Two (well, maybe one) cheers for the Senate!

It’s time for a confession. I like the Senate. Not just the general idea of bicameralism, and of an upper chamber. I actually kind of like our Senate, in all of its unelected glory. Now I will grant you that these have been hard times for Senate-lovers, or perhaps I should say Senate-likers, like myself, what with the Pamela Wallins, the Mike Duffys, and the Patrick Brazeaus. But we should not judge an entire institution by sole reference to a few bad apples. Very few of our institutions would survive that kind of scrutiny. And at the same time as we quite justifiably look for ways of ridding the Senate of the kind of corruption that has been brought to light in recent years, we also have to acknowledge the excellent work that it has been capable of. For example, anyone who wants to read a sane, well-documented, and well argued piece on drug policy could do a lot worse than picking up the report on cannabis that was published in 2001 by a Senate committee chaired by Pierre Claude Nolin.… Continue reading

Can Public Funding of IVF be Justified?

Guest post by Carolyn McLeod and Andrew Botterell:

The provincial government of Ontario recently announced that beginning in 2015, it will fund one cycle of IVF for people suffering from infertility. At the same time, it will require single embryo transfer for each funded cycle and will not pay for the drugs required for IVF, nor for the cost of ancillary services, such as embryo freezing. Although this proposal is not as comprehensive as Quebec’s program, which pays for up to three cycles of IVF (with ovarian stimulation), this is undoubtedly good news for women who would otherwise be unable to afford IVF, and for those who see in this proposal the promise of stricter oversight of fertility clinics, which currently operate in a regulatory grey zone.

To state the obvious, this public policy decision raises many medical, economic, political, legal, and ethical questions. But the central question arguably is, “On what basis, if any, can this program be justified?” The cynical view is that the justification is political, pure and simple.Continue reading

Enlightenment roundup

First off, I’ll be in Ottawa on Sunday April 27th, doing a Q&A with Andrew Potter about Enlightenment 2.0 for the Ottawa Writers Festival. It’s at 6:30pm in Knox Presbyterian church (event details here). Also, I’m looking forward to attending the talk by Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan from Samara, just before mine, 4pm at Knox Presbyterian, discussing their new book Tragedy in the Commons. A great evening for all those who want to get together and wring their hands about the state of democracy!

In other news, here’s a half-hour podcast of me chit-chatting about the book, with The Commentary in B.C.

And there’s been a batch of reviews:

National Post, “Enlightenment 2.0 by Joseph Heath: Review” by Benjamin Leszcz

Toronto Star, “Enlightenment 2.0 by Joseph Heath: Review” by Alex Good.

There is also a very gratifying review by Ivor Tossell at the Globe and Mail (“Is it time for a renaissance of reason?Continue reading

Abject economic illiteracy at the Globe and Mail

I once suggested that the reason economists are such grumpy people is that they can’t read their morning paper without running into two or three economic fallacies. I was exaggerating, but only by a bit. Consider, for example, this doozie in today’s Globe and Mail – a column by Gary Mason, entitled “How does Canada compete paying wages this high?” He doesn’t exactly say what we are “competing” for, but suggests that somehow because Canadian wages are high, compared to those in China (!) and the United States, that our “long term economic growth” is at risk.

Anyone who has taken an introductory economics course will be able to see already that the column is going to be train wreck. Just from the headline, it’s obvious that Mason does not understand the concept of comparative advantage and the logic of international trade, confuses business competitiveness with national competitiveness, and plans to commit the pauper labour fallacy.

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Building More Poor Houses – The Truth of Sentencing

The Supreme Court of Canada’s conclusion that the Truth in Sentencing Act is unconstitutional is challenging to explain. In part this is because of the rhetorical flourish of the legislation. Who can oppose Truth, especially with a capital T? But mainly it is because most of us know very little about our criminal justice system and about our prisons.

The Canadian Criminal Code is written, like much criminal law around the world, with a series of ‘theoretical maximum’ penalties. Parliament sets out what the maximum possible sentence can be. The courts then apply the law.

Applying the law can be complicated. Every crime is comprised of a particular kind of knowledge, specific actions, potential consequences. Evidence needs to be carefully weighed. Criminal conviction is the most serious penalty that our society condones. It can, and should, be complicated. It’s serious.

Sentencing is even more intricate. The judge considers the individual circumstances of the crime against the theoretical maximum of the Criminal Code.… Continue reading

Second open letter concerning reform of Elections Act

An Open Letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Members of the House of Commons, and Senators of Canada:
 
Last month, over 160 professors signed an open letter to express grave concerns about the damage to Canadian democracy that the  “Fair Elections Act” (Bill C-23) would cause. Today, we the undersigned, an even larger group of professors at Canadian universities who share a deep concern over this legislation, urge the government to withdraw this Bill and draft truly fair election reforms based on meaningful consultations with opposition parties, non-partisan experts, Elections Canada, and the public. There is no reason to depart from this laudable Canadian tradition for electoral reform. 
 
Committees in both the House of Commons and the Senate have now heard from many experts and citizens’ groups. Overwhelmingly, these witnesses have criticized the legislation. Despite the government’s claim that “ordinary Canadians” support the Bill, a recent poll reveals that a majority of citizens oppose it.Continue reading

Is Quebec More Left-Wing?

Joe asked the other day whether it is true that Quebec is more left wing than the rest of Canada. He thinks it’s a myth. Although he helpfully debunks some false beliefs about the alleged ideological contrast between Quebec and some of the other Canadian provinces, I want to suggest that he skips over several facts that arguably entitle us to reach a different conclusion.

If you look at public opinion and voting behaviour, it is true that it is far from clear that Quebec is straightforwardly leaning to the left. In 2007, the Action démocratique du Québec and its strong libertarian wing came close to winning the election. The Conservatives made some inroads in Quebec in the 2006 and 2008 federal elections. The Coalition avenir Québec did better than expected on April 7th. The common sense/slash-the-bureaucracy discourse is popular in many suburban and rural ridings in the province. And I’m leaving aside the identity dimension of contemporary debates on social justice.… Continue reading

What do libertarians and pedophiles have in common?

Answer: Before the internet, nobody realized how many of them there were.

Okay, that’s just a joke I made up to get your attention. But it serves to set the tone for today’s discussion, which involves a critique of libertarianism that is somewhat less than doctrinal. In fact, I want to make an ad hominem argument against it. Or more precisely, I want to criticize libertarianism indirectly, by making an observation about the kind of people who typically espouse libertarian doctrine.

In order to get at this, I’d like to introduce a new concept, or better yet, describe a group of people, whom I refer to as the “self-control aristocracy.”

The idea is very simple. Some people have more self-control than others. Let me give you an example. I love my wife dearly, but sometimes she freaks me out. Several months ago she got tired of paying for proprietary statistical analytics software and so decided to learn R, the open-source alternative.… Continue reading

Les mythes de PKP

Par Jocelyn Maclure et Daniel Weinstock

Ainsi, Pierre-Karl Péladeau estime que le fleurdelisé devrait être mis en berne tous les 17 avril pour commémorer la date funeste à laquelle la Loi constitutionnelle de 1982 fut mise en vigueur. Selon celui qui vient d’être élu député de Saint-Jérôme et candidat potentiel à la chefferie du Parti Québécois, c’est ce jour que s’installa au Canada un « gouvernement des juges », qui fut particulièrement fatidique pour les deux grands acquis de la Révolution tranquille: l’affirmation du fait français et la laïcité.

La lettre de M. Péladeau touche à des questions qui sont sans aucun doute très importantes. Il y est question de l’équilibre entre les différents pouvoirs dans une démocratie libérale, et du partage des compétences entre partenaires dans une fédération. Malheureusement, le propos ne se hisse pas au-delà de la caricature.

Commençons par l’idée que la Constitution de 1982 a instauré un gouvernement des juges.… Continue reading

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