Free Spirits: An Argument against State-Run Booze

When I lived in Oxford, I loved to go shopping for wine. There were a couple of wine stores down the street from where I lived that were clearly owned by wine-lovers. New arrivals had lovingly inscribed tasting notes taped to them. The selection in the two stores was quite different, and clearly reflected the tastes of the owners.

I don’t enjoy shopping for wine in Montreal that much. That’s because rather than being able to walk into a small store with lots of character, I have to go to the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) retail stores. Don’t get me wrong: these stores are bright and efficiently run. There’s nothing wrong with them, but there is nothing particularly right about them either. Each store is pretty much the same as any other. The folks who work there are unfailingly courteous and knowledgeable, but they are knowledgeable in the way you become knowledgeable when you take a 3-week training course, rather than in the way you are because you have developed a personal obsession with a particular cépage, and have idiosyncratically but charmingly stocked your store to reflect your particular obsession.… Continue reading

The war on the car continues (but how?)

Until recently, residents and visitors to Toronto have been able to observe a strange phenomenon. Right downtown, just behind the provincial legislature (here), there is a very beautiful park (called Queen’s Park). The surprising thing about this park was that, on a typical weekday during the summer, even during lunch hour, you could walk through this park and find practically nobody in it – no students from the University of Toronto, despite the fact that it is almost part of the campus, and no workers from the nearby government buildings eating lunch.

There was a simple reason for this. It all came down to urban planning – in this case, bad urban planning. Until recently, Queen’s Park was a typical example of what I tend to think of as “1960’s urban planning” — the time before people really figured out how cars work (or the way that cars affect the dynamic of pedestrian flow).… Continue reading

How do we feel about a national daycare program?

Those who use simple heuristics to make up their minds about policy questions (e.g. “government good, markets bad”) will undoubtedly already know how they feel about the federal NDP’s recent announcement of a bold new plan for a national daycare system. The headline feature of the system is that it will be subsidized, so that the cost to parents should come in at about $15 per day.

There has of course been a sense of welcome relief that the NDP has stopped doing small-bore, pseudo-populist politicking, and is actually coming forward with a genuine proposal to expand the Canadian welfare state, moving it away from the American toward the Scandinavian model. But if you look at the issue from first principles, or from a social justice perspective, public involvement in the daycare sector is not an easy issue to assess. In this respect, it is not like the other two “big fish” out there in the policy space – carbon pricing and national pharmacare – which are no-brainers by comparison.… Continue reading

Waldron, Sunstein, and nudge paternalism

It is not my policy to comment on articles published in the New York Review of Books, but Jeremy Waldron had a piece a little while back – a discussion of Cass Sunstein’s book, Why Nudge? – that I feel impelled to respond to. That’s because the view Waldron puts forward, in criticizing Sunstein, is a precise articulation of exactly the view that I think we need to be getting away from. One of the major objectives of my own recent book, Enlightenment 2.0, was to explain why we need to stop thinking this way. (That’s actually the reason for the “2.0” in the book title. What Waldron is urging upon us is what I like to think of as the “Enlightenment 1.0” position.) And Sunstein’s response, in the most recent issue, is too tepid by far.

Sunstein, it may be recalled, is a proponent of “nudge” paternalism, based on the observation that the way choices are presented to people, although seemingly neutral from the standpoint of economic rationality, often actually favour one option over some other.… Continue reading