L’affaire Potter

(Those who have been following the news will no doubt know that Andrew Potter, our co-blogger here on In Due Course, as well as my friend and sometime co-author, has been at the centre of not one, but two, recent scandals, the first when he published an unpopular column in Macleans, which he quickly came to regret, and the second when he stepped down from his position as Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. Unsurprisingly, I have a few thoughts on the matter…)


The McGill administration appears to have sleepwalked into what is arguably the most egregious violation of academic freedom in this country in living memory. To see how outrageous it is, consider how it would look had it occurred to me. Suppose, for instance, that I wrote an opinion column called “10 things I hate about Toronto.” That actually wouldn’t be much of a stretch, because I hate Toronto, and it wouldn’t be hard to come up with a list of 10 things.… Continue reading

American Nakba

I’ve recently been writing a paper on the topic of stigmatization (available here), which includes some discussion of the rather acrimonious left-right debate over the “culture of poverty,” and the extent to which the lower classes should be held responsible for the various self-destructive behaviours that they tend to engage in. This had me reading some conservative cultural criticism, which led me to David Frum’s How We Got Here: The ‘70s. I was vaguely aware of this book when it came out, but never got around to reading it. After checking it out from the library I found myself quite looking forward to it, because Frum has been a consistently interesting voice on the American scene in the past 5 years or so (since he was expelled from his post as movement conservative). Thus I was quite surprised by just how bad the book is. Part of this I suppose is due to the fact that it was published in 2000 (i.e.… Continue reading

What the United States could learn from Canada on immigration policy

There are many countries around the world that have screwed up their immigration policy, in one way or another, creating the unfortunate combination of marginalized ethnic populations and nativist backlash. This can easily generate a vicious circle, in which the marginalization produces various social pathologies (e.g. unemployment, crime), which serve to rationalize many of the discriminatory attitudes driving the backlash, which in turn increases marginalization and exclusion, exacerbating the pathologies, and so on. There are lots of problems in Canada, but the one thing we have not done is screw up our immigration policy in this way. (Compare that to relations with First Nations, which we have screwed up, generating almost precisely the dynamic described above – with a few complicating factors).

Anyhow, whenever one of the countries out there who have screwed up their immigration policy look to Canada for some ideas about how to improve, the thing that they pick up on almost immediately is the points system that Canada uses to screen immigrants in certain classes.… Continue reading

The anatomy of anti-liberalism

On Friday, Canadians were treated to the rather distressing spectacle of a protest being held outside a mosque in Toronto, calling for, among other things, an end to Muslim immigration and a ban on the practice of Islam in Canada. The total number of protesters, according to reports, was only 15, so one should not blow this out of proportion. But it should give pause to all those in the Conservative party, who have been lying and otherwise making a fuss about the M-103 motion.

I wouldn’t have much to say about the whole thing, except that I heard a great interview with one of the protesters on CBC radio (which I can’t seem to track down online). Now I know that many, many people in small-l liberal societies are not actually small-l liberal. Nevertheless, it is seldom that one hears the anti-liberal viewpoint expressed so compactly and efficiently. The interviewer asked one of the protesters, basically, “what’s the difference between what you’re doing and someone who dislikes Judaism, protesting outside a synagogue?” The answer was, roughly, “the difference is that Judaism is not evil, whereas Islam is.”

It doesn’t get much better than that.… Continue reading

How Crazy is Trump? Part 1 (and counting…)

Yesterday, Andrew Coyne wrote the following:

Whether a country has a trade deficit or a trade surplus, that is — with the world in general, let alone with individual countries — does not make the slightest difference to its welfare. It is a primitive fallacy to think that it does…

Where did Trump (and others) get the idea that the purpose of trade was to run a surplus? Perhaps, as a businessman, he equates a country’s trade balance with a company’s profit and loss statement. More likely, it is a matter of mistaking accounting for economics. Every first-year economics student is taught that national income equals consumption plus investment plus government spending plus the difference between exports and imports: the trade balance.

I’ve found that being charitable, when it comes to assessing people’s understanding of basic economics, is a habit seldom rewarded.

This afternoon, President Trump’s spokesman announced that they may impose a 20% tariff on Mexican imports as a way of making Mexico “pay” for the border wall.… Continue reading

The End of Privacy, Part 2: Scoring Pro-Social Behaviour

Despite what some philosophers will tell you, morality is clearly a work in progress. It changes over time. My father was born into a world in which “fornication” was considered immoral. Now, not only do most people not regard it as immoral, many have trouble even understanding how anyone could ever have regarded it as immoral. Such is the way things change.

There is a complex relationship between our moral code and the present state of technology. It is surely no accident that the seismic shifts in sexual mores occurred in the wake of the discovery of safe, effective birth control technology.

There is another technological change looming on the horizon, which it seems to me stands a good chance of changing everyday morality in fundamental ways. We can already see the technology at work in apps like Airbnb and Uber, which seek to eliminate the “trust” problem between contracting parties by allowing them to rate one another.… Continue reading

A question for PR supporters

If the next federal election were being held under a proportional representation system, would the Conservative Party care if their leader spoke French?

That’s the question. My answer is “no.” That is, of course, speculative, but here is my thinking.

Right now what the Conservative Party is aiming for is a majority government. If that is the objective, then you can’t afford not to compete for the 70-odd Quebec seats that have a francophone majority electorate. If there’s one thing everyone can agree upon, it’s that first-past-the-post electoral systems create enormous pressure to create very broad-based political parties, that appeal to the maximum number of voters. That is the precisely the pressure that the Conservative party is experiencing now.

Proportional representation (PR) takes majority government off the table, even with the current party configuration. PR would also generate new parties over time, further increasing the difficulty of obtaining a majority. So all political parties, including the Conservative, will be looking at forming coalition governments.… Continue reading

The End of Privacy, Part 1: Mind Reading

Welcome to 2017. I’ve been feeling old lately. Part of the sensation comes from the fact that the world I am presently inhabiting, and the world that I can see emerging, is fundamentally different from the one that I was born into, and in which my basic social sensibilities developed. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the domain of privacy. I have no doubt that my childhood – the 1970s – will be looked back upon as the golden age of anonymity, and thus in a sense, of individual freedom. I was watching a ’70s movie the other day, in which a couple of detectives were chasing a criminal by car, heading for the state line. The criminal eludes them, and so they head back to town. On the way back, they stop at a pay phone, where the detective calls headquarters to give them an update. I had to explain to my kids that, in the old days, once the police were out of range for radio contact, the only way they could communicate with the station was by finding a telephone.… Continue reading

Adversarialism in Philosophy: A Defence

I’m starting to come around to the view that there is something weird going on with students these days, where they are coming into the world with rather unrealistic expectations about how they can expect to be treated. For the first time the other day, I came across the suggestion – made by a grad student – that a philosophical research talk should be a “safe space,” in which audience members are expected to be “tough yet supportive.” (I actually don’t quite know what this means – if someone is saying something totally wrong, it’s a bit hard to point that out while at the same time remaining supportive. What are you supposed to say, “you seem like a really nice person, but you’re totally wrong.” Or maybe, “well this argument doesn’t work, but keep trying, I’m sure you’ll come up with a better one next time!”)

Anyhow, as most people who are familiar with how philosophy works will know, this is not the way the discipline currently operates.… Continue reading

What makes someone a conspiracy theorist?

One thing that many people have noted about Donald Trump is that he seems particularly vulnerable to conspiracy theories. It is seldom made clear in these discussions, however, exactly what a “conspiracy theory” is, or what particular mental habits make people vulnerable to them. I thought, therefore, that it might be an opportune time to republish a small excerpt from my Enlightenment 2.0 that attempts to explain this. Basically, a conspiracy theorist is someone who falls victim to confirmation bias. He or she sees a pattern in the world, develops an account of the pattern, but then fails systematically to consider, much less investigate, any evidence that would contradict this account. Instead, he or she simply observes more and more instances of the pattern, treating each one (fallaciously) as more “evidence” of the account.

Conspiracy theorists serve as an excellent example of the phenomenon that Keith Stanovich refers to as dysrationalia.… Continue reading