Redefining racism

There’s a little semantic game that’s being played a lot these days, which seems to me worthy of analysis. (And since philosophers are so often of accusing to getting hung up on “semantic questions,” who better to comment on it?) It has become quite standard in many quarters to condemn Canadian society, along with all of its institutions, as being thoroughly and systematically racist. There is however an important ambiguity in the way that the term “racist” is being used, with critics often shifting back and forth between two quite different meanings of the term, in a way that vitiates the force of their criticism.

When most people hear the word “racism,” the way that they understand it is in terms that would have been familiar to civil rights activists of the 1960s. This type of racism was interpreted first and foremost as a derogatory attitude certain individuals have, that leads them to engage in discriminatory behaviour – treating some people better than others based on their racial characteristics.… Continue reading

Singh, Sikhs, and turban exemptions

The other day I was sitting at my computer, writing an abstruse philosophy paper on an abstruse topic, when suddenly the very issue that I was discussing found its way into the headlines. The new leader of the NDP, Jagmeet Singh, was accused of failing to respect the boundary between religion and politics, on the grounds that, while in the Ontario legislature, he introduced a private member’s bill that would have granted an exemption for Sikhs from motorcycle helmet laws. (There was a lot of grousing coming from Quebec about the “ostentatious” religious symbolism of Singh’s mode of dress.) The example, I thought, was ill-chosen, because one need not appeal to any exotic religious concerns in order to support such accommodations, they follow rather straightforwardly from the liberal norm of equality. Or so I argue. This is what I was writing:


The impression that exemptions necessarily involve some violation of equality is, of course, encouraged by the popular view that treating people equally involves treating them all the same.… Continue reading

Tory does the right thing

Finally, a centre-right we can believe in! A right-wing politician who, instead of just pretending that various collective action problems do not exist, instead acknowledges them and proposes market-based solutions… I’m not always a huge fan of market based solutions to collective action problems, but if I have to choose between a market-based solution and no solution, I’ll take the market-based one.

What am I talking about? Toronto Mayor John Tory proposes road pricing for the DVP and Gardiner Expressway. This is a drum that I (and many others) have been beating for a long time. Here’s a piece I wrote for Policy Options a long time ago (link). This remains my favorite line:

Roads are congested because they are free. If we gave away cheese for free, too many people would eat too much cheese. Similarly, when we give away use of roads, we get too many people driving too much of the time.

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Final Ford

Rob Ford’s recent death has prompted some great thinking and writing (e.g. here, here and here). I don’t have much to add, except for one little observation, which I don’t think has been given enough play. It is about social class.

Rob Ford was often described as a champion of the little guy, of being the “people’s mayor.” He was also inordinately popular among what we academics refer to, euphemistically, as “low-SES individuals” (SES standing for “socio-economic status”). And yet it was often pointed out that Ford himself was rich, he was born to a rich family, and had never really had to work for a living – outside the family business – before he entered politics. He was, in other words, a comfortable member of the economic elite. (Furthermore, many of Ford’s policies did not really benefit his supporters. Property taxes, in particular, are about the closest thing we have to a pure wealth tax in our society, so his insistence of keeping them as low as possible generated significant benefits for the wealthy and little more than spare change for the downtrodden.)

And yet somehow the charge, that Ford was just a rich guy, pushing through an agenda that benefited the rich, never seemed to stick.… Continue reading

Sex education and the paradoxes of social conservatism

People often describe the current conservative movement in Canada, as well as several other countries, as involving an “improbable” coalition, assembling groups that seem to have rather little in common. The two most often pointed to are libertarians and Christian “social conservatives,” who not only take different positions on many specific questions – such as abortion, physician-assisted suicide, marijuana, gay marriage, etc. – but have fundamentally different views about the role of the state in society. Social conservatives generally want a more intrusive state, one that takes sides on controversial moral questions and enforces particular views. In other words, they reject what we in political theory call “liberal neutrality,” or the doctrine of limited government that says the state has no business trying to control behaviour in the private domain. Libertarians, on the other hand, want a state that is even less intrusive than the one we have – ideally, one that stays out of people’s lives almost entirely, intervening only when necessary to defend their rights.… Continue reading

Carbon pricing sets the stage for real performance: Cap-and-trade is a start

On April 29, I published an opinion piece in Ottawa Citizen (here).

The piece is a reflection on Ontario’s decision to go ahead with a cap-and-trade system. The decision is a good one, I argue, not because cap-and-trade is the key to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but because of a different purpose it serves. It is but a necessary condition for everything else that is needed for a low carbon economy to develop.

The “everything else” part is yet to be imagined and developed, and now that a decision has been made on cap-and-trade, a new terrain opens up for developing the building blocks of a low carbon economy.

But why is it a necessary condition? It’s because carbon pricing creates an institutional tapestry, upon which a whole range of additional policies and initiatives can be built, linked, and scaled up. Cap-and-trade is a way of achieving this. It is not the only method.… Continue reading

Ontario chickens out, chooses cap-and-trade

Like many people, I was encouraged to see the Government of Ontario finally stepping into the breach and taking action on the climate change issue, but I was very disappointed to see them choosing to go with a cap-and-trade system rather than a carbon tax. Prior to yesterday, there were two models out there: B.C.’s carbon tax and Quebec’s cap-and-trade system. Ontario joining Quebec probably represents a tipping point that will push the country as a whole in the direction of cap-and-trade, which is, as far as I’m concerned, a second-best outcome.

How did we wind up here? This is all a consequence of what I consider to be the most important political shift to have occurred in Canada in the past two decades, which is the near-total collapse of moderate conservatism. Indeed, it’s not a surprise that the major spokespersons of the centre-right in Canada – Andrew Coyne, Tasha Kheiriddin, etc.… Continue reading

Lessons for the left from Olivia Chow’s faltering campaign

Olivia Chow entered the Toronto mayoralty race as the acknowledged front-runner, the only left-wing candidate running against no fewer than four candidates from the right (John Tory, Rob Ford, John David Soknacki and, before she dropped out, Karen Stintz). Chow has star power (as the widow of the late Jack Layton), obvious outreach to visible minorities (who, collectively, are close to being the majority of voters in Toronto), recently had her biography published by Harpercollins, and is well-known to voters in Toronto thanks to her years of service as a city councillor.

According to a string of recent polls, she is now running in third place, behind Rob Ford, a man so demonstrably unfit for office that many of his own supporters would be mortified were they to discover that he had become, say, the principal of their child’s school.

To say that something had gone wrong with Chow’s campaign would be an understatement.… Continue reading

And exhale…

For all those who don’t care much about Ontario politics, my apologies for having laid it on a bit thick this past month. I pledge to be both less parochial and less partisan in the future. I did however feel obliged to write about the provincial election campaign underway (which culminated last night in the surprise election of a Liberal majority government), because like many people I was genuinely alarmed at how far to the right the Progressive Conservative party was positioning itself. On the one hand, this struck me as a poor strategic move, and a violation of one of the most elementary principles of electoral politics (once you have your base locked down, you move to the centre). On the other hand, people in this province are not going to keep electing the Liberal Party forever, eventually there has to be a change of government. So there was an obvious concern that the PCs might ride to power on anti-Liberal sentiment, despite having a platform that is quite far to the right of the vast majority of the electorate.… Continue reading

Why a Conservative government would be bad for Ontario

Like many people, I’ve spent a lot of time fussing over the astonishingly mendacious campaign that the Progressive Conservative party has been running in Ontario. The centrepiece of it all was the fiasco of the “million jobs plan,” which turned out to be based on ridiculously faulty math. From there the PCs moved on to a campaign ad called “Truth,” the central premise of which was an obvious falsehood (“The truth is,” Hudak intoned, “that a million people in our province woke up this morning without a job” — this is true only if you count children and seniors. There are only about a half-million people looking for work in Ontario.) And the strategy has been the same at all levels. Just the other day, I got a flyer at home from my local PC candidate, with a picture of a subway train one side – along with a promise to build new subways – and a commitment to lowering my taxes on the other side.… Continue reading