Dark Vision

A critique of a “vision” of the courts as moral authorities.

In a post over at Slate, Omar Ha-Redye sets out what his title describes as “A Judicial Vision of Canada at 150 and Beyond“. The post is a rather rambling one, but insofar as I understand its overall purpose, it is meant to highlight the centrality of the Supreme Court to our constitutional framework, as illustrated in particular by the Court’s role in re-setting Canada’s relationship with its aboriginal peoples on a more respectful basis. Mr. Ha-Redeye opens his post by confidently asserting that “[f]or most of us today, the Supreme Court of Canada is the arbiter of the most complex questions of law, and the definitive authority for morality in our democracy.” He concludes as follows:

At Canada 150 the Charter, and the Supreme Court of Canada that enforces it, is as much of our democratic institutions belonging to us, if not even more so, than Parliament or the executive. Its autonomy, and insulation from the winds of popular change, may actually provide greater stability and greater effect to individual rights than the right to an individual vote.

In 1867, the vision of Canada could hardly be said to be a judicial one. In 2017, it’s difficult to envision a rule of law without it. [Sic]

Again, it is not fully clear what this is supposed to mean. Who are the “we” of the introduction? What is it difficult to envision “a rule of law” without? But I would like to offer a response, because Mr. Ha-Redeye’s “judicial vision” is, to me, a gloomy one ― and I say this as someone who believes in what is often disparagingly termed “judicial supremacy”.

First, this vision seems to me to reflect a certain confusion of principles, not to mention history. As I have argued here, it is a mistake to claim that the Charter and its enforcement by the courts are democratic. Asking unelected and largely unaccountable institutions to make decisions of public importance, including decisions concerning the powers of democratic majorities, is not what democracy is about; it is not “the government of the people, by the people”, although it may well be “for the people”. If “for the people were enough, then an enlightened monarch or a benevolent dictator would be able to call himself democratic too. Of course, to say that the judicial enforcement of entrenched constitutional rights is not democratic is not to say that it is bad; only that it has a democratic cost. This cost may be, and I think it is, worth incurring ― democracy, as I wrote in the post linked to above, is not the only thing that matters ― but we should not attempt to mask this cost by verbal gymnastics.

As for the Rule of Law, it would have been just as difficult to conceptualize it without a robust judicial role in 1867 as it is now. To be sure, the Fathers of Confederation did not provide protections for individual rights that were as deep or wide-ranging as those that we acquired with the Charter. But they structured the federation they were creating so as to provide some protections for individual rights. For instance, they attributed legislative powers to that order of government which was more likely to respect the rights, customs, and desires of its constituents in respect of the particular subject matter ― Parliament for criminal law, the provinces for most of private law. They set up a judiciary over which no legislature had undivided power, the better to ensure its independence. They provided special safeguards for those rights, notably in the realm of education, which they singled out for protection against legislative majorities. And they knew that these structural protections would mostly be enforced by the courts. The contrast that Mr. Ha-Redeye, like so many others, purports to draw between 1867 and 2017 is exaggerated in order to support the authority of today’s judiciary at the expense of that, not merely of our constitution’s supposedly backward framers, but of the constitution itself.

Most importantly, however, I am dismayed by the characterization of the Supreme Court as “the definitive authority for morality in our democracy”. Like Benjamin Oliphant, I suspect (and certainly hope) that the Court itself would disclaim this grandiose title. But it is distressing that a citizen of a free country thinks it appropriate to bestow it, and is convinced that many, even “most” of “us” ― whoever “we” may be ― would do likewise. In a free society, there can be no “definitive authority for morality” ― even political morality. Morality is a matter, ultimately, of individual conscience ― whether or not directed by God, religion, or anything of the sort.

Here is what Lord Acton (who did believe that conscience was a religious matter ― but I don’t think we need to agree with him on that) had to say about this, in discussing the “Beginning of the Modern State” in his Lectures on Modern History:

With the decline of coercion the claim of Conscience rose, and the ground abandoned by the inquisitor was gained by the individual. There was less reason then for men to be cast of the same type; there was a more vigorous growth of independent character, and a conscious control over its formation. The knowledge of good and evil was not an exclusive and sublime prerogative assigned to states, or nations, or majorities. When it had been defined and recognised as something divine in human nature, its action was to limit power by causing the sovereign voice within to be heard above the expressed will and settled custom of surrounding men. By that hypothesis, the soul became more sacred than the state, because it receives light from above, as well as because its concerns are eternal, and out of all proportion with the common interests of government. That is the root from which liberty of Conscience was developed, and all other liberty needed to confine the sphere of power, in order that it may not challenge the supremacy of that which is highest and best in man.

Mr. Ha-Redeye says he wants to protect individual rights, and is wary of majoritarian institutions’ failings in this regard. And yet, at the same time, he anoints another institution of the state as the definitive moral authority, thereby denying what Lord Acton saw as the very basis for individual rights in the first place ― the fact that there can be no definitive moral authorities (at least on Earth) outside of each person’s conscience. Mr. Ha-Redeye claims that states and nations, if not also majorities, enjoy “the sublime prerogative” of “the knowledge of good and evil”. But if they do, why would they not impose their views on the citizens (or rather, the subjects) ― by inquisitorial means if need be?

Now, Mr. Ha-Redeye and those who agree with him, if anyone really does, might argue that by exalting the Supreme Court as the “definitive moral authority” they do not mean to give power to the state. They may well share what I have described here as the Canadian tendency not to think of courts as being part of the state at all, but to see them as the citizens’ agents and protectors against the state. To a greater extent than I did in that post, I now think that this tendency is an error. As I said then, courts are of course different in important ways from the state’s other components in that they give individuals more opportunities to be heard. Nevertheless, they are a part of the state’s machinery of coercion, and those who forget this only increase the courts’ power over them.

To be clear, I believe that the courts have a very important role to play in ensuring that “states, nations, and majorities” cannot constitute themselves into supreme arbiters of morality; that the voice within is more important than what W.H. Auden so aptly described as “the loud, angry crowd/ very angry and very loud/ [saying] law is we”; and that the sphere of power must accordingly be confined. But the sphere of judicial power must be confined no less than the spheres of its legislative and executive brethren. The courts have no more title than parliaments or kings to the prerogative of the knowledge of good and evil. If we grant them this title, then we will well and truly have a “juristocracy”, and the rights we claim for ourselves will be no more than serfs’ boasts about the wonders of life under the heel of their beneficent lord.

How Power Corrupts V

What science has to say about the corrupting effects of power

A recent article by Jerry Useem in the Atlantic, “Power Causes Brain Damage”, provides me an opportunity to return to my series of posts on the corrupting effects of power. My previous musings ― on character as a partial antidote to these effects and the dangers of addiction, on the connections between power, fear, and violence, and those between power and lies, and the perverse incentives that power imposes on those who seek and wield it ― mainly drew on literature, with a bit of political analysis and economics thrown in for good measure. Mr. Useem’s article describes a couple of very different sources for this inquiry: neuroscience and experimental psychology.

Mr. Useem reviews a number of scientific studies that have found some of the same effects that writers and philosophers who have concerned themselves with power have described. One psychologist found that experimental

[s]ubjects under the influence of power … acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

The inability of people in power to relate to others is observable both when looking at their brain processes directly, as a neuroscientist’s work suggests, and at their behaviour, whether in experiments or in real life situations that seem to echo them.

It seems likely that the inability of the powerful to empathize with others and their impulsiveness both help explain why power is inevitably violent and deceitful. It is easier to manipulate or to crush people if you do not ask yourself how they might feel about that ― and the individuals or institutions that wield power don’t. Besides, as another psychologist to whose work Mr. Useem refers points out, “power lessens the need for a nuanced read of people, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others”. In other words, why would you bother being nice to people when you can coerce them? This is a point about power’s perverse incentives, albeit a different one from that which I discussed in a post linked to above.

Now, the psychologists’ experiments’ subjects were not actual politicians or corporate executives ― “[t]hey were”, Mr. Useem explains, “college students who had been ‘primed’ to feel potent by recounting an experience in which they had been in charge.” Mr. Useem speculates that the effects the experiments shows

would presumably wear off when the feeling did—their brains weren’t structurally damaged after an afternoon in the lab. But if the effect had been long-lasting … they may have what in medicine is known as “functional” changes to the brain.

In fact, some experimental findings suggest that this is likely to be so. This is unsurprising, since both the guess that “an afternoon in the lab” is unlikely to have a long-lasting effect, and the possibility that long-term exposure to power does not wear off so easily, are quite consistent with the role of addiction in power’s corrupting effects.

Mr. Useem recounts studies that suggest that people in a position of power can try to resist addiction to it by reminding themselves, or having someone remind them, either of the limits on their power or of its corrupting influence on them and those around them. Although Mr. Useem does not mention it, the old-fashioned memento mori is the best-known implementation of this idea. Gandalf’s repeated insistence that Frodo not use the Ring, and his pointed injunction, when Frodo wears it on Amon Hen and is in danger of being discovered by Sauron’s Eye ― “Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!” ― is an obvious literary example. But from what we know about power ― from the Lord of the Rings and other sources ― these are no more than temporary fixes. Sooner or later, addiction will take hold.

In exploring the damaging effects of power, Mr. Useem seems mostly interested in business leaders, and in ways in which they can remain effective despite power’s corrosive influence on them. My focus in this series of posts is somewhat different: it is on political power, and what can be done to control it. That politicians might become less effective over time does not particularly bother me. If anything, the possibility that “[o]nce we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place” seems reassuring ― provided that the ineffective politicians can be dispensed with.

I once again conclude, then, with a reminder of the importance of constitutional mechanisms to limit the amount of harm a brain-damaged politician can inflict on us. Separation of powers, federalism, and protections for individual rights limit the amount of power a politician can wield to begin with ― and perhaps even limit the amount of damage his or her brain will come  to sustain. The Rule of Law provides further restraints on the manner in which power, even when it exists, can be exercised. And democracy provides the essential mechanism by which the politician who has overstayed his welcome ― for example because his or her brain has turned to power-corrupted mush ― can be thrown out of office.

To be sure, no constitutional device is fool- or Caesar-proof. For the ultimate, democratic safeguard against the corrupting effects of power to work, voters must be willing to invoke it ― and we should probably harbour no great illusions on that score. But constitutional and democratic safeguards are all we have ― and they are, after all, better than nothing.

Accountability Ersatz

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

Over at TheCourt.ca, 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.