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.

No comments: