vandalism”. But, while understandable, I am not persuaded that it is right.

I should note, of course, that I am no great expert on UK constitutional law. Many people who are have written about Miller (No 2) already, but, due to my recent travels and speaking engagements, I haven’t been able to keep up with the torrent of commentary. Anyway, the principles at stake are similar to those that apply in Canada and New Zealand, and I wanted to produce a record of my own thoughts regarding Lady Hale and Lord Reed’s reasoning. Add salt to taste. I will also add a note on the applicability to this decision to Canada, where of course the ability of a Prime Minister to procure the prorogation of Parliament for political purposes is something that has already been done, and could be attempted in the future.


The substantive issue in Miller (No 2) was whether the Prime Minister’s advice that the Queen prorogue Parliament for a five-week period was unlawful, either because it interfered with the constitutional principles of Parliamentary sovereignty and government accountability to Parliament, or because it had an improper purpose. But as a preliminary matter the Court had to decide whether the matter was justiciable at all. If it found that it was, and that the prorogation was unlawful, it also had to consider the appropriate remedy.

The argument against justiciability was that the substantive issues were subject to political accountability rather than judicial scrutiny and that there were, in any case, no legal criteria by which the lawfulness of advice to prorogue Parliament could be determined. For the judiciary to step into this controversy would offend against the separation of powers. But the Court rejected this contention. The fact that the decision it was asked to review was made by a political actor, had political resonance, and was potentially subject to political accountability did not, without more, mean that courts should refrain from reviewing its legality. As for the separation of powers, it would only be enhanced “by ensuring that the Government does not use the power of prorogation unlawfully with the effect of preventing Parliament from carrying out its proper functions”. [34]

The power to prorogue Parliament is based in the Royal prerogative; that is to say, it is a power of the monarch that is recognized by the common law (rather than having a statutory foundation). The common law also outlines the limits of prerogative powers. Doubts about justiciability, the Court says, can legitimately arise if the dispute concerns the lawfulness of the exercise of a prerogative power within its proper limits. However, there is no question that it is the courts’ role to draw the limits in the first place. The dispute here, the Court says, involves just this sort of line drawing.

How are the limits of a prerogative power to be ascertained? Unlike with a statutory power, there is no text to guide the court. However, the scope of any prerogative power “has to be compatible with common law principles”, including “the fundamental principles of our constitutional law”, [38] which, despite the fact that the UK’s constitution is not codified and consists of “common law, statutes, conventions and practice”, “are enforceable by the courts in the same way as other legal principles”. [39]

Two such principles help circumscribe the scope of the power to prorogue Parliament: Parliamentary sovereignty, and the accountability of government to Parliament. The former means not only “that laws
enacted by the Crown in Parliament are the supreme form of law in our legal system” [41] but also that the executive cannot get int the way of Parliament “exercis[ing] its legislative authority” [42] as it would be in the absence of limits on the power of prorogation. While prospect of unlimited prorogation may be hypothetical and subject to “practical constraints”, [43] its very existence would be incompatible Parliamentary sovereignty, and therefore intolerable. The same goes for the accountability of the Ministry to Parliament,

through such mechanisms as their duty to answer Parliamentary questions and to appear before Parliamentary committees, and through Parliamentary scrutiny of the delegated legislation which ministers make. [46]

This accountability serves to ensure that “citizens are protected from the arbitrary exercise of executive power”, [46] but it too would be undermined by long-term prorogations.

It follows then that, while a short period of prorogation is acceptable as not interfering with Parliament’s legislative power or its scrutiny of the executive, the longer Parliament stands prorogued, the more these principles are put at risk. There is no bright-line limit between what is and what is not lawful. Rather,

a decision to prorogue Parliament (or to advise the monarch to prorogue Parliament) will be unlawful if the prorogation has the effect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions as a legislature and as the body responsible for the supervision of the executive. [50]

Whether a given prorogation has this effect, and whether, if so, a justification has been provided for it, are questions of fact of “no
greater difficulty than many other questions of fact which are routinely decided by the courts”. [51] The court must decide these questions “with sensitivity to the responsibilities and experience of the Prime Minister, and with a corresponding degree of caution”, [51] but it can and must decide them. In this case, the Court finds that the length of the prorogation will interfere with Parliamentary sovereignty and the accountability of government, and that the justifications advanced on behalf of the Prime Minister are unpersuasive. Its decision on the latter point is influenced by the evidence given by a former Prime Minister, Sir John Major.

The Court must, then, decide on the remedy. The applicant would have been content with a declaration to the effect that the Prime Minister’s advice to prorogue Parliament was unlawful, but the Court goes further. Having rejected the contention that the prorogation is part of “proceedings in Parliament” whose validity the courts are precluded from reviewing by Article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1688, it finds, that the Order in Council signed by the Queen to require the prorogation,

being founded on unlawful advice, was likewise unlawful, null and
of no effect and should be quashed. This led to the actual prorogation, which was as if the Commissioners had walked into Parliament with a blank piece of paper. It too was unlawful, null and of no effect. [69]

The prorogation never happened.


As noted above, one can understand why the Supreme Court decided the way it did. Indeed, the reasoning of Lady Hale and Lord Reed has a certain elegance to it, and I think it is fair to say that a constitution in which the power to prorogue Parliament cannot be abused for partisan or political purposes is preferable to one where it can be. It would indeed be shocking if the Prime Minister were to attempt proroguing Parliament for years on end. As Canadians will recall, it is equally shocking when the Prime Minister uses a prorogation to avoid being held to account by Parliament. The question, though, is whether the United Kingdom actually had such a constitution, prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller (No 2).

Canadians, of course, will be interested in what our constitution has to say on this. Let me begin with that. Unlike the United Kingdom’s, Canada’s constitution is partially codified and entrenched. As it happens, this entrenched constitution includes a specific provision that speaks to the possibility of indefinite prorogations: section 5 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides that “[t]here shall be a sitting of Parliament and of each legislature at least once every twelve months”. An attempt to prorogue Parliament, or a legislature, for more than a year would be flatly unconstitutional, and a court ought to be able to recognize this and, pursuant to section 24(1) of the Charter, provide any “such remedy as the court considers appropriate and just in the circumstances”.

But what about abusive attempts to prorogue Parliament for periods of time shorter than a year? In my view, the Charter settles this matter differently than the common law constitution of the United Kingdom. Instead of a standard of justification, as under the latter, the Charter sets out a bright-line rule, and it would be inappropriate for the courts to re-write the constitution that we actually have in order to improve it on a pattern suggested, decades after its enactment, in a jurisdiction whose own constitutional landscape is, on this point, somewhat different from ours. The Supreme Court of Canada rejected an attempt to invoke constitutional principles to add to the Charter’s proscription on retroactive criminal law in British Columbia v Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473, and it should follow the same logic in rejecting an attempt to import Miller (No. 2) into Canadian law.

This is not to say that the one-year line drawn by the Charter‘s framers is especially satisfactory. Certainly shorter prorogations can be abusive, as we saw in 2008. Perhaps our constitution could be improved by an amendment to section 5 of the Charter, just as it would in my view be improved by an expanded proscription against retroactive legislation. But of course such an amendment is not for the courts to effect. And, as I will now suggest, it is not obvious that such an amendment ought simply to codify the Miller (No. 2) decision.

Indeed it is not clear that the authors of Miller (No. 2) viewed it as a model for anything else that would follow. At the outset, the insist that the case “arises in circumstances which have never arisen before and are unlikely ever to arise again. It is a ‘one off'”. [1] It is worth pointing out that this is an unusual statement for a court to make, and it should, I think, ring some alarm bells. (Consider another instance where a court said something similar: Bush v Gore, 531 US 98 (2000) where the per curiam majority opinion noted that its “consideration is limited to the present circumstances”. (109))

At the very least, one suspects that, despite its confident assertions about its ability to resolve factual claims about the necessity for a prorogation, the Court probably hopes that it will not have to do so again. And, perhaps even more fundamentally, the Court may well realize that it has not really articulated a principle against which to judge the lawfulness of prorogations so much as asserted the power to do so on a case-by-case basis. The Court gets away with it by shifting the burden of proof onto the Prime Minister, who is asked to justify his request for a prorogation instead of the applicants having to actually show that it was flawed in some legally cognizable way (as opposed to “merely” stinking to high heaven). Mr. Johnson was not prepared to discharge the burden. His successors, presumably, will not make the same mistake.

Seen in this light, Miller (No. 2) looks less as a re-assertion of constitutional principle in the face of a band of governing vandals, and more like a power grab. The vandals, admittedly, are real, so the power grab is for a good cause, but it’s a power grab all the same. This impression is only reinforced by the way in which the Court re-framed the issue from the legitimacy of a particular (albeit disturbing in the extreme) exercise of an undoubted prerogative power (namely, that of proroguing power) to that of the scope the prerogative. The cases on which the Supreme Court purports to rely sought to preserve a space for the exercise of prerogative powers that would not be amenable to judicial review, being too bound up with issues of policy and politics. Miller (No. 2) does not repudiate these cases, but it suggests a way around them: it is enough to say that, correctly understood, the issue concerns the scope of a prerogative power rather than the lawfulness of its exercise within its acknowledged scope.

If the prerogative of dissolution had not been abolished in the UK, this trick could have been applied to engage the courts in reviewing its exercise. (Of course, this prerogative has been preserved in Canada, even in jurisdictions that have adopted purportedly fixed election dates; this is an additional consideration that ought to give pause to Canadian courts urged to import the Miller (No. 2) reasoning here.) The same goes for the prerogative of mercy and the prerogative powers in relation to foreign affairs or war. In fairness to the Supreme Court, I doubt that it really wants to go there. If urged to embark on this sort of review, it can still say that, this time, the issues do not go to the scope of the prerogative. But that only highlights the fact that the reasoning in Miller (No. 2) is results-oriented. A one-off indeed. I don’t think this is the stuff of great constitutional law.

There are at least a couple of additional issues worth addressing about Miller (No. 2), one of which I will make here, and the other in a separate post. The former is that the Supreme Court’s conception of Parliamentary sovereignty is, in my view, something of a departure from how this concept has been understood until now. The orthodox view is that it referred to the supremacy of the law enacted by the existing Parliament over any other law ― common law, regulations, and even statutes enacted by Parliaments past. In recent decades, this view has been somewhat tempered by a growing acceptance Parliaments dictating the “fanner and form” ― but not the content ― of future statutes. Of course Parliamentary sovereignty in this orthodox sense is not at all affected by prorogation. But the Supreme Court expands this principle, by saying that it requires that there be no obstacles, or at least no obstacles created by the executive, in the way of a Parliament that might legislate, as opposed to one that already has.

I wonder how much the Court has thought this through. There is a tension between this understanding of sovereignty and the few that Parliament can complicate the life of its successors by enacting “manner and form” requirements. There is an even stronger tension between this view and the musings of some judges (Lady Hale among them!) about the possibility that Parliamentary sovereignty isn’t quite absolute, and that there might be some laws that Parliament cannot enact (or rather, that Courts would be justified in not giving effect to some laws). Again, future courts might resolve this tension by saying that the expanded version of Parliamentary sovereignty is a single-purpose idea meant to control the executive and not the other branches of government. But I wonder whether, in trying to stave of off the absolutist claims of the executive, the Supreme Court hasn’t provided intellectual ammunition for similar claims by Parliament.

The other way in which Miller (No. 2) departs from past, and indeed very recent, understandings of how the UK constitution (and other constitutions derived from it) works, which I will not address in detail here, has to do with the distinction between the legal and the political constitution. This distinction was a sharp one, or so we were told told by writers such as A.V. Dicey and courts in cases like Re: Resolution to amend the Constitution, [1981] 1 SCR 753 (Patriation Reference) and R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, [2017] UKSC 5 (Miller (No. 1)). Statutes and common law rules were legal and legally enforceable rules; constitutional conventions, political and not legally enforceable. In Miller (No. 2) the lines between these types of constitutional rules are are blurred. This might not be all bad, but I will defer this to a separate post, which I will try to write in a not-too-distant future.


To repeat yet again, I am not criticizing the reasoning in Miller (No. 2) because I approve of, or even regard as at all defensible morally, the actions of the Prime Minister that led to it. The Supreme Court acted out of genuine and perfectly understandable concern with gross abuse of power, for which it found no redress in the orthodox legal toolkit, and so took unorthodox measures. As H.L.A. Hart wrote long ago, in cases where constitutional fundamentals are at stake, courts can reshape them and so transform our understandings of what law even is; “all that succeeds”, he observed, “is success”. Clearly, the UK Supreme Court has been successful. And perhaps that’s all that history will remember.

But the price of present success is, at best, considerable uncertainty about the future. Will the reasoning in Miller (No. 2) ever be followed, and if so, to what end? Will it serve to involve the courts in review of deeply political decisions about foreign affairs, war, and peace? Will the expansion of the understanding of Parliamentary sovereignty rebound it ways we may yet regret? Again, I wonder how much the Supreme Court ― pressed for time as it was, and apparently hoping to deliver a “one off” decision ― has really pondered all this. We, at any rate, have the leisure ― and the need ― to reflect on what it has done.

The Road to Serfdom at 75: Part II

Hayek’s proposals for resisting collectivism

In the last 10 days, I gave two talks ― one to the Runnymede Society chapter at the University of Victoria and one at the Université de Sherbrooke ― on Friedrich Hakey’s The Road to Serfdom. In yesterday’s post and in this one, I reproduce my notes for these talks. Yesterday’s post covered the context in which The Road to Serfdom was written and presented Hayek’s criticism of collectivism. This one reviews some of his proposed solutions. The page numbers refer to the 50th Anniversary Edition, which is the one I have in my possession.


What, then, is the alternative to collectivism? It is, naturally, individualism. Individualism, Hayek insists, is not selfishness. It is, rather, the “recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends, the belief that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions”. (66) The sovereignty of individual belief over individual action is, indeed, a burden as much as a right. Hayek reminds us “[t]hat life and health, beauty and virtue, honor and peace of mind, can often be preserved only at considerable material cost”, and “that we all are sometimes not prepared to make the material sacrifices necessary to protect those higher values”. (107) Individualism insists on “the right of choice, [which] inevitably also carries the risk and the responsibility of that right”. (112) But the alternative to making choices, however unpleasant, for ourselves is that others will make them for us.

Note that, from the insistence on the primacy of the individual follows naturally what Hayek calls “[t]he fundamental principle that in the ordering of our affairs we should make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society, and resort as little as possible to coercion”. (21) Hayek is especially well known for his insistence on the importance of this principle in the economic realm, but it applies much more broadly, as we shall see. Between collectivism and individualism as fundamental organizing principles of society, between “the order governed by the impersonal discipline of the market or that directed by the will of a few individuals”, (219) Hayek sees no middle ground, no possibility of compromise. The methods of collectivism are such that individual liberty cannot be preserved once they are being thoroughly applied, regardless of the purpose to which they are put. From that, it follows “[t]hat democratic socialism, the great utopia of the last few generations, is not only unachievable, but that to strive for it produces something so utterly different that few of those who now wish it would be prepared to accept the consequences”. (36) It is the ruthless, rather than the sincere democrats, who are able and willing to impose their values on the rest of society.

So what is to be done to secure this fundamental principle, and the supremacy of the individual on which it rests? I will focus on Hayek’s suggestions in three areas: the law, not only because this is my area of expertise, but also because Hayek’s first degree was, in fact, in law, and he deserves to be much better appreciated than he is as a legal philosopher; the economy, because after all Hayek is usually thought of as an economist (though he was much more than that), and a Nobel Memorial Prize winning one at that; and the relationship between the individual and society, because, I think that this, if anything, even more important both to Hayek himself, and especially to us as readers in an age where the preoccupations of collectivism are, ostensibly, not only or even primarily, economic.


Let me begin, then, with the law. Hayek sees its function as that of “creating conditions under which the knowledge and initiative of individuals are given the best scope so that they can plan most successfully”. (40; emphasis Hayek’s.) A sound legal framework is what enables competition and markets to serve “as a means of co-ordinating human efforts” (41) and so to provide for the needs and wants of individuals. Hayek is no anarchist; he is not, like Thoreau, saying that that government is best which governs not at all. (Indeed, he claims, in The Road to Serfdom, that “[i]n no system that could be rationally defended would the state just do nothing. An effective competitive system needs an intelligently designed and continuously adjusted legal framework as much as any other.” (45) (In Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek’s views on the design of legal frameworks change quite dramatically.)

But government, if it is to respect the ability of individuals to be masters of their own lives, must not only create and sustain a legal framework, but also bind itself by rules. In other words―in words that are of central importance to Hayek―we need the Rule of Law. As Hayek defines this phrase, it “means that government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand―rules which make it possible to foresee with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and to plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of that knowledge”. (80) In this way, “the government is prevented from stultifying individual efforts by ad hoc action”. (81)

This means that the law must consist of “formal rules which do not aim at the wants and needs of particular people”, (81; emphasis Hayek’s) and are not meant to produce substantive justice, whether defined in terms of equality or of some conception of merit. An attempt to produce rules―whether laws or administrative rulings―aiming at modifying the lot of particular people means that the law “ceases to be a mere instrument to be used by the people and becomes instead an instrument used by the lawgiver upon the people and for his ends”. (85) Laws that are qualified “by reference to what is ‘fair’ or ‘reasonable’”, (86) which can only be applied on a case-by-case basis, are antithetical to the Rule of Law; they result in “increasing arbitrariness and uncertainty of, and consequent disrespect for, the law and the judicature, which in these circumstances could not but become an instrument of policy”. (87)

Relatedly, “the discretion left to the executive organs wielding coercive power should be reduced as much as possible”, (81) which has the added benefit of enabling democratic control over the exercise of this coercive power. Such control, Hayek argues, is only possible when the executive works towards ends determined by a democratic process―that is, ends on which political consensus can exist, rather than being manufactured by the executive itself―and in accordance with standards compliance with which can actually be assessed. In the absence of such standards, there is no Rule of Law, even if the executive is ostensibly authorized to act by vague and broad delegations of power. (91)

It is important to note that Hayek’s rejection of the pursuit of substantive equality by means of laws targeting particular groups or authorizing discretionary administrative decision-making does not proceed from a lack of interest in rights, or indeed equality. On the contrary, he endorses a substantive conception of the Rule of Law, which incorporates “limitations of the powers of legislation [that] imply the recognition of the inalienable right of the individual”. (93) He also warns that state control of the economy will be used “to pursue a policy of ruthless discrimination against national minorities” (96) or against otherwise unpopular groups or persons.


This brings me to the realm of economics. The Road to Serfdom emphasizes the importance of competition between producers―including both firms and workers. Competition is preferable to allocation of resources according to some pre-defined plan, or to the views of government decision-maker, “not only because it is in most circumstances the most efficient method known but even more because it is the only method by which our activities can be adjusted to each other without coercive or arbitrary intervention of authority”. (41) The world is so complex that no planner, whether an individual or a government agency, can embrace the whole picture of the resources available to a society, the needs and desires of individuals, the ideas they are generating.

Being left to pursue their interests and opportunities within a general framework of rules, individuals and firms will create more, not only in terms of material wealth, but also of innovation and opportunity, than if they worked at the direction of government. A bureaucracy attempting to direct them simply could not anticipate what possibilities might arise, and what prospects its orders might foreclose. It is worth pointing out that Hayek sees a role for regulation, whether to protect the rights of workers or even the environment. At least in The Road to Serfdom―his views on this become more uncompromising later―Hayek claims that “preservation of competition [is not] incompatible with an extensive system of social services―so long as the organization of these services is not designed in such a way as to make competition ineffective over wide fields”, (43) and they are, instead “provided for all outside of and supplementary to the market system”. (133)

On the other side―as consumers―a competitive economy leaves us choices that regulation or government control would take away. Hayek explains that “[o]ur freedom of choice in a competitive society rests on the fact that, if one person refuses to satisfy our wishes, we can turn to another. But if we face a monopolist we are at his mercy. And an authority directing the whole economic system would be the most powerful monopolist conceivable.” (102) While the market does not always provide us with as many opportunities as we would like, it at least leave us the choice of how to direct our limited resources, instead of leaving us dependent on others’ views “of what we ought to like or dislike” (103) or how we ought to value the different aims that we would like to pursue. (99) The market does not distribute wealth and resources “according to some absolute and universal standard of right”―which in any case does not exist―, but nor does it make distribution subject to “the will of a few persons”. (112) In a market economy, “who is to get what … depends at least partly on the ability and enterprise of the people concerned and partly on unforeseeable circumstances”. (112-113) 


I turn, finally, to the question of the relationship of the free individual to a free polity. The commitment to individualism imposes significant burdens on both―or rather, on both the individual as a private agent and on the same individual as a citizen and member of a political community.

In politics, we must learn to recognize the reality of the constraints and limitations within which we make our choices: in particular, of economic constraints. We must accept that they are not the product of some sinister will, but of forces no less real for being impersonal. Hayek explains and warns that

[a] complex civilization like ours is necessarily based on the individual’s adjusting himself to changes whose cause and nature he cannot understand: why he should have more or less, why he should have to move to another occupation, why some things he wants should become more difficult to get than others, will always be connected with such a multitude of circumstances that no single mind will be able to grasp them; or, even worse, those affected will put all the blame on an obvious immediate and avoidable cause, while the more complex interrelationships which determine the change remain inevitably hidden from them. (223)

We must understand that while “[i]t may sound noble to say, ‘Damn economics, let us build up a decent world’”, this “is, in fact, merely irresponsible”. (230) The attempt to build up a decent world risks empowering the demagogues offering easy solutions that solve nothing, and destroy what we already have.

To resist them, we need also to accept that ends do not justify all means; that collectivist and a fortiori dictatorial instruments cannot be put in the service of the right ideals, or entrusted to the right people, without either corrupting them or being seized by the more ruthless and corrupt; that “power itself” is “the archdevil”, (159) and that power concentrated in the hands of the state “is … infinitely heightened” (159) in comparison with that wielded by private actors. Once again, the echoes of The Lord of Rings are unmistakable.

We need, moreover, to firmly reject “the presumption of any group of people to claim the right to determine what people ought to think or believe”. (180) Perhaps most controversially for our time, Hayek cautions against a loss of “belief in Western civilization” and “a readiness to break all cultural ties with the past and to stake everything on the success of a particular experiment”. (203) (It would perhaps not be superfluous to note that Hayek would later write an essay called “Why I Am Not a Conservative”; he always considered himself a liberal―in the European, not the American, sense of the word.)

Last but not least, we ought to remember that morality is not measured by the intensity of our “indignation about the inequities of the existing social order” (230) but “by standards [of] individual conduct, and on the seriousness with which we uphold moral principles against the expediencies and exigencies of social machinery”. (231) We are acting morally, in other words, not when we are engaged in virtue-signalling or being “unselfish at someone else’s expense”, or indeed “being unselfish if we have no choice”, (231) but when we choose to put our own self-interest on the line for our principles. On this point, it is worth emphasizing that voting, in particular, is no test of individual morality, since it requires no “sacrifice of those of [those] values [one] rates lower to those [one] puts higher”. (233)

It is in our private conduct that we ought to be unselfish, concerned with equality, and generally do what we think is right. We must recall, Hayek says, that “[r]esponsibility, not to a superior, but to one’s conscience, the awareness of a duty not exacted by compulsion, the necessity to decide which of the things one values are to be sacrificed to others, and to bear the consequences of one’s own decision, are the very essence of any morals which deserve the name”. (231-32) We ought also to practice actively those “individualist virtues” to which I already referred: willingness to stand up for our opinions also ability to respect for those who disagree with us; magnanimity not to punch down and courage not to kiss up; good humour and presumption of good faith. We need, in other―Abraham Lincoln’s―words, to act “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right”. Importantly, Hayek reminds us that “these individualist virtues are at the same time eminently social virtues”, (163) in that they make a society where they are practiced a much more pleasant place to live than one where they are forgotten.

Firmness in the right as we are given to see the right is perhaps an especially important theme for Hayek, though unlike Lincoln, he writes of individual conscience as what gives us to see the right. He insists on the importance of “readiness to do what one thinks right … at the sacrifice of one’s own desires and perhaps in the face of hostile public opinion”, (232) “to back one’s own conviction against a majority”. (233) Related to this is the imperative to hold on to the “old meaning” of the word “truth” as “something to be found, with the individual conscience as the sole arbiter of whether in any particular instance the evidence (or the standing of those proclaiming it) warrants a belief”, (178-79) and not whatever the authorities want us to believe for the sake of maintaining social cohesion.

As an academic, I especially want to highlight the need to stand up to the tendency to put “the disciplines dealing directly with human affairs and therefore most immediately affecting political views, such as history, law, or economics”, in the service of “the vindication of the official views” rather than a search for truth. (176) We must not allow law schools, or history departments, to be made into “factories of the official myths which the rulers use to guide the minds and wills of their subjects”. (176) As Hayek wrote all these years ago, “contempt for intellectual liberty is not a thing which arises only once the totalitarian system is established but one which can be found everywhere among intellectuals who have embraced a collectivist faith”. (179) Runnymede is fighting the good fight in opposition to this contempt.


Let me conclude with a warning and an exhortation. The warning is that reading The Road to Serfdom will not fill you with joy. It is dispiriting to see just how much Hayek’s warnings about the dangers of collectivism are still applicable today, three quarters of a century after he wrote. It would be much easier to think of whatever problems we are facing in our time as temporary aberrations rather than as avatars of a long, perhaps a permanent, dark streak in human nature, which is what their persistence suggests they are.

But the exhortation is to pick up The Road to Serfdom regardless and, having read it, to do what you can to push back against the trends that it describes. As Hayek says, “[i]t is because nearly everybody wants it that we are moving in this direction. There are no objective facts which make it inevitable.” (7) As Gandalf points out in The Lord of the Rings, “all who live to see [evil] times” wish them away, “[b]ut that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

The Road to Serfdom at 75: Part I

An appreciation of a life-changing book

In the last 10 days, I gave two talks ― one to the Runnymede Society chapter at the University of Victoria and one at the Université de Sherbrooke ― on Friedrich Hakey’s The Road to Serfdom. In this post and one to follow tomorrow, I reproduce my notes for these talks. The page numbers refer to the 50th Anniversary Edition, which is the one I have in my possession.


Why is F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom still relevant—and not merely relevant, but compelling—75 years after its publication? It is not obvious that this should be so. It is a book written in a historical particular context, and in response to the intellectual climate of its day. It is a polemic; one is almost tempted to say, a pamphlet―and indeed Hayek himself, in a 1976 preface, refers to The Road to Serfdom in exactly this way, “a pamphlet for the time”. In this, it is unlike Hayek’s more general later works, The Constitution of Liberty and Law, Legislation and Liberty.

And yet, while I wouldn’t say the two later books, especially Constitution, are obscure, it is still The Road to Serfdom that is the iconic one. It has changed the trajectory of my own intellectual life when I read it, probably in third year of law school. (It is one of those things that I find it difficult to remember not knowing, so I don’t recall the exact time or the reasons that made me read it.) And it has had a similar effect on any number of people since its publication. Clearly, it is rather more than a pamphlet, or even just a polemic. It might have began as a pamphlet for the time, but it is, as Milton Friedman described it in a different preface, timeless.

I will venture an explanation for The Road to Serfdom ongoing appeal. I will argue that it targets an evil that is enduring, and that we must confront today, with (almost) as much urgency as Hayek had to when he was writing. The defeat of the particular shapes that this evil took then—a defeat that looks much more provisional and uncertain than it did when I first read the book a dozen years ago—was important in its time. But the evil itself was not put to rest, and perhaps cannot be. It revives, shifts shapes, and must be resisted and repelled again and again, in the time that is given us.

(The reader may have noticed me echoing, and in the last sentence directly quoting from The Lord of the Rings. This is not an accident. I think there are echoes of the Lord of the Rings in The Road to Serfdom, or perhaps I should say it the other way around, since the Road to Serfdom was published much before The Lord of the Rings finally was. I believe that this is not at all surprising, since they were being written at the same time, and their authors saw—and in their very different ways responded—to much the same events, not just those of the then-ongoing war but also those of the previous one, of which both were veterans.)


So let me begin, very briefly, with the immediate context in which Hayek was writing, before moving on to the more timeless elements in The Road to Serfdom. The book was published in 1944, while World War II was ongoing, although it looks forward to the aftermath of an Allied victory. It was written, therefore, while Nazism was at or just past the peak of its power, while Soviet communism was already immensely powerful, and growing more so by the day. But the Western response to the two totalitarian ideologies was strikingly different. Even before war broke out, socialism and communism were prestigious in the way Nazism never quite was in the West; after 1941, communism was the ideology of an ally in that war. And, of course, the Soviet regime had long presented itself as the most steadfast opponent of Nazism, while the Nazis themselves employed much anti-Communist rhetoric (recall that the alliance of Germany, Italy, and Japan was officially called the “Anti-Comintern Pact”). The fashionable view was that fascism was the ultimate, and perhaps inevitable, development of unbridled capitalism, and that embracing socialism or communism was the only way to forestall the advent of fascism.

Hayek saw things differently. For him, Nazism and Socialism were denominations in the same church totalitarian church, whose adherents had a great deal in common even if they professed unfailing enmity. (The enmity was, in any case, less constant than advertised: recall Stalin’s pact with Hitler in 1939, leading to their joint invasion and partition of Poland, and much of Eastern Europe.) What Nazism and Socialism had in common was collectivism. Both held that society had to be organized around the supposed interests of particular groups of people, and devoted single-mindedly to the pursuit of some alleged common purpose. Both rejected liberalism and individualism. Nazism simply defined the group that was supposed to define the purposes of political action differently, along racial rather than class lines. Despite this, it had, as the title of one of the chapters of The Road to Serfdom had it, “socialist roots”. Hence Hayek’s dedication of the book “to socialists of all parties”, on the right as well as on the left.


This brings me back to the timeless evil which The Road to Serfdom responds to. On the surface, significant parts of the book rebut arguments that were prevalent in the years preceding its publication about the desirability and feasibility of Soviet-style central economic planning and government ownership of the means of production. And of course advocacy of such policies is now unusual, although I wonder whether the ground is shifting even on this, with the popularity of Bernie Sanders and, even more so, Elizabeth Warren, whose plans for telling companies exactly how to behave, what to sell, and for whose benefit, go nearer the central planning of yore than anything a serious candidate for office has proposed in decades.

But these are issues primarily of form. Look below the surface, and the impulse toward collectivism is no weaker now. What has changed is not its origin or orientation, but its direction. 21st-century collectivists are not only preoccupied with economic inequality, on which they forebears mostly (but not exclusively) focused in Hayek’s time, but (also) with the environment and, especially, with identity―whether it is the identity of groups purportedly defined by gender, race, sexuality, etc., or that of nations.   

What does Hayek mean by collectivism, and why is it, after all, such a bad thing? Collectivism is the organization of society by the state according to a single blueprint, such that persons and groups, insofar as they are not obliterated in the process, are entirely subordinated to it and made to serve its purposes instead of pursuing their own. The attraction of collectivism is that it seems to make possible the realization of purposes on which we might all agree―say, racial or gender equality, or putting an end to global warming, or perhaps something more diffuse, such as simply “the public welfare”―by directing all, or at least some very significant part, of society’s efforts to them.

What’s the problem with this? Collectivists tend to forget that purposes that all appear desirable in the abstract can be in conflict, and that sometimes “any one of them can be achieved only at the sacrifice of others”. (59) If the efforts of society are to be centrally directed by government, a hierarchy of aims will need to be established to determine which will yield to others. Yet where is this hierarchy to come from? Comprehensive agreement on a scale of values does not exist in a free society, where individuals have their own moral scales. The hierarchy of aims must, and can only be, generated by the government; and not by a democratic process, which is bound to reflect the disagreements that exist in society. Indeed, it is precisely the failure of democracy to generate all-encompassing agreement that “makes action for action’s sake the goal. It is then the man or the party who seems strong and resolute enough ‘to get things done’ who exercises the greatest appeal”, (150) and is set up in a position of unaccountable technocrat or dictator, which amounts to more or less the same thing.

As for individuals, if they cannot be expected to agree on a common hierarchy of aims, they must still be made to agree to it. An official dogma, extending not only to values but even to “views about the facts and possibilities on which the particular measures are based” (170), must be spread, by means of relentless propaganda, by twisting the meaning of words, especially of words describing moral and political values, and by resorting to censorship and ultimately force, since dissent compromises the mobilization of society toward the chosen aims. Instead of truth, “[t]he probable effect on the people’s loyalty to the system becomes the only criterion for deciding whether a particular piece of information is to be published or suppressed”. (175-76) And people, like ideas, “more than ever become a mere means, to be used by the authority in the service of such abstractions as the ‘social welfare’ or the ‘good of the community’”. (106) Moreover,

[i]f the ‘community’ or the state are prior to the individual, if they have ends of their own independent of and superior to those of the individuals, only those individuals who work for the same ends can be regarded as members of the community. It is a necessary consequence of this view that a person is respected only as a member of the group, that is, only if and in so far as he works for the recognized common ends, and that he derives his whole dignity only from this membership and not merely from being man. (156)

Note, too, that aims do not exist in the abstract; they are those of individuals, sometimes of groups (that is, of individuals who agree). A hierarchy of aims imposed―ultimately at gunpoint―by the government is also a hierarchy of people. A collectivist government will choose whose interests to favour, and whose to subordinate. It might say it aims at fairness, but it will apply a particular standard of fairness: its own, not one of society at large, since the latter does not actually exist. Indeed, “it is easier for people to agree on a negative program―on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off―than on any positive task. The contrast between the ‘we’ and the ‘they’, the common fight against those outside the group, seems to be an essential ingredient in any creed which will solidly knit together a group for common action.” (153) Collectivism, whatever its initial aims, tends toward factionalism and nationalism, and this tendency is only exacerbated by “that glorification of power … which profoundly affects the ethical views of all collectivists”. (158)

Ultimately, collectivism is destructive not only of freedom―both political and personal―but of morality itself. A collectivist system “does not leave the individual conscience free to apply its own rules and does not even know any general rules which the individual is required or allowed to observe in all circumstances”, (161) because the needs of the collective―as interpreted, of course, by the political leaders or technocrats purporting to speak on its behalf―are always regarded as more important than individual scruples. Collectivists

lack … the individualist virtues of tolerance and respect for other individuals and their opinions, of independence of mind and … uprightness of character and readiness to defend one’s own convictions against a superior … , of consideration for the weak and infirm, and of that healthy contempt and dislike of power which only an old tradition of personal liberty creates. Deficient they seem also in most of those little yet so important qualities which facilitate the intercourse between men in a free society: kindliness and a sense of humor, personal modesty, and respect for the privacy and belief in the good intentions of one’s neighbor. (163)

In The Road to Serfdom, this is a description of Germans, whom Hayek regards as epitomizing collectivism. But it applies, in our day, just as well to “social justice warriors” as to the supporters of Donald Trump. And it applies with double force to those in positions of political power in either movement, who more than all the others are required to  demonstrate “readiness [to] conform[] to an ever changing set of doctrines” laid down by the leader in the pursuit of his chosen goals (or, in a development Hayek did not anticipate, emerged more or less spontaneously in activist circles), whatever these doctrines may be, and to enforce such conformity on those over whom they rule.


Part II follows.

The Rule of Law All the Way Up

Introducing my recently-published chapter on the Rule of Law and Canadian constitutional law

LexisNexis Canada recently published (if I understand correctly, as a standalone book as well as a dedicated issue of the Supreme Court Law Review (2d)) Attacks on the Rule of Law from Within, a collection of essays co-edited by my friends Joanna Baron and Maxime St-Hilaire. The publisher’s blurb gives a concise summary of the project’s background and contents:

This volume is a collection of six papers developed from the Runnymede Society’s 2018 national conference by a community of legal experts in response to Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Abella’s comment that “the phrase ‘rule of law’ annoys her”. 

Grounded on the intuition that the legal profession supports the rule of law, the papers examine the historical perspective on threats to the rule of law, the sufficiency of the current Canadian legal framework to support this ideal and how the principle of stare decisis as observed by the Supreme Court of Canada undermines the spirit of the rule of law. The volume also discusses how the law relating to Aboriginal title and the duty to consult fails to adhere to the Rule of Law standards … to the detriment of indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians alike.

I am honoured to have contributed to this volume, with an essay called “The Rule of Law All the Way Up”, which focuses on what I see as the lack of commitment to the Rule of constitutional Law in by scholars, judges, and politicians. Here is the abstract:

Canadian constitutional law is seldom criticised for its failure to live up to the ideal of the Rule of Law. This article argues that it should be so criticised. A number of widely accepted or uncontroversial Rule of Law requirements―the need for general, stable, and prospective rules, the congruence between the “in the books” and the law “in action, and the availability of impartial, independent courts to adjudicate legal disputes―are compromised by a number of ideas already accepted or increasingly advocated by Canadian lawyers, judges, and officials.

This article describes four of these ideas, to which it refers as “politicization techniques”, because they transform what purports to be “the supreme law of Canada” into a set of malleable political commitments. These are, first, deference to legislatures or the application of a “margin of appreciation” and the “presumption of constitutionality” in constitutional adjudication; second, constitutional “dialogue” in which courts not merely defer, but actively give way to legislative decisions; the substitution of political for legal judgment through the application of the “notwithstanding clause” of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and the rewriting of constitutional law by the courts under the banner of “living tree” constitutional interpretation.

The article concludes with an appeal to those who profess commitment to the Rule of Law in relation to the Constitution not to embrace or endorse the means by which it is subverted.

The entire chapter is available to download on SSRN. It builds on many of the themes developed on my posts here ― the rejection of judicial deference on constitutional issues, whether to legislatures or to the administrative state; the imperative to renounce the use of the Charter‘s “notwithstanding clause”; and the perils of “living constitutionalism”. Some of these, notably the issue of deference to administrative interpretations of constitutional law and constitutional interpretation, I will also be pursuing in future work. (Indeed, the first of these is the subject of the paper I will be presenting at the Journal of Commonwealth Law symposium next month.)

I am very grateful to Ms. Baron and Professor St-Hilaire for having given me the opportunity to present these thoughts, and write them up for publication. I am also grateful to Justice Bradley Miller, of the Court of Appeal for Ontario, who gave me thoughtful comments when I presented my chapter (then still very much in draft form) at the 2018 Runnymede Society conference, as well as to Kerry Sun, who was a very helpful editor. And I am looking forward to reading the other contributions in the volume, once I am done preparing the talks I am about to give in the coming weeks.

Upcoming Canadian Talks

Save the dates!

In a couple of weeks, I will be hopping on to a 13-hour transpacific flight and heading to Canada to give a series of talks. Here are the dates and topics. I don’t have all the details about the exact time and location yet, so if you are based at or near one of the host institutions, keep an eye out ― or get in touch with me or my hosts closer to the day.

  • September 26, University of Victoria, Faculty of Law (Runnymede Society): “The Road to Serfdom, 75 Years On”. I take it that this will be inaugural Runnymede event at UVic, and I am very honoured to be part of it.
  • September 30, Université de Sherbrooke, Faculty of Law: « Route de la Servitude: fermée pour travaux (de démolition)… depuis 75 ans ». This will be the French version of the UVic talk; I’m afraid I’m a bit puzzled by the title, but I didn’t to choose it.
  • October 2, University of Toronto, Faculty of Law (Runnymede Society): “An Election Is No Time to Discuss Serious Issues. Really?” This will be discussion of the regulation of civil society participation in election campaigns, which has been much in the news in recent weeks.
  • October 4, University of Waterloo (Freedom of Expression in Canada Workshop): “A Conscience- and Integrity-Based Approach to Compelled Speech”. The workshop is being organized by Emmett Macfarlane, who has just told it is full… but there is apparently a waitlist. My paper builds, of course, on what I have had to say about things like the citizenship oath, the Law Society of Ontario’s “statement of principles”, and Ontario’s anti-carbon-tax stickers.
  • October 9, Université du Québec à Montréal, Département des sciences juridiques: « Les élections sont-elles une occasion de se taire? ». This will be the French version of the Toronto talk, with a discussion of the Québec legislation thrown in.
  • October 11-12, Ottawa (Workshop on the Royal Prerogative): “The Royal Prerogative in New Zealand”. This is the first meeting of a group put together by Philippe Lagassé to carry out a SSHRC-funded research project on the prerogative in Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Professor Lagassé also tells me the workshop is “pretty much full”. Are you seeing a theme here? Yep, I’ve managed to get myself invited to really cool workshops.
  • October 16, McGill University, Faculty of Law (Runnymede Society): a discussion with Paul Daly on administrative law. If the Supreme Court co-operates, we will, of course, discuss the Vavilov and Bell/NFL cases, in which the Court may, or may not, completely change the Canadian law of judicial review. If the decisions are not released, it will be a more general conversation. Either way, I am looking forward to
  • October 18, Université de Montréal (Symposium of the Journal of Commonwealth Law): “Unholy Trinity: The Failure of Administrative Constitutionalism in Canada”. I will be presenting a paper arguing that the Supreme Court’s disgraceful decision in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293 and the companion Ontario case illustrate the problems that plague “administrative constitutionalism” ― the view that administrative decision-makers’ decisions bearing on constitutional rights are entitled to judicial deference.

I am grateful to the people who have invited me and/or organized these events. (A special shout-out to my co-blogger and president of the Runnymede Society, Mark Mancini!) If you are able to make it to one (or more) of the talks, please say hello. It is always a pleasure to meet some of my readers in person. See you soon!

The System Is Working

Environmentalist groups have a point when they say they are being muzzled by Elections Canada; trouble is, that’s exactly how the law is meant to work

As the media reported earlier this week, environmentalist groups are angry at Elections Canada, which has warned them that spending money to raise awareness of climate change in the run-up to the coming federal election would subject them to the rules on “third party” participation in election campaigns. Many are feeling that they will be required to keep quiet during the campaign, which rather defeats the purpose of being advocacy groups. Even the BBC has a story on this.

For its part, Elections Canada has issued a response claiming that the Canada Elections Act doesn’t prevent advocacy groups from advocating, so long as they register if they spend $500 or more and comply with the spending cap. Elections Canada adds that the registration requirement “leads to increased transparency” and has been in place “for nearly 20 years”. Helpfully, I suppose, the statement concludes with an acknowledgement that the rules “can be complex”, and Elections Canada is happy to answer questions about them.

The rules are indeed somewhat complicated, as I explain below. But the bottom line is simple enough. Despite the officials’ protestations, NGOs ― be they environmentalist or other ― have a point when they say that they are being muzzled. To some extent, that’s what the Canada Elections Act is designed to do; to an even greater extent this might be an unintended consequence of the Act’s pursuit of transparency, but an entirely predictable one. The issues are well known; I, for one, raised them in my statement to the House of Commons Select Committee that considered the latest round of amendments to the Canada Elections Act. The only surprising thing is the degree to which people still end up being surprised when problems of sort arise.


The Canada Elections Act‘s regulation of political spending is predicated on the idea that attention during election campaigns should be focused on politicians ― individual candidates and political parties, especially parties. Parties, if they run candidates in all ridings, are able to spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising ― which they are entitled to buy at favourable rates, in addition to an allowance of free airtime. Non-politicians ― that is, individuals, labour and student unions, corporations, and NGOs ― are known as “third parties” in the election law jargon and, as I explained here, their participation in electoral debates is viewed as anomalous, indeed suspicious, and is strictly limited.

One set of limits concerns the amounts of money third parties are allowed to spend, which are only a small fraction of the spending allowed political parties. The Supreme Court has upheld the limitation of third party spending during election campaigns, notably in Harper v Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 SCR 827, although there is good reason to be critical of that decision, which I have even rated as one of the worst in the last fifty years. (As I noted here, the High Court of Australia was also quite skeptical of Harper in a recent decision.) Last year, Parliament enacted further limits that apply even before the formal campaign begins, and their constitutionality has not yet been tested; Harper, in my view, does not dispose of the question.

In addition to spending limits, “third parties” are also subject to onerous registration and reporting requirements. Some of these are the cause of the latest dust-up. Specifically, Division 1 of Part 17 of the Canada Elections Act imposes such requirements on “third parties” that incur more than $500 of expenses on, notably “partisan activities” and “partisan advertising” during the “pre-election period”, which begins on June 30 of the year for which a fixed-date election is scheduled and ends with the start of the election campaign. During the election campaign itself, governed by Division 2 of Part 17, “election advertising”, as well as “partisan activities” count for the spending thresholds that can trigger registration and reporting requirements.

The definitions of “partisan” and “election advertising”, found in section 2(1) of the Canada Elections Act, are very broad. The former term “means the transmission to the public by any means during a pre-election period of an advertising message that promotes or opposes” a party or a candidate, further defined in section 2(7) as “naming”, “identifying” (“including by … logo” or picture, as the case may be, and “providing a link to an Internet page that” names or identifies the party or candidate. “Election advertising” includes the same things as “partisan advertising”, but also “taking a position on an issue with which a … party or candidate is associated”, even without naming that party or candidate. Since issues with which no candidate or party “is associated”, come election time, are about as common as colour pictures of a Maple Leafs Stanley Cup parade, the definition of “election advertising” encompasses pretty much any advertising that has anything to say on matters of government or policy.

Now, some means of communicating with the public are exempted from these definitions. In particular, the exemptions cover anything that the media will print or broadcast without charge to the speaker ― things like quotes in news items, interviews, and op-eds. Also exempt are organizations’ communications with their members, shareholders, or employees, as well as “the transmission by an individual, on a non-commercial basis on the Internet, of his or her personal political views”. Note, though, that on its face the latter exemption doesn’t cover ― indeed, it rather pointedly excludes ― a group’s or an organization’s online communications, even if not paid for (for example, tweeting under the organization’s handle). And of course, any communication that the media are not interested in carrying free of charge will count as an advertising. In effect, for groups and organizations, the media are the gatekeepers of their ability to communicate with the public without having to register as “third parties”.

So what’s the big deal about registration? Well, although you won’t know it from the Elections Canada statement linked to above, registration doesn’t just mean filling out a form. There are a number of other requirements. To begin with, unions and corporations cannot register before their board has adopted a resolution authorizing them to incur expenses on “partisan” or “election advertising” (sections 349.6(5) and 353(5) of the Canada Elections Act). All “third parties” are also required to have a “financial agent” who will be responsible for collecting money to be spend on “partisan” or “election advertising” and for spending it (sections 349.7 and 354). These transactions must be done through a separate bank account (section 358.1) After the election is over, a detailed report on the money collected, advertising taken out, and costs incurred must be filed (section 359). And this is not all. Those “third parties” that spend more than 10,000$ are also required to file interim reports during the course of the election campaign and, most significantly, to appoint auditors (section 355) and file the auditor’s report on their spending (section 360).

Needless to say, this is all quite costly, at least in time, but also ― especially for those third parties that spend more 10,000$ ― in money. Big trade unions, whose budgets are extracted from workers who don’t get a say on whether to contribute or on how the money is spend, may not be especially troubled by these costs. But for NGOs, whose income comes from voluntary (albeit taxpayer-subsidized) donations, and which need to be much more careful about how they spend it, compliance with the Canada Elections Act may be too expensive. From their perspective, the sensible if unfortunate thing to do may well be to keep quiet for the duration of the election campaign, or even starting with the beginning of the pre-campaign period.

This means that for a period of almost four months preceding the election ― the period when the most people pay attention, even if it’s still sporadic and fragmentary attention, to political and policy issues ― civil society organizations may indeed be prevented from expressing their opinion about politicians, except to the extent that the media will let them. Again, the bigger and better-known you are, the less of a problem this may be for you. Smaller groups, whose views are (naturally and fairly) of less interest to the media, will find it more difficult to get across to the voters. The more unusual voices, in other words, are the ones who are the most at risk of being silenced ― in effect if not, perhaps, in intent ― by the Canada Elections Act.

And of course even for larger groups, having to pass through the media means sound-bite-sized interventions have a much better chance of getting across to the voters than anything more serious. Say that a politician or party is anti-environment, or pro-worker, or something equally inane, and the media may well pick it up. But they’re not going to run a detailed report card assessing the competing parties’ platforms on some issue ― but publishing it on an NGO’s website, let alone running it as an advertisement would mean having to comply with burdensome registration and reporting requirements under the Canada Elections Act.


No wonder, then, that environmentalists are feeling muzzled and frustrated. And of course groups pursuing other agendas may be feeling that way too ― or may come to feel that way when the occasion arises. They have more than a little justification. And they shouldn’t be the only ones feeling wronged. The voters should be too. You may not miss the presence of a particular set of activists in the election campaign, but the rules that silence them silence the activists on your side too. You may not be all that interested activists generally have to say, but you should be interested in politicians’ feet being held to the fire.

The ostensible rationale for registration and reporting requirements is that they serve to promote transparency, in addition to assisting in the enforcement of spending limits applicable to “third parties”. It is on that basis that the Supreme Court upheld those requirements that apply in the course of the election campaign ― although not those applicable in the pre-campaign period, which weren’t yet in the Canada Elections Act ― in Harper. Yet one needs to weigh the value of transparency against the costs that its pursuit imposes on those subject to the Canada Elections Act ― and, as I have just explained, on the voters who are being deprived of important contributions to the electoral debate.

The Harper majority’s analysis on this point was quite perfunctory. There is no real discussion of compliance costs and their deterrent effects. Instead, the majority is content to baldly assert that “[t]he appointment of a financial agent or auditor is not overly onerous. Rather, it arguably facilitates the reporting requirements.” [145] Even worse, the majority did not at all consider what I think is the crucial issue: the thresholds at which the registration and reporting requirements kick in. All it said was that the requirements “vary depending on the amount spent on election advertising”. [145] Yet one can accept the principle of imposing such requirements on heavy spenders while also acknowledging that the existing rules go much too far.

In New Zealand, “third parties” are not required to register until they spend NZ$13,200 (ca. C$11,000); more detailed reporting requirements only apply once a “third party” spends NZ$100,000. (Even then, third parties aren’t peremptorily required to provide an auditor’s report, although they may be asked to do so.) These strike me as rather more reasonable figures than those in the Canada Elections Act, though even they should probably be multiplied several-fold to account for the fact that New Zealand’s population is only a small fraction of Canada’s.

It is difficult to believe that a “third party” spending a few thousand, or even tens of thousand of dollars is going to have any substantial impact on an election by itself. At most, it may be successful enough in getting other people ― voters, media, or politicians ― to discuss the issues it is raising. It is this discussion, rather than anything published on an NGO’s website or even a Facebook ad, that might, conceivably albeit theoretically, matter. In the abstract, this discussion might be enriched by more disclosure. In practice, the very real costs of the disclosure requirements end up preventing the conversations from happening at all. I fail to see how the voters benefit from this.


As Elections Canada points out in its response to the environmentalist groups, the “advertising during the election period has been subject to the Canada Elections Act for nearly 20 years”. This is true. (As noted above, rules on advertising in the pre-election period are new.) For about half of this time, it has been known, at least to those who study these things, that the rules tend to hobble not business interests, but labour unions and civil society groups. Colin Feasby wrote about this in 2010; I did (in the context of Québec elections, which are subject to similar but even more draconian rules) in 2012; also in 2012 Tom Flanagan came out in support of rules like those in the Canada Elections Act, whose enactment he had opposed, with the declared intention to muzzle unions; I updated Dr. Feasby’s findings in an article published in 2015. And in my statement to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs when it was studying amendments to the Canada Elections Act last year (which, among other things, introduced restrictions on “third parties” in the pre-campaign period) I specifically mentioned both the registration and reporting requirements’ tendency to muzzle civil society, and the needless low threshold at which these requirements apply. Needless to say, that had no effect on the resulting legislation.

Yet at every election the impact of restrictions on “third parties” seems to surprise. It happened in Québec in 2014, when the Chief Electoral Officer tried censoring a short documentary a group of citizens had produced to oppose the election of the Parti québécois and the enactment of its “values charter”. Eventually, the Chief Electoral Officer changed his mind; but he was wrong to do so. It happened again in Québec in 2018, now with environmentalist groups being targeted. And now it’s happening at the federal level. The system, one might say, is working. It was designed to shut down political debate not dominated by politicians or the media. That’s what it’s doing.

It will be obvious that I don’t think it’s a good system. Like the National Post’s Chris Selley, I think the rules need to be changed. Whether any restrictions on political spending are justified is debatable but, as noted above, one can accept the premises of Canada Elections Act and still support relaxing its requirements a great deal. Ideally, the next Parliament will take up the issue. But there is also room for litigation. Certainly rules on pre-campaign spending, whose constitutionality has not yet been tested all the way to the Supreme Court can be challenged. But perhaps even the registration and reporting rules upheld in Harper could be attacked, provided that the courts are forced to consider solid evidence of their pernicious effects.