Moving Dunsmuir past Dunsmuir

Democratic accountability for privative clauses, and its consequences for the standard of review analysis

Martin Olszynski, University of Calgary

Near the end of last year, and spurred on by yet another judgment challenging adherence to the Dunsmuir framework (Garneau Community League v Edmonton (City), 2017 ABCA 374 (CanLII), I posted a blog on the University of Calgary Faculty of Law’s ABlawg proposing a reversal of Dunsmuir’s presumption of reasonableness with respect to questions of law. Building on the constitutionalization of judicial review (Crevier v Attorney General of Quebec 1981 CanLII 30 (SCC); Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick 2008 SCC 9 at paras 27 – 32), I suggested that any presumptions ought to reflect the courts’ core competency of interpreting and applying law, which is to say a presumption of correctness review. In a nod to functionalists, however, I also suggested that this presumption should be rebuttable by the presence of a privative clause – nothing more, nothing less:

Simply put, the starting point should be that the courts, by virtue of their training, independence, and impartiality, have the upper hand in the interpretation of the law. Recognizing the realities of the modern administrative state, however, this presumption can and should be rebuttable for certain questions of law by virtue of explicit legislative provisions (i.e. privative clauses and restrictive rights of appeal). Importantly, just as the Supreme Court in Crevier held that legislatures could not oust judicial review entirely, so too certain questions of law will always be subject to correctness review – these would be the current Dunsmuir correctness categories… For all other questions of law, however, the presence of a privative clause would trigger deferential review.

Without repeating the entire argument here, one of the main concerns driving my suggested approach is that the concept of “implied expertise” as a basis for deference is simply too contradictory to be sustainable in the long run. Instead, courts should defer out of respect for the explicit decisions made by legislatures in the form of privative clauses or restrictive rights of appeal, decisions for which legislatures may subsequently be held accountable. Privative clauses, I argued, are a big deal – or at least they could be, depending on the context. Using the examples of labour and employment law on the one hand and environmental law on the other, I suggested that the need for some kind of privative clause in the former context seemed fairly obvious (with its tripartite boards and relatively heavy hearing loads) but less so in the case of the latter, where it was governments’ poor record of taking environmental considerations into account that was the impetus for such laws in the first place.

The following week, Professor Leonid Sirota posted a thoughtful reply on his Double Aspect blog. I think its fair to say that he was sympathetic to my argument, but he also expressed some doubt as to whether legislative re-arrangements of the separation of powers could really be the stuff of democratic accountability:

… Professor Olszynski argues that accountability works by pointing to his own criticism of the application of a privative clause in an environmental law case, and contrasting it with the fact “that few labour or employment lawyers would argue against privative clauses in that context”. With respect, the possibility of academic criticism does not make for democratic accountability; nor does acceptance by a relevant expert community… How many voters have ever heard of privative clauses, never mind being able to articulate any thoughts on their desirability? To believe that legislatures can, let alone will, be held accountable for eliminating the courts’ role in legal interpretation unwisely, or even abusively, requires more optimism than I could ever muster.

Tough but mostly fair. Professor Sirota is right to point out that a singular – and self-serving – reference to my own academic commentary is a poor proxy for public concern.  As it turns out, however, privative clauses have actually managed to capture both attention and opposition from time to time, as my colleague Professor Shaun Fluker recently discovered in the course of his research into statutory rights of appeals. Professor Fluker cites three reports (the 1957 Franks Report to the Parliament of Great Britain on the workings of statutory tribunals, the 1965 Clement Report to the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, and the 2012 Report of the Law Reform Commission of Saskatchewan) that indicate clear skepticism – if not outright hostility – towards privative clauses. The following passage from the Clement Report is particularly relevant:

The Committee is unanimously and firmly of the view that in every case there should be a right of appeal to the Supreme Court of Alberta on a question of jurisdiction and a question of law. No legitimate reason can be put forward why a tribunal to whom the Legislature has delegated certain defined authority should be permitted with impunity to transgress the bounds of the jurisdiction that it was intended it should exercise. Similarly, there should be no excuse for a tribunal misapplying the law, or ignoring law, to which all citizens of the Province are subject, in favour of its own views as to what should be applicable to the persons that are affected by its decisions… By this stroke there would be cut away the privative clauses still remaining in some statutes whereby the Legislature seeks to protect its tribunals from the disciplines of the Rule of Law… (at 74-75).

I can’t say whether such concerns have had any measureable impact on the presence or absence of privative clauses, but I don’t know that I have to. Democratic accountability is probably rarely – if ever – a perfect mechanism; there are often numerous competing issues that affect voter behavior. Assuming – without deciding – that the foregoing reports at least render plausible the potential for democratic accountability, there are two further issues in my proposal that require sorting out.

In my original post, I suggested that the presence of a privative clause should trigger deference for certain questions of law (excluding Dunsmuir’s four correctness categories). This, however, assumes that all such clauses are the same, which of course is not the case: there are “weak” and “strong” privative clauses; there are clauses that require leave from a court subject to its discretion, and there are those that impose a test such as requiring the identification of a question of law of some importance (as was the case in Garneau, supra). I am inclined to think that such clauses should be interpreted in the normal way, with a view towards legislative intent (essentially Rothstein J.’s approach in Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v. Khosa, 2009 SCC 12 (CanLII) beginning at para 69). Thus, clauses that impose an “important question of law” test would most likely trigger correctness (as suggested by the concurring judgments in Garneau). Bearing in mind Dunsmuir’s concern with both the legality and rationality of decision-making, I am also inclined to suggest that there should be a limit with respect to the extent to which privative clauses can preclude any review of administrative fact-finding whatsoever, but this proposal requires further thought.

The second issue, or challenge, would be to develop a normative framework to guide discussions, whether in the House of Commons or before a Parliamentary committee, about whether and in what form a privative clause may be appropriate in a given context. The structure of the administrative decision-maker, the nature of its workload, and the presence or absence of procedural safeguards in its decision-making are some of the factors that are likely to be useful here.

In the meantime and in conclusion, I am pleased to report that the federal government did recently introduce new environmental assessment legislation and it does not contain any privative clauses.

Squaring the Public Law Circle

Canadian administrative lawyers keep trying to reconcile parliamentary sovereignty and the Rule of Law; they shouldn’t bother

Ancient Greeks wondered whether it was possible to construct a square of the same area as a given circle using only a compass and a ruler ― to square the circle. The problem occupied some great minds of that age and of the subsequent ones, even Napoleon apparently. It took well over two millennia until it was shown to be impossible to solve. Public law has its own quadrature problem, posed by A.V. Dicey (the first edition of whose Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution came out just a couple of years after the demonstration of the impossibility of squaring the circle): it consists in fitting together, albeit by means of verbal rather than geometrical contortionism, parliamentary sovereignty and the Rule of Law.

Dicey and many others since him have mostly been preoccupied by this problem in the context of fundamental individual rights, and their protection from a legislature unconstrained by a supreme law constitution. Canada eventually abandoned this attempt ― or rather cut back on it significantly, since some rights, such as that to property, remain unprotected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But, to an extent that Dicey did not imagine and that is arguably without parallel in the rest of the Commonwealth, we have re-deployed our intellectual energies merely to a different application of the same problem, this one in administrative law. We are struggling to reconcile parliamentary sovereignty, which suggests giving effect to legislative attempts to insulate administrative decision-makers from judicial review, and the Rule of Law, which, as Dicey himself suggested, requires courts of justice to apply the law. We are not succeeding.

It is not for lack of trying. The majority opinion in the supposedly still-leading case on judicial review of administrative action,  Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190, recognized that

[j]udicial review seeks to address an underlying tension between the rule of law and the foundational democratic principle, which finds an expression in the initiatives of Parliament and legislatures to create various administrative bodies and endow them with broad powers. [27]

Dunsmuir and the subsequent cases that have fucked up beyond all recognition refined the framework that it laid down attempted to resolve this tension and to make sure that, as a Russian saying has it, the wolves are sated, and the sheep unharmed. Scholarly commentary has worked, I think, in the same direction.

The most recent example is a thoughtful post on ABlawg by Martin Olszynski. Professor Olszynski seeks to recover what he sees as Dunsmuir’s promise of reconciling parliamentary sovereignty and the Rule of Law. He proposes to achieve this by making

two inter-related changes to the Dunsmuir framework … The first change would be to reverse the presumption of reasonableness on questions of law to a presumption of correctness, which can then be rebutted for the large majority of such questions through the presence of a privative clause (this approach would be similar to that proposed by Justice Deschamps in Dunsmuir). The second related change would be to abandon the overly broad and fundamentally contradictory concept of “expertise” as a basis for deference and to replace it with the potential for democratic accountability, which ultimately is the basis for legislative supremacy.

Although the judiciary has the “training, independence, and impartiality” to claim “the upper hand in the interpretation of the law”, it ought to yield this upper hand to  legislative statements that call for deference to administrative decision-makers. Legislatures “must be respected – because they are democratically elected and accountable”. Provided they make themselves sufficiently clear by enacting “privative clauses” (provisions that typically seek to out judicial review of administrative decisions or to strictly limit it), legislatures can be made to answer for any decision to remove legal interpretation from the purview of the courts. When the legislation includes a privative clause, a reviewing court should, therefore, defer, but not otherwise ― and especially on the pretense that an administrative decision-maker is an expert by virtue of its very existence.

I agree with Professor Olszynski’s criticism of the role that the idea of administrative expertise has come to play in Canadian administrative law (which I have not fully summarized ― you really should read it). Last year I wondered here whether “the Supreme Court is embracing that pop-psychology staple about 10,000 hours of doing something being enough to make one master it”, and I elaborate on my worries about “expertise” in a paper I recently presented at the TransJus Institute of the University of Barcelona. I also agree that courts should not be shrinking violets when it comes to legal interpretation. It’s their job, and it’s the think that they’re supposed to be good at. If legislatures decide to scrap some of the administrative bodies they have set up (a guy can dream, right?), the courts will have to apply the legislation these bodies are now responsible for. They ought to be able to do that.

But I am skeptical of Professor Olszynski’s suggestion that the presumption that questions of law must be addressed by courts should, in the name of democratic accountability, by rebutted by privative clauses. Indeed, I think that the idea of democratic accountability is not readily applicable in this context. Professor Olszynski argues that accountability works by pointing to his own criticism of the application of a privative clause in an environmental law case, and contrasting it with the fact “that few labour or employment lawyers would argue against privative clauses in that context”. With respect, the possibility of academic criticism does not make for democratic accountability; nor does acceptance by a relevant expert community (if indeed “labour and employment lawyers” are the relevant expert community in relation to labour law ― what about economists, for instance?) make for democratic legitimacy. How many voters have ever heard of privative clauses, never mind being able to articulate any thoughts on their desirability? To believe that legislatures can, let alone will, be held accountable for eliminating the courts’ role in legal interpretation unwisely, or even abusively, requires more optimism than I could ever muster.

I am inclined to think ― though my thoughts on administrative law are still tentative ― that in determining the standard of review we should not attempt to reconcile the Rule of Law and legislative supremacy. The reconciliation is never meant to be real in any case. The Rule of Law is, ultimately, the dominant value, because even those who claim that they want to respect legislative will refuse to give effect even to the clearest privative clauses. To take a statutory provision that says “no judicial review” to mean “deferential judicial review” is not to accede to the legislature’s desires, but to impose one’s own principles ― including the principle of the Rule of Law ― on it.

And there is nothing wrong with this. The Rule of Law, as the Justice Rand observed ― in the context of a lawless exercise of administrative power ― in Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121 at 142, is “a fundamental postulate of our con­stitutional structure”. It is a constitutional principle that can, as the Supreme Court recognized in Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217, result in “substantive limitations upon government action” ― including, relevantly to us here, in government action aiming at reducing the courts’ powers of judicial review. By contrast, as the Secession Reference also recognized, democracy ― whether direct democracy, which was at issue in that opinion, or representative democracy, and whether accountable or otherwise ― must be confined by constitutional limitations. The Court wrote “that with the adoption of the Charter, the Canadian system of government was transformed to a significant extent from a system of Parliamentary supremacy to one of constitutional supremacy”. [72] But that’s not quite right. The Charter imposed additional restrictions on legislatures, but it did not “transform” the constitutional system, which was already one of “constitutional supremacy” under the Constitution Act, 1867.

To the extent that it is required by the Rule of Law principle, judicial review of administrative action, including correctness review on questions of law, is a constitutional requirement. This extent is the question that Canadian administrative lawyers and judges should be addressing. Virtually everyone, I think, agrees that the Rule of Law requires correctness review in at least some cases. My own inclination is to say that it requires correctness review often, and perhaps always. I might be wrong about that, but if I am, this is because I misunderstand the Rule of Law, not because I fail to account for Parliamentary sovereignty and to give effect to (modified versions of) privative clauses. There is simply no need to bring parliamentary sovereignty into the standard of review equation, thereby making it unsolvable. Unlike in mathematics, the impossibility of squaring the public law circle cannot be conclusively demonstrated (though even in mathematics the demonstration apparently did not stop enthusiasts from trying). But the futility of well over a century’s worth of attempts should, I submit, be a warning to us all.

Crashing the Party

Andrew Coyne says we should re-think how we choose party leaders. So here are my thoughts.

In a recent column in the National Post, Andrew Coyne argues that “it is time to rethink how we choose party leaders” ― at least if we care about the institution of Parliament, and don’t think that “MPs are nobodies, and the role of the leader is to look good on TV”. As someone who cares about Parliament, he argues that we should go back to “the classic Westminster model”, where party leaders are chosen by the party caucus ― like, say, in Australia. Mr. Coyne is not alone in making this point; Dale Smith has done so repeatedly (for example in this Policy Options post about his new book), and others have too. But, although they are among the more thoughtful observers of the Canadian political scene, their arguments leave a number of significant questions unanswered.

One is simply whether the benefits that they are promising us will materialize if the clock is turned back on the tendency to broaden, instead of narrowing, the constituency that chooses party leaders. Mr. Coyne argues that leaders chosen by their caucus would be “battle-tested and ready to do the job a party leader is supposed to do in our system: lead a caucus in Parliament”, as well as more accountable to the caucus. Moreover, leadership contests would not consume “the vast amounts of time and money” they now do. That last point is no doubt true, so far as it goes ― though while I hope that it’s not an entirely reliable guide to the reality of politics, if you’ve watched the original, BBC version of the House of Cards, you might be a bit skeptical about the intra-caucus leadership contests being any less immoral than the current Conservative leadership race that has prompted Mr. Coyne to write his column. Urquhartian cynicism aside, the frequency of leadership coups in real-life Australian politics seems to disprove Mr. Coyne’s argument that caucus members are be the best placed to chose an accountable and effective leader. If they were any good at it, why would they always be changing their minds?

Part of the reason is that, however much Mr. Coyne may deride this, and however much we may regret this, it really is a very big part of a party leader’s job to look good on TV ― and while caucus members know this, and start worrying when the leader’s polling numbers dip, they might not actually be the best at predicting who will do this job well. In the “audience democracy” described by Bernard Manin in his book on The Principles of Representative Government, leaders are more important than parties, in no small part precisely because of their ability to speak directly to voters through the electronic media. As I explained in an article in the McGill Law Journal, Manin’s “audience democracy” model fits Canada very well (I summarized that part of the article here). Again, this state of affairs may be a cause for regret, but it is a product of technological and social trends beyond our control; changing the way in which party leaders are selected won’t reverse them.

But suppose I am wrong about this, and reverting to having caucuses selecting party leaders would in fact be a useful thing to do. The other question that I have after reading Mr. Coyne is whether he proposes a legal intervention to force parties to adopt his preferred mechanism for choosing leaders. Parties, after all, are not going in the direction he is advocating ― quite the contrary. Delegated conventions used to be the norm, but they are a thing of the past now. Leaders are chosen by membership as a whole and, in the case of the federal Liberals ― as with a number of parties around the world ― it’s not even just by membership, but by self-identified “supporters” too. And though my instinct is to treat this is evidence that the parties know something that Mr. Coyne and those who agree with him don’t, the Tories’ current misery notwithstanding, it at least is conceivable that there is a collective action problem at work. The parties, and the public, would all be better off (let’s assume) with leaders chosen by caucus, but the one that moves to that system first will be criticized for being undemocratic, so no one dares take the plunge.

Would this prima facie case for legislative intervention stand up to scrutiny? One obvious problem might be that such an interference with the parties’ internal affairs might be challenged as a violation of the freedom of association protected by paragraph 2(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Even if the courts were to find a violation, there would no doubt be some material for an attempt at a section 1 justification, but I don’t know if it would be enough. I don’t recall any freedom of association cases about political parties, so any assessment as a matter of positive law would be rather speculative. But even putting a possible Charter challenge to one side, interference with the party members’ freedom should count as an argument, though perhaps not a conclusive one against legislation.

Another issue to consider would be the risk of a one-size-fits-all approach, given the vast disparities in the sizes of parties and caucuses. Many registered parties, of course, have no Parliamentary caucus at all; some others have a very small one, perhaps even a single MP. If leadership selection by caucus were mandated, that could create perverse outcomes ― including a party’s lone MP selecting his or her own successor as leader, should he or she wish to resign. Of course, it would be possible to write legislation so that it would apply to caucuses of a certain size ― but that seems to lead to perverse consequences of its own. A party would be forced to abandon an existing membership-selection system in favour of caucus-selection upon reaching a certain size, and possibly return to one upon falling below the threshold again, which strikes me as odd, though perhaps that’s just me.

Ultimately though, the idea of imposing caucus selection of party leaders runs into the same problem as most attempts at regulating parties. Why can’t the voters settle it? If caucus selection causes parties to have better leaders, then people will presumably vote for them ― perhaps especially given that leaders are so important in the “audience democracy”. The prima facie case for regulation assumes that voters would (irrationally) prefer a flawed but more “democratically” selected leader to a better one picked by a caucus. But while the voters’ irrationality should not be underestimated, this seems hard to believe. Would voters ― who do not seem to pay a whole lot of attention to party leadership contests in the first place ― be so beguiled by the claims of the more “democratic”  parties as to overlook substantial differences in leader quality?

It seems to me, ultimately, that Mr. Coyne’s complaint is less about the political parties that have somehow been so naïve as to abandon the virtues of caucus selection in favour of the vice of giving a broader spectrum of constituents a say in how they will be led than it is about voters who fall for the charms of TV-savvy populists. Ideally, he effectively says, we wouldn’t give them the option of voting for these populists at all, leaving them to choose among safe options vetted by the political establishment. The argument has its appeal, during a Conservative leadership race said to be led by a pair of populists, not to mention the Beeblebrox presidency south of the border. But can we count on party caucuses to stem the tide of populism for long? If they are thwarted by these guardians of political propriety, will not the populists launch their own parties (especially if a form of proportional representation, which Mr. Coyne favours, were ever implemented)? I have no firm views on this, but I am skeptical that caucus selection of party leaders, whether voluntarily implemented or enforced, can do us much good.

Constraint and Candour

The case for a constrained judiciary ― but also candour about adjudication

At the website of Advocates for the Rule of Law (ARL), Asher Honickman has posted a reply to my post here on “How to Do Constitutional Adjudication” (which was itself a reply to some of his arguments in a previous ARL essay making “The Case for a Constrained Approach to Section 7” of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms). I would like to respond, focusing mostly on what I have been referring to as “democratic process failures” and their relevance to constitutional adjudication. I think that Mr. Honickman mis-characterizes my arguments on this point, but perhaps that’s because they were not clear enough to begin with.

* * *

First, though, a note on what is, as I know from conversation, a persistent but perhaps unimportant disagreement between Mr. Honickman and me. I wrote that

law generally, and constitutional law in particular, contains an ineradicable moral and ideological element, so that there is nothing wrong with perceiving judges as being ― in part ― moral agents and political actors. [Moreover], the Charter‘s text itself makes it inevitable that that judges will be making decisions touching on morality and politics.

Mr. Honickman responds by conceding that “[t]he judge can no more divorce herself from her subjective experiences, beliefs and values than can the historian, the economist, or the physician,” but arguing that “it does not follow that judges should embrace their fallibility.” He wants judges to be “constrained by a ‘rule of law’ culture” that will limit, if not altogether remove, the negative consequences of the judges’ inability to be entirely objective.

I have no quarrel with this, but think this misses the point I was trying to make, which is that moral values and ideology are not just something that judges bring into the law because they are fallible, but something it is built into the law ― perhaps into the very concept of law. Mr. Honickman’s example is a telling one: history, economics, and medicine are supposed to be amoral. They describe the world and suggest ways to change it, but whatever values their practitioners bring to their craft are external to the disciplines themselves. Law is different. It has, Lon Fuller argued, an “internal morality.” It is, Jeremy Waldron says, inherently protective of human dignity. The Rule of Law, which Mr. Honickman wants judges to uphold, is itself a moral concept. (This view is not universal ― Joseph Raz, in particular, famously challenged it. But I find it quite persuasive.)

What I meant, then, when I wrote that law is necessarily moral and ideological was not only, and not so much, that judges will inevitably fail to avoid bringing their subjective values into their work ― though they will, and I agree with Mr. Honickman that this is regrettable. What I meant is that even when judges perform their work to perfection and only apply such principles as can be readily inferred from the constitutional text (the Rule of Law, federalism, and democracy, say) and many of the text’s explicit guarantees (I mentioned freedom of religion, equality, and protection against unreasonable search and seizure), they are already engaged in a moral and ideological endeavour. The proper response to the unreconstructed Marxist or the social justice warrior who dismisses the Rule of Law and the rest of it as bourgeois ideology is not to say that it’s not, but to admit that it is, and that you will keep sticking to that ideology because it helps prevent Gulags instead of building them. That said, in practice, little turns on the difference between these two responses.

* * *

Coming back to the issue of democratic process failures, my contention was not ― as it seems to me that Mr. Honickman took it to be ― that these provide a self-standing ground for judicial intervention, regardless of constitutional text or doctrine. The text, in particular, remains the overarching limit on judicial power, the law to which this power is subordinate. Doctrine is a more complicated case, and perhaps the ground of some disagreement between Mr. Honickman and me, because I would favour a somewhat less stringent approach to stare decisis than he might prefer. Still, I share Mr. Honickman’s belief in the importance of constraint.

My reference to democratic process failures ― as well as that to pervasive political ignorance ― was specifically in response to Mr. Honickman’s insistence that the legislatures’ ability to resolve moral issues means that judges do not need to do so. Legislatures, I argued, will often fail to address moral issues, or will address them in ways that have little to do with the voters’ preferences or interests, and much to do with those of the legislators. The point is not that courts have a roving commission to find out and correct cases when this occurs, but that they should not hesitate to make moral judgments ― when authorized or required to do so by the constitutional text (and doctrine) ― under the pretext that the legislatures will take care of this.

I originally spoke of democratic process failure in my comment on Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 S.C.R. 331, where the Supreme Court held that a blanket prohibition on medically-assisted suicide was inconsistent with section 7 of the Charter. Although there were problems with the way the Supreme Court articulated that decision, its interpretation of section 7 was at least plausible ― and in my view correct ― in light of the constitutional text and the doctrine as it had developed in the years since the Court first answered that question in Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General), [1993] 3 S.C.R. 519. The point of my discussion of democratic process failure was to address concerns about the “counter-majoritarian difficulty” said to be inherent in judicial review. Because of such failures, it is not the case that judicial review is always counter-majoritarian (though of course it often is).

This example shows that any court empowered to review the constitutionality of legislation is ipso facto “empowered to correct ‘democratic process failures,'” ― and thus that Mr. Honickman need not worry that such correction “will necessarily be ‘instrumentalist,’ finding and affirming rights that are not supported by the Charter itself, but which, in the judges’ view, make for good social policy.” To repeat, the Charter‘s provisions remain the source of the court’s authority and at the same time the constraint on this authority, while democratic process failure is the reason for which that authority is invoked. Accordingly, when faced with what it thinks is a democratic process failure, the Court’s role is not to figure out the preferences of a majority ― which, as Mr. Honickman correctly points out, may not be determinate ― but simply to do the usual judicial task and invalidate the impugned statute or government decision if it is contrary to the constitution. At most, the presence of a failure obviates the case, if any, for judicial deference to the other branches of government.

I agree with Mr. Honickman that the questions that I raised about democratic process failures ― most basically, how do we know, and how can a court know, that one has occurred ― are difficult to answer, though it’s not clear to me that there can be “no objective standard” to help in the enterprise. But this difficulty does not undermine the case for judicial intervention, because, and so long as, that intervention is justified on another ground ― namely that of inconsistency between the government’s action and the constitution. Whether a democratic process failure has occurred might influence the deference that the court ought to show the government’s decision-making process, but the basic propriety of judicial intervention does not turn on the answer to this question.

Ultimately, Mr. Honickman and I might be disagreeing less about the judicial role than about democratic theory. Where I see “persistent inability of the democratic process to produce laws that majorities would agree with and find desirable,” Mr. Honickman sees “legislatures [that] do not base their decisions on the polls at any given time and look instead to the national interest.” The fact, which he acknowledges, that a passionate (or, I would add, strongly self-interested) and well-organized minority can prevail over the majority is not a bad thing in his view ― and, I suppose, fully consistent with the national interest. Even if democracy malfunctions, we should recall that it is “the worst system except for all the others” and correct its “imperfections … from within.” To me, this sounds like saying that because a free market is better than any alternative, we should not bother trying to correct market failures and hope that the market will correct itself, or that because government is necessary, our only response to government failure should be to improve regulatory mechanisms, instead of privatizing and deregulating. A few people accept the former argument, and many the latter, but to me, both seem fallacious. Democracy is indeed better than the alternatives, but if its shortcomings can be mitigated by means external to its normal processes ― such as judicial review ― then so much the better.

* * *

I share Mr. Honickman’s concerns about judges exercising their power without the constraints of constitutional text and legal doctrine. However, I do not think that the proper response to these concerns is to say that judges ought to be entirely non-ideological, and that they should leave matters of moral judgment to the legislative process, however flawed that process is. Like Mr. Honickman, I believe that judges should be enforcing constitutional rules, but I do not mind acknowledging the moral and ideological dimensions of many of these rules as well as the shortcomings of democracy, which judicial review can help remedy.

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.

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.

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.