Enlightenment week wrap-up

It’s been a great first week for my book Enlightenment 2.0, and obviously I owe an enormous debt to both the Ottawa Citizen and the National Post for running substantial excerpts (the Citizen last Saturday, and the Post every day this week). Looking over these different pieces, however, it occurs to me that a casual reader might be left wondering, “What the hell is this book about?”

So in the interest of making it seem less disjoint, I thought I might present a short summary of the argument – and how the various pieces hang together.

I take Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” as the point of departure, in order to make the point that many people have been concerned by the recent trend towards increased irrationalism in politics. Stewart is not alone in having called for a return to sanity. At the same time, there have been a huge number of recent books published by psychologists telling us that reason is useless, that we are hopelessly biased, etc.… Continue reading

Rex Murphy knows nothing about Canadian universities

Rex Murphy had the usual sort of paint-by-numbers column in the National Post this weekend, voicing his outrage over Brandeis University’s decision to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Nothing particularly remarkable there. The headline could have read “Tiny little American liberal arts college caves in to political correctness.” That would have been about right.

Instead, the column ran under the headline “Universities have become factories for reinforcing opinion.” Now I know headlines are not written by the same people as the columns, and so sometimes say wacky things, but Murphy goes on to make the same extraordinarily broad generalization, based on a single data point: “Universities are losing their halo. They are now factories for reinforcing received opinions, what the market holds as right and true — so-called ‘progressive’ ideas. They have a deep hostility to ideas and opinions that wander outside their small circle of acceptability.”

How does he know this?… Continue reading

Restoring sanity to politics

The Ottawa Citizen was kind enough to publish a long excerpt from the last chapter of Enlightenment 2.0 today. It’s the part where I try to say something positive about how to improve the current situation in democratic politics, which is rapidly descending into “all demagoguery all the time.” I must admit that it’s a bit half-hearted. Basically what I have is an awesome theory of why things are so bad, and how they got that way, and why it’s incredibly hard to do anything to improve the situation. So I wind up painting myself into a bit of a corner. But everybody likes a happy ending, so I try to say something helpful at the end.

 … Continue reading

Does it matter whether Quebecers care about Canada?

Many people outside Quebec were quite surprised (although not unpleasantly so) by the results of the recent provincial election. Part of the reason for the surprise, I suspect, is that we have been subjected to a steady stream of hand-wringing over the lack of emotional commitment that many Quebecers seem to feel toward Canada. Many English-Canadian observers have professed shock, dismay and anxiety over this apparent indifference. Because of this, the strong reaction in Quebec against the fist-pumping referendum talk was unexpected.

Those who have been doing the hand-wringing never quite get around to explaining why they consider a lack of emotional attachment to be such a problem. Personally, I don’t think it’s an issue at all. In fact, I take it to be an encouraging sign. It seems to me evidence that Quebec is becoming more of a normal province.

Presumably in the background of all this worry is the thought that emotional bonds are somehow needed to hold a country together.… Continue reading

Is Quebec more left-wing than the rest of Canada?

There is a widespread perception that Quebec is more left-wing, or more “social-democratic” than the rest of Canada. Indeed, one branch of the sovereignty movement suggests that a commitment to social justice requires separation from Canada, because English Canada encumbers Quebec, preventing it from realizing its vision of a more egalitarian society. (It is because of this belief that many people in Quebec think of separatism as a natural extension of left-wing political commitments.)

This is an illusion. The part of Canada that I grew up in – Saskatchewan – was far more left-wing than Quebec has ever been. And it never once occurred to anyone that you couldn’t have “socialism in one province” (or that being a member of the Canadian federation in any way impeded the realization of the essentially socialist vision that was at the time predominant).

What makes Quebec distinct is the fact that, over the past 30 years, the Quebec political system has been tilted to the left.… Continue reading

Enlightenment 2.0 drops next weekend

Came home from work today to find this bad boy sitting on my porch:


First copy of new book! The official release date is April 15. Look for a sneak peek in the Ottawa Citizen on Saturday, April 12th. And then look for me popping up everywhere to promote it. Actually, not so much, but I will be doing a talk at the Ottawa Writer’s Festival on April 27th.

And kudos to HarperCollins for their support of Canadian non-fiction publishing.… Continue reading

The central challenge for the left in Canada

Anyone who read my last post will no doubt have sensed that I’m having a lot of difficulty summoning up much enthusiasm for the current politics of the NDP in Ontario, in particular, their willingness to assign redistribution of wealth priority over the need to solve certain pressing collective action problems. Thinking about the issue reminded me of the opening paragraph of a book I read recently, by Samuel Bowles (The New Economics of Inequality and Redistribution):

Socialism, radical democracy, social democracy, and other egalitarian movements have flourished when they successfully crafted the demands of distributive justice into an economic strategy capable of addressing the problem of scarcity, and thereby promised to improve living standards on the average. Redistributing land to the tiller, social insurance, egalitarian wage policies, central planning, and providing adequate health care and schooling for all have been attractive when they promised to link a more just distribution of economic reward to enhanced performance of the economic system as a whole.

Continue reading

The golden age of ideological politics in Ontario

One sometimes hears disaffected voters – particularly young people – complaining that they cannot be motivated to cast a ballot because there is “no difference” between the major political parties. I’ve never had much sympathy for this complaint, particularly in Canada, where there is a pretty significant ideological spread between the major parties. Of course no party is going to cater to any individual’s particular tastes – they are, after all, mass parties, trying to cater to the needs and desires of millions of people. At the same time, anyone who can’t see that the parties stand for very different things has probably not been paying much attention.

Nowhere is this more true than in Ontario right now. I was reminded of this when reading Daniel’s complaint about the fact that Quebec politics remains stubbornly polarized along constitutional lines (separatist-federalist), rather than the traditional left-right distributive justice axis. Indeed, every time that it looks as though the political system in Quebec is going to “normalize” (with the rise of the ADQ, or the CAQ, or QS), it seems to last no more than one election before getting pulled back into the old constitutional axis.… Continue reading

On two-tiered medicine in Canada

My boss, Mark Stabile, has an op-ed in the Globe and Mail today, arguing against two-tier health care in Canada. He’s the kind of economist who is interested in facts, and he cites a few. For example, with an added tier of private medicine:

there is little evidence that wait times in the public system go down. And there is little evidence that a private system reduces the costs of public systems. In fact, in some jurisdictions, overall costs in the public system actually went up in those cases where the tax system subsidizes people who purchase private insurance (as Canada does). Over all, those systems that have private insurance have had to continue to grapple with issues of costs and access, much as we do here in Canada.

Now I’m the kind of non-economist who is quite interested in incentives, so I find it interesting to speculate about why allowing people to opt out of the public system and purchase health care privately would not free up resources in the public system.… Continue reading