Stephen Harper versus the intellectuals

Looking back over Stephen Harper’s time as Prime Minister, one can see two significant “discoveries” associated with his mandate. The first is that he discovered a way of ruling the country without any support in Quebec. The second is that he discovered a way of ruling the country without any support from the intellectual classes.

The latter trick is, of course, much easier to pull off, since intellectuals do not command many votes, and they tend to cluster together in a very small number of ridings. Republicans in the United States wrote them off a long time ago. (I can still remember a pathetic issue of the New York Review of Books published just before the 2004 presidential election, in which a who’s who of American intellectuals got together to say “please do not re-elect George W. Bush.” It made not a whit of difference.)

The reasons for this hostility toward Harper in Canada are manifold.… Continue reading

A mystery solved

Lately a road crew has been mucking around the gravel road out in front of my place. Not quite clear what they’re doing. A bit of regrading on the side, deepening the ditches:


It’s weird though, they show up maybe once a week, put in a couple of hours of work, then disappear again. They’ve been at it for around two months, and have done about a kilometer of road.  Here they’ve regraded the hill by the side of the road… not sure why. So the snowploughs can clear better?


Weird stuff. Oh look, they replaced a culvert. I guess that’s kind of useful:


All of this seems totally unnecessary. And why is it taking them so long?

Oh, right:


Conservative riding. Thanks Kellie!… Continue reading

Man whose livelihood depends upon status quo finds no problem with status quo

My “Forever Campaign” piece in the Ottawa Citizen this past weekend received a lot of positive response (a shorter version was published in the National Post, as well as several other Postmedia papers). Today the Citizen has a column by Randall Denley (“Politicians are no Threat to Democracy”), retired journalist, failed Ontario PC candidate and now “strategic communications consultant,” taking issue with some of the claims that I made.

Apparently my concerns about the future of democracy are not only ill-founded, but in some cases positively “funny.”

I just want to focus on two aspects of Denley’s piece. He starts out by making a fairly big move, which is to dismiss the major premise of my argument. I claimed that the “point” of a democratic political system is to produce “good government” (which, to be pedantic, should be taken to mean “to improve our chances of getting good government,” or “to improve the average quality of government,” or something like that).… Continue reading

The forever campaign



Attentive readers will have noticed that I’ve spent the past month busily doing things other than writing for this blog. I’ve actually been working on a few academic articles, but also a long piece for the Ottawa Citizen, which just came out online today. It’s called “The Forever Campaign” and it deals with the problem that John Stuart Mill referred to as “the great mischief of unintermitted electioneering.”

Here’s a bit that pertains to our current electoral campaign:

Perhaps the signature accomplishment of the Harper Government, when it comes to accelerating the decline of Canadian democracy, has been the transformation of parliament itself, and of the legislative process, into an instrument of the political campaign.

Governing parties have always passed laws that they feel will appeal to their favoured constituencies. Historically, however, these laws have also attempted to achieve something, above and beyond merely appealing to these groups.

Continue reading

On the disappearance of the centre-right in Canada

Jeffrey Simpson wrote a column today on an issue that I think is of a paramount importance in Canadian politics – I’ve often said that the near-total collapse of the centre-right is the most important development in our political system over the past two decades. Unfortunately, the way that Simpson articulated the idea confused many people. First of all, he described it as “The Disappearance of the Moderate Conservative“, and second, he tied it to the unfortunate term “red Tory,” which is a complex political tradition that is not exactly relevant to the current set of issues.

The biggest problem has to do with the term “moderate,” because it suggests a person who takes a position between some set of extremes, and so if you think of the three political parties arranged on a left-to-right spectrum, a moderate conservative is just someone who is more like a liberal. This is not a helpful way of framing the debate (because conservatives just dismiss it, as the sound of a downtown Toronto media elite whining, “why isn’t everyone a liberal like me?”).… Continue reading

The challenge of maintaining a “normal” rate of crime

Emile Durkheim upset a lot of people, back in the late 19th century, by claiming that there was a “normal” rate of crime, which society seeks to maintain. He argued that the apprehension and punishment of criminals served a social function, by reaffirming everyone else’s commitment to the social order. In the same way that public rituals serve as a reaffirmation of faith for members of certain religion communities, the punishment of criminals plays the same role for members of society more generally. We find it easier to do our part in maintaining the social order when we have visible evidence that those who fail to do so are being appropriately sanctioned.

This is why the general public takes such a keen interest in the punishment of criminals, and much less in, say, road maintenance, even though with the division of labour, there are agents of the state whose job it is to make sure that each is done expeditiously.… Continue reading

On equality and social insurance: Response to Landes and Néron

The most recent issue of Res Publica features a collection of articles on social insurance and the welfare state, a topic near to my own heart. It was recently featured by Bookforum under the heading The Greatness of Modern Welfare States. I thought I might say a few words on this paper (ungated here) by Xavier Landes and Pierre-Yves Néron (two of my former postdocs, I should mention). Much of the discussion is a response to this paper of mine (which is actually just a more academic presentation of an argument developed in my book, The Efficient Society), in which I basically present a philosophical defence of that standard “public economics” view that the major role of the modern welfare state is to correct various forms of market failure. Much of this activity gets misclassified, however, as “redistribution,” suggesting that it follows some sort of an egalitarian logic, when it fact it is just an insurance scheme being run in the public sector, and is therefore no more redistributive than any other sort of insurance.… Continue reading

Welcome to the long election

My dinner was just interrupted by a knock on the door. Standing there was a young volunteer from the Conservative Party, handing out election material and asking me to support the local candidate. I guess this is the brave new world of fixed election dates, and thus, perpetual electioneering.

Can someone explain to me how this works though? I haven’t been paying enough attention. Because we’re outside the writ period, there’s a different set of spending rules that apply? I suppose also it’s not an accident that the Conservative Party are first out of the gate, with actual election material. I should have asked whether I can get a lawn sign yet…

Who ever thought this was a good idea?


 … Continue reading

10 books that blew my mind

I’m in deep summer mode now, so blogging will be light for a while. Someone asked for this though, so here it is – a list of the books that have had the most influence on the way that I see things (or that deeply changed the way I see things, or that in some other way blew my tiny mind). I’m excluding the classics here, focusing just on books published post-WWII:

1. Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis

2. Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action

3. Talcott Parsons, The Social System

4. David Gauthier, Morals by Agreement

5. John Roemer, A General Theory of Exploitation and Class

6. Robert Brandom, Making it Explicit

7. Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, Culture and the Evolutionary Process

8. François Éwald, L’état providence

9. Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool

10. George Ainslie, Picoeconomics

These are also roughly chronological, in the order that I read them.… Continue reading

Climate change syllabus

I’m teaching environmental ethics for the first time this coming fall, focusing on climate change. This is a third-year course, which has our second-year general environmental ethics course as a prerequisite. So I’m not obliged to cover the basics. I’ll be using Eric A. Posner and David Weisbach’s book, Climate Change Justice, as more-or-less the textbook, with supplementary readings as I go along. Not everything I assign, I should add, is stuff I agree with, some is just to provoke discussion. Also, it’s not really environmental “ethics” so much as environmental “justice” & “policy.”

Anyhow, any suggestions would be welcome — I haven’t read more than a fraction of the literature that’s out there (beyond the usual suspects Shue, Gardiner, Broome, McKinnon, Moellendorf, etc.), so if I’m missing good stuff let me know. Also, the syllabus may not make sense for those who have not read Posner & Weisbach, because my presentation of topics really tracks their discussion, which seems to me quite well organized.… Continue reading