Accountability Ersatz

The Court Challenges Program shows accountable government is no substitute for a small government

Over at, Nicholas Hay offers a qualified and nuanced defence of the Court Challenges Program, which recently relaunched by the federal government. I have criticized the Program here and elsewhere, as have others ― for example the National Post’s editorial board (which mentions some of my arguments). Mr. Hay responds to one of my criticisms by arguing that the Program would benefit “an expansion to include all Charter rights” ― but this only meets my concern that it plays favourites with the constitution half-way, if there, because it would still be objectionable for the government to indicate that it values the enforcement of Charter rights more than that of the federal division of powers. In any case, in this post, I will not re-argue that. Rather, I’ll make a different point, which isn’t only about the Court Challenges Program alone, but which Mr. Hay’s argument brings to mind.

Mr. Hay argues that “the very crux of the Program is government accountability”. To allow, and even to help, citizens challenge unconstitutional government action means making the government answer for its decisions. Unfortunately, Mr. Hay adds, the Program risks being implemented in a way that pays insufficient heed to concerns about accountability within its own functioning. He argues that there is a “need for an enhanced, accountable selection process that will appoint disinterested members” to the expert panels that choose the cases the Program will fund. In addition “the Program should be open to regular review by the Auditor General, and the files should be open to the public under the Access to Information Act”. And when it comes to making the actual decisions about which cases to support, “the Program needs a robust method of allocating subsidies, and tighter spending rules, to ensure support for those truly in need, regardless of what side of the issue they’re on”.

It is hard to disagree with these recommendations, if one accepts the premise of the Program’s existence. But they show, I think, an additional reason for why that premise is worth challenging. Mr. Hay’s argument is, in effect, that the Program, a necessary or at least a most useful form of government accountability, generates demands for further accountability mechanisms in order to secure its own legitimacy. The watchers must be watched. And then, those who watch the watchers must, presumably, be watched in their turn. It’s not enough for an “accountable selection process” for the Program’s expert panels to exist: someone needs to keep an eye on what results it produces. It’s not enough for the Program’s expenses to be audited: someone needs to read the reports. It’s not enough for the Program to be subject to the Access to Information Act: someone needs to put in those requests. Of course this isn’t a flaw of the Program as such, or of Mr. Hay’s proposals to improve it. The same goes for any government accountability mechanism. And, you might think, accountability all around is good; we want as much accountability as we can get, don’t we?

But there can be too much of a good thing. Who will have the time to dig into the reports on the selection of expert panels, the Auditor General’s reports, and the further reports on the selection of cases the Court Challenges Program funds? The Program is a tiny sliver of the federal government’s total spending; most people are probably unaware of its existence; even those who, like journalists, are aware of it have bigger fish to fry. More accountability mechanisms means more things to keep an eye on, more work, more resources consumed. And the time and resources of the relatively few people or organizations with the expertise to keep an eye on the Program may well be better spent on doing other things. At some point, the margin accountability returns on additional accountability mechanisms are likely to become nil or even negative.

My point is not that we should reject Mr. Hay’s proposals for improving the accountability of the Court Challenges Program. It is, rather, that we should be skeptical of the  Program itself, and of any other mechanism that creates the need for an accountability ratchet that is likely to become counterproductive if not self-destructive. Accountability mechanisms that are part of government are still part of government, and they deserve as much skepticism as any other part of government. Their multiplication, like the growth of any other sector of government operations, creates potential for abuse, and makes government more difficult to oversee and to control. Sometimes, like other government functions, accountability mechanisms are necessary and beneficial. But it is always useful to ask ourselves whether any given one really is, and perhaps even to start with a presumption, albeit a rebuttable presumption, against government intervention. The reasons I once outlined for having such a presumption in the case of government provision of goods and services mostly apply to accountability mechanisms too.

If you have borne with me this far, you probably want to ask: isn’t this whole argument counter-intuitive to the point of absurdity? Mustn’t the government be held to account, whatever the problems attempts to do so engender? Given the government’s scope and power, aren’t accountability mechanisms a necessary safeguard against abuse? But here’s the thing: I don’t think we should accept the government’s scope and power as a given. The fewer things government does, the fewer issues there are to hold it accountable on, and the more readily external accountability mechanisms ― whether the media or citizens suing the government on their own, without its assistance ― are able to deal with it. Instead of having a Court Challenges Program to hold government to account when it legislates, and then additional accountability safeguards to make sure the Program works as intended, how about we have a government that legislates less, and thus is in less need of being held to account? As Ilya Somin says, smaller government is smarter. Or, as one might also say, an accountable government is no substitute for a small government. It is, at best, an ersatz.

Yes Or No?

Post-Brexit thoughts on referenda, especially in the context of electoral reform

In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, there is renewed debate about the lessons, if any, that it might hold for other democratic polities on the use of the referendum generally, and in particular for Canada about an eventual referendum on electoral reform. Many of those opposed to such a referendum have seized on the political ignorance and the acrimony on display in the United Kingdom to bolster their arguments. The problems they point to are real, but the case against a referendum on electoral reform is still not compelling.

First of all, it is important to note that the question of whether a referendum is the right way to settle a political controversy does not arise in a vacuum. If the issue has impressed itself with sufficient urgency on the public debate ― and in the Brexit case, this may be an open question ― it has to be resolved somehow. If not by referendum, then by a parliamentary vote. (Sometimes, adjudication or a reference to a court are also available, but not that often, so let’s discount that possibility here.) To say that a referendum is not the way to resolve the issue, it is not enough to point to that procedure’s flaws. It is also necessary to show that they are worse than those of the alternative. Moreover, it is not enough to point to one referendum that turned out badly (whatever “badly means), or to one successful parliamentary debate, to settle the question. Examples are useful, but to be persuasive, they have to be related to some underlying features that the procedures in question will usually, if not always, have.

Now, that political ignorance affected the Brexit vote, and would affect any other referendum, is not exactly a surprise. Ilya Somin discussed the data on political ignorance’s effects on the Brexit referendum in a detailed post at the Volokh Conspiracy, but those looking for a tl;dr can refer to this tweet from Google Trends showing that, after it was announced that the UK voted to leave the European Union, its residents started looking for answers to questions such as “what is the EU?” and what leaving it entails. Presumably, more than a few of these suddenly-curious people had cast their ballots without having any idea of what they were doing. There was also anecdotal evidence of “leave” voters having second thoughts after their preferred option turned out to have won. And given how little informed voters generally are, there is no reason to think that this particular referendum was an outlier.

There was also plenty of evidence of bitter divisions in the British polity in the aftermath of the vote. That too may be a feature of many referendums, though it’s not clear to me that it has to be a feature of all. I may be missing relevant information, but I do not know that New Zealand’s series of referenda on electoral reform was particularly divisive, and it is not at all obvious to me that a referendum on this topic in Canada would cause “deep divisions within Canadian … societ[y], divisions which [would not be] easily healed,” as Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef has implied. Referenda about issues seen as well-nigh existential, such as Québec’s future within or outside Canada, are divisive because the issues themselves are. Those about relatively pedestrian matters, such as the electoral system, are unlikely to be.

A referendum is thus highly likely to be affected by voter ignorance, and may, depending on the issue, prove dangerously acrimonious. But what about the alternative? As prof. Somin points out in a post asking whether “the Brexit vote prove[s] democracies should not use referenda,”

Elected officials may, on average, know more about policy issues than voters. But they need to cater to an often ignorant electorate in order to get elected in the first place. For that reason, policymaking by elected officials is often influenced by public ignorance no less than referenda are.

He adds that

In [an] election, there are many different issues on the agenda, which makes it hard for rationally ignorant voters to follow more than a small fraction of them. By contrast, a referendum can focus the voters’ attention on a single discrete question, thereby reducing the information burden.

And for divisiveness, it seems to me that a close election between two (or perhaps more) stark alternatives can be as divisive as any referendum, if we control for the importance of the issue. (Few elections are seen as being as vitally important as some ― though not all ― referenda.) The 2000 election in the United States left bitterness and division enough to last for two presidential terms and even beyond; and even the 2011 election in Canada left in its wake plenty of people who were convinced that the end times of Canadian democracy were at hand. Nor do I see a reason to see that ― again allowing for the significance of an issue to the public opinion ― having it debated in Parliament will turn out to be less divisive. As Andrew Coyne notes in a National Post column,

[r]eferendums are not themselves inherently divisive; rather, they are usually called precisely when the public is most sharply divided — so divided that the issue cannot risk being decided by ordinary means. If you think Quebec was divided during the two referendums on separation, try to imagine the mayhem that would erupt were the Parti Québécois to try to rip the province out of the country by a simple vote of the legislature.

In an op-ed in the Globe and Mail, Mel Cappe and Janice Gross Stein cite “the debate on the right to assisted death in Canada [as] an example” of enlightened parliamentarism, concerned at once “with interests of the majority” and “the rights of minorities.” But they conveniently forget to mention the fact that this debate only happened because of, and took place within the bounds defined by, a decision of the Supreme Court. Moreover, assisted death is an issue on which there seems to be, a fairly broad, if vague, consensus (though there is probably less agreement on the details than on general principles). If the debate in question was a relatively dignified one, that likely had a good deal to do with this consensus, and not only with the form it took.

There is another characteristic of parliamentary decision-making worth mentioning here. Not always, but more often than not, parliamentary votes are whipped party-line votes. If the leaders of the parliamentary majority decide that they want their caucus to vote a certain way, they will almost invariably get their way. In such cases, meaningful deliberation before a vote is a parliamentary ideal, but not a parliamentary reality. Thus, on an issue decided by party-line votes, parliamentary decision-making amounts to treating the last election ― in which that issue may well have featured only peripherally if at all ― as a sort of referendum-by-proxy on that issue.

So I don’t think that, as a general matter, referenda can be ruled out as a democratic decision-making procedure, as profs. Cappe and Stein suggest. At the same time, there issues that lend themselves to resolution by referendum much better than others. I am skeptical of arguments to the effect there that “constitutional,” or “very important,” issues, or those decisions on which are irreversible, should never be decided by referendum, not least because these categories are  vague and therefore liable to be twisted an abused in public debate. I have argued here that even the contention that issues of rights should not be put to a vote in a referendum is a dubious one. However, Prof. Somin has identified a couple of other factors that are more useful to draw the line.

First, prof. Somin writes that

referenda are often likely to be particularly poor mechanisms for making decisions on issues that involve complex tradeoffs with other priorities. … Legislators are more likely to have the time and expertise needed to study the tradeoffs in at least some detail.

Put another way, a referendum is only appropriate when it should be reasonably clear to at least a modestly diligent voter what each option involves. In a post on his (excellent) Public Law for Everyone blog, Mark Elliott points out that in the Brexit case,

[a] slim majority of those who voted may have expressed a desire to “leave”, but what that means is such an open question as to render the referendum outcome largely meaningless. … [T]hose who voted ‘leave’ … could not have been expressing, and did not express, any clear view about what the UK’s future relationship with the EU should look like precisely because no vision of that relationship was on the table.

The same was arguably true in the 1995 referendum on Québec’s separation. When one ― or more ― of the options on offer in a referendum is too vague, whether because it involves complex tradeoffs or because no one has bothered clarifying it, a referendum is not going to be a good idea. (It is worth noting, by the way, that this problem can affect elections if they are treated as referenda by proxy. As Emmett Macfarlane has been pointing out on Twitter, those who insist that Canadians want electoral reform because a clear majority of them voted for parties that supported it fail to mention that these parties were not very clear on what version of reform they favoured, and did not agree among themselves.) But if all the options are reasonably clear ― as they could be in a referendum on electoral reform, provided that the alternative(s) to the current system were actually specified in advance ― that objection is irrelevant.

Second, prof. Somin points out that

[r]eferenda might also be useful when it comes to issues where there is a serious conflict between the interests of elected officials and those of the general public. Most obviously, the former often can’t be trusted to deal objectively with issues that directly affect their own grip on power: electoral districting, campaign finance, and so forth. In such cases, the superior knowledge of politicians often actually does more harm than good, since they can use it to advance their own interests and the expense of the people.

This warning is relevant to the issue of electoral reform in Canada. Indeed, this should be blindingly obvious, given that every single party in the House of Commons (with the possible exception of the Bloc québécois) is supporting that electoral system which it believes will maximize its political power. Even profs. Gross and Stein concede that parliamentarians will “not always” have the best interests of the majority in mind. When we can tell that they do not, the case for a referendum becomes much stronger.

In my post on whether minority rights can be put to a referendum vote, I wrote that I was happy to live in a representative, not a direct, democracy. Many public decisions do involve such tradeoffs and uncertainty that resolving them by referendum is likely to be a bad idea. But that is not always true. In particular, it is not true of electoral reform. And sometimes, we can tell that our elected representatives are trying to help themselves at our expense. Again, that is true of electoral reform. When both of these factors are present at the same time, a referendum sounds like a very good idea. Let’s vote.

Ideologies in the Marketplace of Ideas

The “marketplace of ideologies” is neither new nor quite disastrous

In a post over at Concurring Opinions, Ronald K.L. Collins laments what he regards as the rise, in the place of the good old marketplace of ideas, of a “marketplace of ideologies.” Prof. Collins writes that in this new marketplace, ideas, facts, “the constitutional process of governing,” and “the noble pursuit of truth” itself are only valued if and insofar as they can put to one’s favoured ideological use; otherwise they are dispensed with. Prof. Collins quotes a number of thinkers, from John Milton to U.S. Supreme Court Justices Holmes, Douglas, and Brennan, who wrote about truth prevailing over falsehood in the contest of ideas. His “fear” however is that “[t]he idea of our faith in ideas has passed,” because

[d]ogmatism is ideology’s calling card. Where ideology reigns supreme, an open mind poses a clear and present danger to its stability. There is no trade in ideas with ideologues, there is only the demand that all opposing views surrender to the preferred creed.

The dangers of dogmatism are real, and I hope that people such as professor Collins, or the bright and brave minds behind the Heterodox Academy project, do not give up the fight against orthodoxies, whether enforced by the state, by social justice warriors, or by anyone else. But I think that prof. Collins overstates both the novelty of the problem he decries and its extent.

Skepticism about the ability of truth to prevail over or even to hold its own against falsehood is an old idea, and one that was expressed not only by various censors, but also by people whose credentials as independent thinkers are quite beyond question. Fred Shapiro has pointed out, at Freakonomics, that the idea behind the well-known quip about a lie getting halfway around the world before truth can gets its shoes ― or its pants ― on, usually attributed to Mark Twain (in the shoes version) or Winston Churchill (the pants one), has been traced as far back as Jonathan Swift, in 1710. And then there is Edward Gibbon’s point, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that while it may be tempting to think that Christianity spread and prevailed because of its truth, “truth and reason seldom find so favourable a reception in the world,” so that additional inquiry into the reasons for Christianity’s success is warranted.

More recently Bryan Caplan has pointed out in a post at EconLog that “[t]ruth doesn’t largely win out in a well-functioning market for ideas, because consumers primarily seek not truth, but comfort and entertainment” (emphasis prof. Caplan’s). The problem that prof. Collins is describing, then, is not that the marketplace of ideas has failed or been closed down in favour of the marketplace of ideologies, but that it is working about as well as it ever has. As for the lofty quotations prof. Collins invokes as evidence for the proposition that things used to be different, they show at most that some people might have thought that the consumers in the marketplace of ideas had other preferences ― not that this belief was correct.

Was it? I see no reason to think so. It might seem that ideological dogmas are pervasive now (especially in the United States), but what of the earlier dogmas of religion or simply of received wisdom and “common sense”? Were not those who dared go against these orthodoxies shunned, criticized, and sometimes murdered? Did people not compromise their search for the truth to avoid coming to uncomfortable conclusions? It may be that things are less different now than we tend to suppose, but I’m not even sure of that, and see little reason to think that they are worse. More likely, what is the case is that ideological influences are more visible than usual, not that they are stronger. As I have argued in the context of the comparison between Canadian and American courts, the fact that the influence of an orthodoxy is only really obvious when it is opposed by a countervailing orthodoxy does not mean that no orthodoxy is at work at other times.

Besides an absence of evidence to the contrary, there is another good reason to think that ideology was always a part of the marketplace of ideas ― not an alternative to it. Ideologies are a sort of appellation for ideas. Associating an idea with an ideology makes it possible to guess where the idea comes from, who its likely supporters and opponents are, what sort of consequences it might lead to, and so on, in more or less the manner in which knowing that a wine is a champagne or a rioja tells us where it comes from and what it might taste like. Of course, there is no central authority certifying an idea as liberal or conservative in the way wines are certified to earn their appellations ― though such authorities did not always exist for wines either. And, partly for that reason, the guesses we might make based on ideological labels are likely to be less accurate than those based on wine appellations. That indeed is one problem with ideologies. The bigger problem, though, is that ideas that would be recognized as rubbish if considered on their own merits can get a free pass as part of some ideological scheme whose adherents will uncritically accept them ― in the way that sparkling plonk might be able to command a premium price by virtue of being a champagne. Conversely, ideas that deserve consideration may be rejected out of hand by people who reflexively oppose their ideological appellation, just as one might refuse to drink perfectly good wine simply because it does not carry some label deemed necessary. These problems are serious, of course, but they are not, strictly speaking, caused by ideologies or appellations ― they are caused by closed minds, and closed minds would cause problems even if ideologies gave up their role to the old orthodoxies of religion and common sense.

“Things are merely just as horrible as they always were, not worse” is not a terribly inspirational thing to say. So here is something that might be a bit more hopeful. We can and should act as if the idea that truth prevails over falsehood were true regardless of whether we believe that it is, and perhaps even though we have reason to think that it is not. That’s what we do, after all, with human dignity or inalienable human rights. These ideas may not be true, but they are comforting and our life is more fun with them. That’s why we can hope that, despite everything, they will prevail.

Ideas of the Marketplace II

What we can learn from thinking about the marketplace of ideas as a market

In a very interesting post over at EconLog, Bryan Caplan considers what he describes as the “dogmatic libertarian” claim that all markets work well, as it is applies ― or, rather, doesn’t apply ― to the marketplace of ideas. The marketplace seems to reject this claim, which suggests that it cannot be true. Prof. Caplan agrees that it is not, and makes two further observations. In reverse order, they are that “[t]ruth doesn’t largely win out in a well-functioning market for ideas, because consumers primarily seek not truth, but comfort and entertainment” (emphasis prof. Caplan’s), and that while “[m]ost markets work well … the market for ideas doesn’t … [b]ecause ideas have massive externalities. … The market for ideas … works poorly because strangers bear almost all the cost of your irrationality.” I think that’s largely right, but want to add a couple of additional points regarding prof. Caplan’s second observation.

First, while it is often true that we do not internalize the costs of our irrationality, this is less true in some contexts than in others. Most obviously ― this a point that Ilya Somin makes in his discussions of political ignorance ― we do internalize a much greater share of the costs of our bad decisions, and also of the rewards of the good ones, when deciding for ourselves, in our private lives, than when we vote or, more generally, act in the political sphere. Even in our private lives, we pass on some of the costs of our irrationality to family, friends, and sometimes the broader society as well, but we do absorb a much more substantial fraction of these costs. This is perhaps a trite point, and prof. Caplan might only have been referring to the marketplace for political ideas (political in a very broad sense), but I think it’s worth spelling it out.

More interestingly, I think, it is also the case that, even in politics, there is a way in which people can be a made to internalize at least a small fraction of the costs of their bad decisions in the marketplace of ideas: democracy. This, I think, is what H.L. Mencken’s famous quip that “[d]emocracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard” means. The theory is only partly true, because as prof. Caplan says, in the political sphere “strangers bear almost all the cost of your irrationality,” but self-government ensures that you bear at least a little fraction of the cost of your opinions and decisions. When you vote for a lousy politician, or convince others to do so, you increase ― albeit usually by very little ― your odds having to reap the consequences of the lousy policies that that politician will implement. By contrast, in a dictatorship, the few who decide typically bear even less of the cost of their views than the voters in a democracy, because they are even better able to pass these costs on to others, while those who do not (which is to say, almost everyone) are even freer to know nothing and believe everything, since their ignorance, credulity, and irrationality have no impact whatever on anything. If you think that voters and politicians are bad in democratic countries, just compare them to the people and the rulers in authoritarian ones. Once again, Churchill was quite right to say that while democracy is a bad system of government, others are even worse.

The second point I wanted to make might be too obvious for an economist like prof. Caplan to discuss, but bears repetition by a lawyer writing for non-economists. That the marketplace of ideas may be malfunctioning as a result of massive externalities does not justify intervention by the state in order to make people internalize these externalities or prevent them from occurring. Market failure may be real, but so is government failure ― and there are situations in which government failure is more severe than the market failure government intervention purports to correct. Indeed, this point is, I think, more widely accepted (albeit not necessarily in these terms) with respect to the marketplace of ideas than for just about any other market. Distrust of, and opposition to, censorship, in the face of widespread evidence of malfunctions in the marketplace of ideas reflects, at least in part, an understanding that giving the state the power to rectify these malfunctions would be disastrous, both because the state is a bad judge of ideas and because this power would be abused in various self-interested ways be the people entrusted with wielding it. Unfortunately, people often fail to transpose this understanding to their analysis of other markets. Yet there is no reason why they should. The marketplace of ideas is just not that special.

Thinking of the marketplace of ideas in economic terms ― assuming, in other words, that it is a marketplace more or less like any other ― is, I think a useful exercise. (I attempted it here already.) It both allows both to sharpen our understanding of the marketplace of ideas itself (and of the related markets, such as the one for votes), and can serve as a reminder of some broader truths about markets and regulations that we intuitively sense when thinking about the marketplace of ideas, but forget in other contexts.

Mémoire fragmentée/Fragmented Remembrance

A meditation on the conflict between identity politics and remembrance

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Germany, it is the Day of remembrance for the victims of National Socialism. And, as it happens, I’ve been reminded of something I wrote almost ten years ago, I think, after visiting the site of the Dachau concentration camp. It seems sadly topical in the face of identity politics flourishing around the world, to which it would we in Canada might have a greater resistance than in many other places, but no immunity.

Here it is, first an English translation and, below, the French original. As for the title of this post, I am lifting it from one written, some years ago, by my friend Adrien Beauduin, saying much the same thing but with about a different place ― proof that the issue I am concerned with is not peculiar to a the place or a culture.

* * *

I am not quite sure why I found myself at the Dachau memorial, on the site of the very first Nazi concentration camp. Whether it was a duty of remembrance, a sort of macabre historical voyeurism, or a quest for redemption (for mankind, since, however difficult this might be for us to acknowledge, concentration camps and terrorist attacks are the work of our fellows), the visit has been as painful as it was instructive. It made me ask myself this disturbing question, among others: when they tried to saw discord between their opponents and victims, to divide and rule them, did the Nazis succeed beyond even their military defeat?

Divide and rule; the principle is old as the world, which takes nothing away from the efficacy of its application from Ceasar to Hitler to Ahmadinejad. In Dachau itself, the guards did everything to set the Social-Democrats against the Communists, the better to control both groups ― apparently, without too much success. The different groups of prisoners were also identified by signs on their uniforms, not only so as to make watching over them ― and humiliating them ― easier, but also to help make co-operation between them more difficult by sustaining the prejudice that each group held against the others. Now, more than sixty years after Dachau’s liberation, I have the impression that these divisions still hold.

Thus the part of the monument to the camp victims’ memory that commemorates the various groups whose members were imprisoned in Dachau by representing the signs that the Nazis used (stars of David and triangles of various colours, depending on the category to which the prisoner belonged) does not menton homosexual prisoners, or criminals. When the monument was built, the men imprisoned for their origins were deemed worthy of remembrance by the former prisoners’ association, but not those who found themselves at Dachau for their “lifestyle choices.” (Actually, I suppose that criminality is, in many cases at least, a choice. But not a choice that justifies putting those who make it in a concentration camp.) And whatever the acceptability of “forgetting” them thirty [now, forty] years ago, I fail to see what prevents it, to this day, from being rectified ― if not the persistence of the old divisions on which the Nazis relied.

The memorial’s other monuments only made my sombre questions more pressing. A monument to the memory of Polish priests. An Orthodox chapel in memory of the Russians. A monument to the memory of Jews. Each not very far from the others, but each its own. The memory of a nation, a religion, etc., by that nation or religion, for that nation or religion. Each one might be remembered, but when that memory is individual, one group is always forgotten: humanity itself.

* * *

Je ne suis pas vraiment sûr pourquoi je me suis retrouvé au mémorial de Dachau, situé sur le site du tout premier camp de concentration nazi. Mais que j’y aie été amené par un devoir de mémoire, une sorte de macabre voyeurisme historique ou un désir de rédemption (pour le genre humain, puisque, et peu importe combien il nous soit difficile de l’admettre, les camps de concentration et les attentats terroristes sont l’œuvre de nos semblables), la visite aura été aussi pénible qu’instructive. Elle m’a amené à me poser, entre autres, une question perturbante. En essayant de semer la discorde entre leurs adversaires et victimes, de les diviser pour régner, les nazis auraient-ils réussi, par-delà même leur défaite militaire?

Diviser pour régner, le principe est vieux comme le monde, ce qui ne diminue pas l’efficacité de son application, depuis César jusqu’à Hitler et à Ahmadinejad. À Dachau même, les gardes faisaient tout pour opposer les sociaux démocrates aux communistes – pour mieux maîtriser les deux groupes – apparemment sans trop de succès. Les différents groupes de prisonniers étaient aussi identifiés par des signes sur leur uniforme, ce qui devait non seulement aider les gardes à les surveiller – et à les humilier, ― mais aussi contribuer à rendre plus difficile leur coopération en faisant perdurer les préjugés d’un groupe à l’égard d’un autre. Eh bien, plus de soixante ans après la libération de Dachau, j’ai eu l’impression que ces divisions sont toujours tenaces.

Ainsi, la partie du monument à la mémoire des victimes du camp qui rappelle les différents groupes dont les membres ont été emprisonnés à Dachau, en représentant les signes utilisés par les nazis (étoiles de David et triangles de différentes couleurs, selon la « catégorie » à laquelle le prisonnier appartenait) ne fait pas mention des prisonniers homosexuels, pas plus que des criminels. Quant le monument a été érigé, les hommes emprisonnés à cause de leur origines ont été jugés dignes du souvenir par l’association des anciens prisonniers, mais pas ceux qui se sont retrouvés à Dachau pour leurs « choix de vie ». (En fait, je suppose que la criminalité est, dans bien des cas du moins, un choix. Mais pas le genre de choix qui justifie qu’on mette ceux qui l’ont fait dans un camp de concentration). Et quelle que fût l’acceptabilité d’un tel « oubli » il y a trente ans, je vois mal ce qui l’empêche, à ce jour, d’être rectifié… sauf la persistance de ces vielles divisions dont les nazis se servaient.

D’autres monuments du mémorial n’ont fait que renforcer mes sombres interrogations. Un monument à la mémoire des prêtres polonais… Une chapelle orthodoxe à la mémoire des Russes… Un monument à la mémoire des Juifs… Les uns pas très loin des autres, mais chacun pour soi. La mémoire d’une nation, d’une religion etc., par cette nation ou religion, pour cette nation ou religion. On se rappelle peut-être chacune, mais lorsque cette mémoire est individuelle, il y a toujours une grande oubliée : l’humanité.

The Core of the Case against Electoral Reform

Why the concerns of those who want electoral reform do not move me

When I wrote about the constitutionality of electoral reform, I did not want to discuss its merits, beyond saying that I did not believe it had many, or the process by which it should be determine upon, beyond saying I favoured a referendum. While I thought it important to mention my positions in order to avoid my constitutional opinion being interpreted as self-serving, I did not mean to argue for them, not least because I did not think I had any arguments to make that would be very interesting or original. Prompted by some of the comments I received, I have thought about these arguments again, and come to the conclusion that one of them may be of some interest, because it is seldom if ever made.

The two main problems that electoral reform is usually said to address are those of “disproportionality” and “wasted votes.” Disproportionality refers to the discrepancy between the percentage of the votes received by a party and its percentage of seats in Parliament, any such discrepancy being, in the view of those who make this argument, undemocratic. Wasted votes are those that apparently do not serve to elect anyone ― that is, under the first-past-the-post system that we now use, those cast for candidates who do not win the riding in which the votes are cast. Proposed reforms ― ranked ballot and mixed-member proportional representation are the main options, if I understand correctly ― address these issues in different ways and to different degrees, but I take it that those are who support reform are usually motivated by these concerns. (Or at least, those who support reform on grounds of principle rather than partisan interest.) There are other arguments for electoral reform, of course, such as that ranked ballot is supposed to make for kinder, gentler politics (like in Australia, I guess), or increased voter turnout (like in Switzerland, I suppose) but they strike me as speculative at best.

Here’s why concerns about disproportionality and wasted votes do not move me. Imagine a simple election between two candidates ― like the run-off stage in a French presidential election. Say the winner gets 55% of the vote, and the loser gets 45%. But the winner gets the prize, the French presidency for example, 100% of it, and the people who voted for the loser go home and their votes have no apparent effect at all. On the account of our would-be electoral reformers, this election results in substantial disproportionality, and a large fraction of the votes cast in it is wasted. Its democratic character should, therefore, be regarded as very questionable. Except that, of course, nobody actually thinks that. Similarly, nobody thinks it undemocratic that a party with, say, 55% of the seats in Parliament gets to govern 100% of the time while that Parliament exists, and nobody seems to say that the votes of the opposition parties are “wasted.”  The disproportion between 55% of the seats and 100% of the power is actually more significant, both in sheer numbers and, more importantly, in effect, than, say, that between getting 40% of the vote and 55% of Parliamentary seats. Yet it is only the latter that is said to be somehow undemocratic. I just don’t see how that is the case. The complaints of the proponents of electoral reform sound in principle, but they strike me as selective and inconsistent with what they are happy to accept in other situations.

For my part, I am no more bothered by the disproportionality or wasted votes in the elections for Parliament than by the same “problems” that arise within Parliament itself. What concerns me is how to limit the ability of a Parliamentary majority, however constituted, to harm both the opposition in Parliament and the citizenry at large ― including its supporters of course ― while it is in office, and how to prevent that majority from entrenching itself so as to become impossible to remove from office at the next election. Electoral reform is not a solution to these concerns. (Indeed some version of it may ― though this too is a speculative argument ― make the entrenchment problem worse.) It is therefore, in my view, an unnecessary disruption of our politics, and a distraction from the issues on which we should be focusing.

NOTE: Feel free to comment, but I doubt I will respond unless I think your observations respond directly to the point I’m making.

Acting Like Grown-Ups

Is there a point to legislating when judges can do it for us?

I would like to elaborate on a point I made in my last post, which discussed arguments at the Supreme Court on Monday about whether the suspension of the declaration of unconstitutionality of the across-the-board criminalization of assisted suicide should be extended. I said that while it is true that, with the decision in Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 S.C.R. 331, the Supreme Court has laid down the constitutional foundation on which an eventual legal framework for the regulation of assisted suicide will have to be built, it would still be better if elected officials ― and through them, the citizens of Canada ― took responsibility for the building. As I noted, the argument of Joseph Arvay, who made the case against the extension, implied that this was not so ― that the judicial process was sufficient to construct this regulatory framework, with no need for legislative intervention, save perhaps for “bells and whistles.” And indeed, what’s the point of the plodding work of legislation if the courts show us the way to go?

This question does not only arise in the context of assisted suicide. Indeed, as the Supreme Court noted in Carter, the declaration of unconstitutionality that it issued in that case was tailored to its specific facts, making “no pronouncement on other situations where physician-assisted dying may be sought” ― so that legislative action is certainly necessary if these any of these other circumstances are to be encompassed by the regulatory framework. But the issue I have in mind is, if anything, even more pressing in other cases. The legalization of same-sex marriage, more than a decade ago now, is one obvious example. It could ― and would ― have been effected through the judicial process, as court after court struck down opposite-sex definition of marriage. There was no need for Parliament to intervene. But Parliament did intervene, after a notorious bit of political theatre involving a reference to the Supreme Court. Was that a good thing? I think it was.

Probably not because legislation can, as the federal government argued before the Supreme Court on Monday, generate “buy-in” from stakeholders, or broader social acceptability, than a judicial decision. This sounds like an empirical claim, and while we cannot run a controlled experiment to verify it (we cannot enact the same policy by legislation and by judicial decision for the same population and see which generates more social acceptability), we can consider some indirect evidence. For example, in the United States, marriage equality seems to have been easily enough accepted, despite a couple of well-publicized instances of officials defying the Supreme Court’s decision to mandate it. By contrast, President Obama’s healthcare reforms remain deeply controversial, despite having been put in place by legislation. It would at least seem that the way in which a rule comes into being does not foreordain its acceptance or rejection by the citizenry.

Rather, I think that a polity taking responsibility for its laws by enacting them democratically, even if it is spurred to do so by judicial decisions, is a good thing in itself, regardless of the felicitous consequences it does or does produce, or at least the worthy and responsible thing to do. My thinking here is inspired by Jeremy Waldron, and specifically by an argument he makes in his paper called “How Law Protects Dignity.” Building on Lon Fuller’s idea that rule-based governance only makes sense if one regards human beings as responsible and capable of self-direction ― as endowed, indeed, with dignity ―, Waldron writes that

legal systems … work by using, rather than short-circuiting, the agency of ordinary human individuals. They count on people’s capacities for practical understanding, for self-control, for self-monitoring and modulation of their own behaviour in relation to norms that they can grasp and understand. (7)


[e]ven when the self-application of general norms is not possible and institutional determination is necessary, either because of disputes about application or because application inherently requires an official determination, still the particular orders that are eventually issued at law look towards self-application. (7)

People ordered to pay damages tend to pay up without the bailiffs seizing their property; even convicted criminals are often allowed to show up to serve their sentence at a pre-determined date without being forcibly brought to prison by the police. Prof. Waldron concludes that

[t]he pervasive emphasis on self-application is … definitive of law, differentiating it sharply from systems of rule that work primarily by manipulating, terrorizing or galvanizing behavior. And as Fuller recognizes, it represents a decisive commitment by law to the dignity of the human individual. (8)

Conversely, though, the dignified thing to do for a person is to engage in self-application of the law, instead of waiting to be physically coerced into compliance.

Prof. Waldron writes about the application of law to individuals. And he cautions elsewhere about the potential problems that can arise if we start applying dignitarian ideas to groups, especially to groups such as nations and states. Still, I think that it makes sense to transpose his ideas about the self-application of the law to the level of political communities.

This transposition goes something like this. Constitutional law is the law that binds the citizens of a polity in their collective political action. And, like other forms of law, it counts in the first instance on the people and, especially, the political actors application its rules to themselves, which is why I get so exercised when they do not. However, perhaps even than with other areas of the law, constitutional law is subject to disputes about its application. As with other areas of the law, courts are often called upon to settle these disputes. But it remains the case that, as with other areas of the law, self-application matters even in the realm of compliance with specific court orders. A community’s self-application of constitutional judicial decisions can take many forms ― and the enactment of legislation that implements judicial decisions, even if it is not strictly speaking necessary, is one of them. It is the political equivalent of a judgment debtor writing a cheque to his erstwhile adversary. It is the dignified thing to do.

Or think of it, if you will, a sign of acting like an adult, of doing what one has to do, instead of having others do things for you and to you. Even responsible adults sometimes have to be reminded of their obligations, and they might not always be as graceful as one might wish in complying with them. Still, it is a sign of maturity and responsibility when they do end up complying with them on their own, instead of being dragged kicking and screaming, like an unruly child might be. Our polity does not always live up to this ideal. We often let provisions declared unconstitutional remain on the books, for instance. (The prohibition on prisoners voting, struck down in Sauvé v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68, [2002] 3 S.C.R. 519, but still a part of the Canada Elections Act (as par. 4(c)), is just one example.) But it is ironic and sad when, as was the case on Monday, defenders of individual rights argue that we can freely dispense with the effort of making good on our constitutional commitment to respect them because the judges can do the work for us.