Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On the Quebec question: (2) Self-determination

Yesterday, I suggested that objections to the definition of a "clear majority" in favour of separation as 50%+1 were insincere, and really masked forms of other objections. The first I want to talk about is the claim that there is something wrong with allowing Quebec to determine its own political future, whether in Canada or apart. It's fairly easy to see how this might be what's really underlying increasingly hysterical claims that some sort of supermajority must be in place for Quebec to separate.

But does it make any sense? I think we need to get clear on what it means to be able to determine one's own political future, starting with the individual case.

Locke is the historical starting-point here, breaking sharply with prior tradition's willingness to accept natural authority. He teaches us two important things. First, that everyone is basically equal, politically -- there is no divine right or natural right to rule. Second, given the first, it follows that the only way anyone can gain the right to rule over us is by our agreeing to it. Conquest and other historically common methods simply ain't gonna cut it.

Locke famously goes off the rails, though, in trying to spell out what counts as "agreeing to it". Explicit agreement is obviously one method; just as obviously, though, very few people ever explicitly agree to their political obligations. Locke's own solution is something called "tacit agreement", which amounts to agreeing to political obligations when one behaves in a way that counts as agreeing to political obligations.

Ignoring the weirdness of being able to agree to something while being unaware that one has agreed to it, it's not clear exactly what would count as a relevant form of behaviour. Locke considers entering a country's borders, but, as Hume pointed out, that really leaves one with no option but to accept some nation's political obligations. John Rawls tried to amend the Lockean formula by using a device of hypothetical agreement -- that is, what one would agree to, if one were idealized in various ways (not subject to biases of class, race, culture, etc.) -- but, as Robert Nozick pointed out, this isn't really agreement any more. What some guy who isn't me would agree to under circumstances that aren't mine has nothing to do with whether I have agreed to the political obligations that are upon me, or not. (Rawls' notion of "fairness" is probably doing the real work here.)

This detail isn't too important for the case at hand, fortunately, because this case is actually negative: disagreement being used to deny the right to rule, not agreement to accept it. So, suppose that I renounce my citizenship, thus giving up all political obligations to Canada. Is there any basis for compelling me to hang to it?

One basis might be fairness. I have enjoyed various benefits of citizenship, and should thus be compelled to discharge some relevant burdens proportional to that benefit. This is really just an argument in favour of sending me a bill, I think. Compelling me to remain a citizen seems extreme.

Another more plausible basis might be irrationality: my denial of citizenship is not really serious or sincere, and should not be taken as genuinely reflecting my will. This could be dangerous territory, given the sad and long history of denying people their right to determine their own political obligations on the basis of alleged irrationality -- sexism and racism are obvious cases. But it does seem at least possible to discount a decision to abandon citizenship if it is made on the basis of genuine irrationality.

If I'm not irrational, though, then it doesn't seem like it would be at all appropriate or justified to compel me to stay a citizen. It may be appropriate to try to persuade or cajole or even bribe me to stay, but I cannot be compelled to do so, if I choose not to. Anything less than this is paternalistic, in that I am treated as a child unable to make his own decisions.

So, insofar as it makes sense to talk about a province as being relevantly analogous to an indivivdual, it's reasonable to extend the conclusion. Unless there is something about Quebec's (putative) expression of willingness to leave Canada which implies this expression is irrational, then the response is to try to persuade Quebec to stay and, failing that, allow them to go. (Note that the irrationality is less dangerous an accusation in this sort of case, particularly given the possibility of an unclear referendum question. If one doesn't know what one is agreeing to, then one's agreement is paradigmatically irrational.)

The claim that self-determination doesn't apply to provinces -- that provinces aren't allowed to enter and leave countries like individuals are -- thus boils down to asserting that provinces don't count in the same way as individuals. In other words, the analogy fails.

Now, it's obviously true that a group, like a province, is not the same as an individual. That's not the point, though; the point is that the two are analogous. It's not obviously true that a group is not an agent in the same way as an individual is, though -- that is, that a group is capable of expressing and exercising its own intentions, and thus taking freely-willed action. We certainly do treat corporations and other collective entities, like governments and churches, as if they can be held responsible for their decisions and actions -- and their decisions and actions as independent agents, not as mere collectives of individuals.

Thus, there must be some clear disanalogy between provinces and individuals to exclude provinces from the class of collective agents. The only possible disanalogy I can come up with is that the provinces may have given up the right to self-determination upon entering into Confederation. This would be entirely unlike the process by which one becomes a citizen of Canada, and thus break the analogy and deny my conclusion.

Putting aside the historical question of whether that was what any province intended when forming Canada, it certainly doesn't seem to have been borne out. We give provinces a lot of leeway to determine important matters for themselves -- healthcare and education, for example -- and the federal government only assumes powers over issues of genuinely national importance. So the way Canada is structured doesn't seem to support that claim that Quebec gave up its self-determination upon entering Canada (unlike the way one might argue that Yorkshire gave up its self-determination upon becoming part of England).

Therefore, if one wants to argue that Quebec doesn't have the right to determine its own destiny, one has to stop pretending to be worried about supermajorities, and focus on demonstrating that provinces are somehow sufficiently unlike individuals as to not have the same right to determine their own political obligations. Failing that, it seems to follow that Quebec -- and any province -- has the right to leave or enter Canada as it chooses, without compulsion.

Tomorrow, I turn to consider nationhood and its relationship to Canada and Quebec.

Monday, May 30, 2011

On the Quebec question: (1) Clarity

(After this, I may just go ahead and write that Israel thing I've had kicking around in my head for a few years. While I'm stepping on landmines, I might as well step on them all in one go.)

As newswatchers will know, there's been a lot of chatter about Quebec and nationalism/separatism lately. It's partly driven by the still-flailing Liberal Party, looking to hang an albatross around the neck of the NDP -- because, dontcha know, bringing the NDP down will naturally bring the Liberals up. (More likely, it'll give us a permanent Conservative majority, but don't let that stop you, folks.)

It's also partly driven by the fact that, currently, the Parti Québécois are polling significantly higher than the Quebec Liberals, and are thus poised to grab a stonking great majority in the National Assembly. Of course, Charest doesn't have to dissolve the NA until 2013, and anything can happen during an election campaign, so it's far from certain that we will face a third referendum on Quebec separation.

Still, there seems to have been some confusion on how federalists should approach the question. Mostly because political pundits in this country seem to like to cling to meaningless talismans, rather than advancing serious and principled (or, for that matter, policy-based) arguments.

"What talismans?" Well, how about the Clarity Act. It's a good place to start, since everyone seems to be trying to smack Jack Layton around with it. Here's the full text, in case anyone is wondering: http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-31.8/FullText.html. I don't see quite what's so wonderful about this Act; it's nice to have a framework, but this doesn't seem to be a particularly good one. (Full disclosure: I didn't care enough about this issue to read the Act until today.)

The Act basically makes three points. First, any referendum question must be clear. Second, the intention to separate or secede must be clearly expressed. And, third, the House of Commons has jurisdiction over most aspects of the process (e.g., is the question clear, which other views need to be considered, etc.).

The first point is obvious. Here's the questions from the previous two referenda. 1995:
Do you agree that Québec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Québec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?
Okay, seriously: if I say "yes" to this, what have I agreed to? If I say "no", what have I rejected? One problem is it's a complex question -- akin to "have you stopped beating your dog?" -- which embeds a number of assumptions before asking something. Another is that it makes reference to a bill and an agreement, without giving at least the gist of what such things are. Politics nerds might be aware of those matters, but it's unlikely most voters had a clue. This is a pretty good example of a terrible question to put in a separation referendum.

The 1980 question was better. Here it is:
The Government of Quebec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations; this agreement would enable Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad -- in other words, sovereignty -- and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency; any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will only be implemented with popular approval through another referendum; on these terms, do you give the Government of Quebec the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Quebec and Canada?
This at least spells out the terms of the "new agreement" referred to. It's not actually a separation question, though. It holds out separation as a future possibility, but only asks for the authority to try to negotiate a better deal for Quebec within Canada -- which, really, any province already has. So, the problem here seems to be one of relevance: what is agreed to, or disagreed to, has very little to do with secession.

Thus, it is obvious that the question needs to be unambiguous, precise, and comprehensible. To that extent, the Clarity Act is going right. The other two points it makes, though, are pretty poor.

The third point is the worst. There is no good reason that I can see for giving the House of Commons exclusive jurisdiction over the matters it is given jurisdiction over, except simply screwing with the National Assembly. First, why the Commons? We have a bicameral Parliament federally; leaving out the Senate is pretty weird. Furthermore, given that the Governor-General is also part of the Government of Canada, shouldn't that office get a mention somewhere? Really, I'd feel better about the third point if it said "Government of Canada" instead of "House of Commons". Not much, but better.

Second, and worse, the Clarity Act takes an expression of majority opinion -- a positive referendum result regarding a question clearly on secession -- and makes its realization conditional on the partisan considerations of the House of Commons. I think it makes more sense to either include the entire Government -- Governor-General and Senate -- or, better yet, defer it to a non-partisan body, like the Supreme Court, which is good at figuring out things like intentions and wrestling with complex legal documents. Otherwise, it has the effect of making a partisan body superior to the express will of the people, which is about as anti-democratic as it gets. (Okay, fine, that's hyperbole; but it is anti-democratic in spirit.)

The second point is pretty bad too, though, because the so-called Clarity Act doesn't define what it is for a will to separate to be clearly expressed. The implication seems to be that more than a strict 50%+1 mathematical majority is needed. But how much more? (Fun philosophy note: Rousseau runs into this problem when he tries to explain what he means by "general will" rather than "majority will". The intuition is probably good, but it's practically unworkable, without something like Rousseau's regime of censors and social monitors.)

One could try to argue for a simple 2/3 majority, but this is an arbitrary threshold. You may as well argue for a 3/4 majority, or 5/8. It's pulling a number out of nowhere.

A better argument would look to the amending formulae in the Constitution, and try to build something off those. The general formula (the "7/50" formula) requires assent from the Commons and the Senate; and approval of 2/3 of the provincial legislatures (i.e., at least 7 provinces) representing at least 50% of the population. The specific formulae are: (a) for matters relating to the Office of the Queen, the use of either official language, the amending formula, or the composition of the Supreme Court: unanimous consent of all provinces; (b) matters related to provincial boundaries or use of an official language within a single province: pass the amendment by all affected legislatures; (c) matters related solely to the federal government do not require provincial approval, nor do matters affecting a provincial government alone.

The specific formula are not going to help for a separation issue. (a) is obviously not relevant; either (b) or (c) could be relevant, but (b) would tell us to consult the Commons, the Senate and the National Assembly (at least), while (c) would tell us to consult either the Commons and the Senate or the National Assembly (again, at least). (The "at leasts" are also problematic; how can we tell if, say, PEI is affected by Quebec separation?) It'd be better, I think, to look to the 7/50 formula: something like at least 2/3 of all ridings in Quebec, representing at least 50% of the population, must vote in favour. Of course, then one would run into the issue of Quebec never endorsing the frigging Constitution, but at least there would be some basis for the supermajority requirement.

So, that's the contrast. Either 50%+1 -- mathematical majority -- counts as a clear expression. (One could also argue that it has to be 50%+1 in all ridings, so that no region is getting railroaded by the others. I'd be okay with that, but it just amounts to a geographical amendment to the 50%+1 threshold -- 50%+1 in each of all 125 ridings is still a notch over 50% support.) Or, a supermajority modelled on the 7/50 formula counts as a clear expression. I know of no other way to determine what a "clear majority" in favour of separation would look like.

Of course, no one's offering anything like the above argument for a supermajority -- at least, no one I've seen. There simply seems to be this magic faith that 50%+1 is just not enough for a majority to be "clear" -- despite the fact that, as Jack Layton correctly pointed out, we routinely let majority governments get elected with way less than that. I suspect this is because there's not really any objection to 50%+1 -- the objection goes to a deeper issue.

Here's my suspects for the issue:
  1. The unimportance or irrelevance of self-determination by provinces. Provinces just don't get to determine whether they can stay in Canada or not; that's up to Canada to decide.
  2. Canada is a nation, too, at least as important -- and maybe more important -- than Quebec. That shouldn't be ignored.
  3. Hard federalism. Powers already delegated to the federal government should stay there; indeed, more power should probably be delegated to it, and the provinces thus reduced.
  4. Changing the Constitution is scary and leads to a big mess. An arbitrarily high threshold makes mucking around so difficult that no one is going to try it.
Some of these claims are childish. Some of them are wrong.

But more on that tomorrow.

Friday, May 27, 2011

On election 41.

It really is amazing how difficult it is to drag oneself back into longer writing after a significant time away.

Anyway, I just want to run with an idea regarding the recent Canadian federal election that's not being well-discussed (or discussed at all, really). It probably generalizes beyond that, to be fair.

There's a strong tendency, particularly amongst politics nerds, to try to deduce something about the ethical outlook of the citizenry from the results of elections. For example, 40% of the citizenry who voted, voted Conservative, thus 40% of the citizenry "believes in" Conservatism, or conservatism. The Liberals' percentage of the vote declined dramatically, so Liberalism, or liberalism, is on the decline.

These are, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid inferences. Really fundamentally asinine.

The first problem with the inference is the crudity of elections themselves. When someone casts a ballot there is literally no way to determine what that casting of the ballot means. Suppose that, in my riding of Beaches-East York, I vote for Matthew Kellway, the NDP candidate (and current MP). What does that vote mean about me? It could mean:
  • I agree with the NDP
  • I like the NDP's leader, Jack Layton
  • I like Matthew Kellway
  • I believe in social democracy or socialism generally
  • I believe in the specific form of social democracy or socialism promoted by the NDP
  • I agree with the majority of the NDP's policies
  • I don't disagree with the majority of the NDP's policies
  • I find the other candidates in my riding distasteful
  • I disagree strongly with the Conservative Party and voted to stop their candidate
  • I disagree strongly with the NDP, but voted incorrectly
  • I picked a name at random
  • etc.
Nothing short of a structured interview with an individual is going to get you anywhere close to a clear read on what their ethical/political views are -- and even then, it's only going to get you what they believe their views are, under your interpretation.

Determining what someone's ethical commitments actually are is very, very messy; looking at just a single vote means nothing. So, everyone freaking out about the "country going Conservative" needs to calm down -- there's no evidence of that. Everyone rejoicing about "the destruction of the Liberal Party" needs to similarly calm down -- there's no evidence of that, either.

The second problem with the inference is that it takes a long time, and a lot of work, to get one's ethical principles into some sort of coherent state. It also requires a certain degree of humility, particularly a willingness to acknowledge that everything one currently believes, even deep down at the most basic level, may be wrong.

This is most obvious when trying to teach people about ethics; I teach moral and political philosophy at the university level, and it's (a) shockingly easy to get students to commit themselves to blatant contradictions in their ethical views, and (b) shockingly difficult to get students to accept that they've contradicted themselves.

Two things follow from this. First, that you can get most people to agree to most anything, as long as you present it the right way. Those 40% who voted Conservative, except for the hardest of the hardcore, could be convinced to vote Liberal, Green, NDP, Bloc -- even Marxist-Leninist.

The trick is presentation. If an idea is presented in such a way that it is consistent with what someone already claims to accept, then they will be likely to accept it as well. If someone claims to endorse liberty, then they are more likely to respond favourably to another idea -- say, universal healthcare -- if it can be presented in such a way as to contribute to liberty. If someone claims to endorse equality, then they can be encouraged to respond favourably to another idea -- say, progressive taxation -- if it can be presented in such a way as to contribute to equality.

Part of the problem progressives are having is an unwillingness to meet people on their own turf; our leaders, Layton's NDP aside, and our thinkers are too willing to insist that everyone come over to them rather than going to where everyone else already is.

Second, that you can't expect most people who cast ballots in elections to do so in a rational way. Their views are not even logically consistent; the suggestion that they have to have reasons for voting is simply too much of a stretch. Having good policies that make sense is a good thing, but it's not going to win you elections. It doesn't even win you debating points -- academics like to pretend that they're dispassionate debaters, but anyone who's tried to get published in a peer-reviewed journal knows that they're just as irrational as anyone else.

The reason for having good ideas is that they're most likely to be successful, when implemented. The reason for having well-presented good ideas is that you're most likely to get that chance.

(No go home line, I'm afraid. Just some things I've been thinking about.

I've also been thinking about rights, and whether they make any sense. Maybe I'll have something to say about that next week.)

Monday, May 16, 2011

So. Um.

I've been meaning to get the blog up and running again, following that debacle of a dissertation defense. (If you must know, I'll go into it, but I'd rather not.) Looking for something to talk about, though, and have yet to find it.

I'll spend this week thinking of things and see what I can come up with for next week.