Tuesday, March 03, 2015

I [Don't] Side With...

My top match is what makes the I Side With graphic, but it's not why I want to post this. I wanted to post this because of my 4th/5th best match: the Conservative Party of Canada (tied with the Bloc, outpacing the Greens, Communists, and Christian Heritage Party). Other classically liberal friends are posting similar results.

I have lots of friends who support Canada's Conservative Party, and a long time ago I used to be a supporter. So I have heard Conservatives talk for years about how libertarians and classical liberals are just ultra-committed, politically impractical Conservatives who will never realise the world that we want*, and if we want to be practical, or when we finally come around, we will vote Conservative.

Sorry, my friends on the right, but as I've been saying for years: that's just not the case. If I decide to get practical and go to the polls, I'll be voting for your opposition.

This makes a lot of sense. Classical liberalism is, historically, a movement of 'the left' - it was opposition to the spread of communism that allied libertarians with the right, and the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago. Nobody claims that conservative movements and libertarians can't work together as well as we can work with the left when our interests align. I think we should work with anyone with whom we share goals toward those goals, so long as we're not causing harm. Clark Ruper calls libertarianism 'radical centrism'. There's room to work together.

1990s Canadian Conservatives (and the federal Liberals) focused on issues libertarians care about (debt, waste, overly intrusive government) while sidelining issues on which we split ('tough on crime', legislation of personal morality, etc.). During this time, and while the Cold War alliance was still fresh, some libertarians (myself included) thought it was worth working together.

But working together isn't the same as pledging loyalty. Conservatives who get worked up about libertarians having 'left the Party' are assuming a natural tie that just isn't there. The further they drift into catering to populist and conservative principles while ignoring issues on which we agree, the further they'll drift down our list of preferences. That shouldn't be so surprising - they expect it with other issue-driven (rather than politics-driven) groups.

None of this is to say that voting in this election is something you should worry too much about. There are far more meaningful ways to practice civic involvement. It's just to point out that perhaps Conservatives shouldn't be hoping that libertarians put on their practical  hats after all.

*Not that I've ever met a Conservative, or anyone (regardless of how practical their priorities) who's gotten their ideal world through politics, or any other means, for all the tenacity with which they cling to that claim.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A negative vote for affirmative action.

Others have written, and written well, arguments for libertarians to embrace the feminist position. The qualms we have with socialist feminism are with its socialism, not its feminism. Alas, the discourse between left-feminists and liberals is not as developed as the discourse that we have with 'the right'.

And so I recently found myself dissatisfied with my own argument against affirmative action as a solution to unequal treatment of women in the workforce, though I thought I agreed with my conclusions. The argument that came to mind without much thought was:
Affirmative action attempts to correct an injustice, but it introduces new ones in the process. It disadvantages applicants who aren't targeted and treats women as though they can't succeed on their own merits. What’s needed to address this problem is societal change of gendered expectations and an insistence that laws consistently promote equality rather than special privilege for either side.
But what if your main concern isn't the presence of any injustice, but the correction a specific injustice? In this case, does liberalism come up short in the quest for a more equal workforce?

Happily, this sort of thing motivates better thinking. After giving the problem the thought it deserves, I don't think affirmative action deserves a liberal endorsement, and here's why:

First, the problem of discrimination in the workplace is not as big as it’s often made out to be. Steve Horwitz’s video on the gender-wage gap explains that women aren't paid as little as 75 cents for each dollar that men are paid for the same work, but are choosing less lucrative occupations and making different choices about their work/life balance. For the reasons that women make these choices, they continue to be underrepresented in many high-earning jobs. That's a different sort of problem, and the one that affirmative action (AA) aims to solve.

Let’s assume that we can design a program that will get women into the jobs they're failing to secure now, and will be rolled back seamlessly once equality is achieved. If such a program can correct society's attitudes towards women, perhaps it's a compromise that pragmatic liberals ought to consider.

AA programs in schools have not performed as desired: they have not resulted in a reduced need for support for black students to secure spots over time, and they did not result in more diverse campuses than 'colour blind' regimes.  Though the policies are intended to foster acceptance and tolerance, they can help perpetuate stereotypes and spur accusations of ‘reverse racism’. I can't think of a compelling reason that either workplaces or schools are exceptional, so I believe our expectations should be similar and we should be skeptical of claims that AA can solve problems caused by discrimination in the workforce that it hasn't in schools.

AA may be successful in catapulting women into management jobs in which men have been willing to work long hours, but it cannot change the expectations that come with the job (the long hours), nor the societal expectations for women (that they act as primary caregivers for children). Placing a woman into a job without changing these expectations puts the cart before the horse. It does not overcome the pressure on her to choose between family and career or the associated guilt.

If a woman is awarded a position because of AA, she was not the most qualified candidate (otherwise, she would have been awarded it without the policy). If she is more motivated by societal norms than the norms of the job, she is unlikely to meet the expectations of her position. AA sets her up to fail, and the stereotypes the policy aims to overcome (that women 'can't handle' that sort of work) to ring true. If the organization is forced to change the nature of the job to accommodate a female appointment without changing social norms, this has the same effect, and we should expect it to result in a drop in pay since the work ceases to be equal.

If she is qualified, the presence of AA may mean that the woman to whom a job is awarded will battle the charge that she didn't earn her spot. Shortcomings, real or perceived, may be disproportionately attributed to her gender, again contrary to the intentions of the policy. This battle may be won if she conforms to the norms of the job and produces exceptional work, but as Steve's video points out, making those choices already solves the problem.

Even if we assume away the unintended consequences for individuals, success in correcting disparities in outcome are bound to be recognized, at least in part, as the success of the program rather than the success of women in overcoming biases and discrimination. So long as the program is credited, women will not be able to claim, or even know the extent of, their victory.

Finally, our original assumption is a big one. Institutions are unlikely to be designed perfectly. Instead, their design will be subject to the social pressures that have resulted in the discrimination they're intended to correct. And once instituted, AA creates a vested interest (women who believe that they can secure jobs more easily because of the policy) that makes it difficult to reverse, regardless of whether it is successful or still needed, meaning that we may be left with needless discrimination, even if the original program was justified.

When there is injustice, the idea that a policy can solve the problem is appealing, but it's always more complicated than that. Even if a policy is merely ineffective, it may give the impression that something is being done and more action isn't needed. (This attitude may be partly to blame for a general sense of apathy and reluctance to acknowledge problems of discrimination today.)

What can feminists do, then? First, let's know what success has looked like in the past - the history of economic progress and liberation in the family and of women specifically within the market and society are important stories that we should be able to tell. Peacefully call out injustice - don't make excuses for it. Build something better – for instance, women succeeding in new work environments, like telecommuting and contract-based self employment, have the potential to be major stereotype busters. And don't settle for someone who makes gender an issue in relationship and household decisions. (Why would you want to when you realize what that says about them? Don't make excuses!)

That's the path to real change, not lip service or feel-good slogans. That's what matters, and we shouldn't settle for less.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

OK, #LetsTalk.

For three #BellLetsTalk days in a row, I've wanted to write something. I think it’s a good initiative. I'm a big believer in the power of talking (and writing) to not only help overcome personal mental health challenges, but to fight the misconceptions around an issue that affects more people than many know or acknowledge. But it's not as easy to write something as it might sound.

I wish I could tell you all my whole story, but my story has become something more private than I ever expected it to be. Not something to just toss out there. Maybe one day I'll find the words to share it all, but for this year, I can tell you three things that I wish more people realized about mental health:

  • Mental health is not binary.
Mental health gets treated like something you have or you don't. I've met people who think that someone who's in therapy is someone who can't keep it together - the therapy is proof that something is 'wrong'. Meanwhile, when someone has a breakdown, we 'never saw it coming'! They seemed to have it together, but only because they didn't tell us what was going on.

Stop being surprised. For most people, keeping a struggle with mental health private is a way of feeling like it's under control and a way of avoiding judgement. Often hard times can be managed with proactive coping mechanisms, or with the help of medications that you might never know about, but that doesn't mean they're not there. It's a damned shame that more people don't feel comfortable coming forward to build coping mechanisms and support networks until things fall apart.

Not every physical illness requires us to go to the doctor or the hospital to survive. Let’s stop acting like the only mental health struggles that count are the ones that require a major intervention. Then we can start to acknowledge how varied mental health experiences are, how common they are, and how often they go unrecognized because of the stigmas we’ve built around them.

  • Helping someone is easier, and harder, than you think. 
For many people struggling right now, one of the biggest challenges is feeling out of control of their life. It feels like events and emotions are conspiring to keep control out of reach, and the further it drifts, the harder it is to grasp again.

We tend to treat people who seek help as though they are forfeiting part of their decision-making ability, as though they’re no longer capable of handling important decisions. But someone seeking help has already taken an especially tough decision and first step down a path to recovery. That path can be a long, hard one, and not everyone reaches the end. But imagine how much harder it is when taking that first step forward leads to everyone treating you as though you’ve stumbled three back instead.

Trying to help someone who is struggling with personal demons can make us feel powerless – but there’s something you can do: Be a good friend. Have a healthy relationship. Insist on it - don't give in to unhealthy habits. Give the person you want to support the type of support that you would want. Offer help when it’s requested, but let them make their own decisions – those are the ones that will stick. Give them something to compare the craziness in their life to, and let them choose the better path.

  • If you want to help, help yourself first. 
This sound surprisingly selfish, but trust me, and remember that those offering support can - probably will - need support themselves.

Trying to help someone struggling through mental health issues can take everything out of you. Some people need to find their footing before they can set the right boundaries for a good friendship, no matter how badly that's what they'd like to do. And trying to help until that happens can be incredibly frustrating: Because you care, you wish you could do something. So if things get worse, you start to panic and feel as though there's something you could have done. But wishing it doesn't make it true. You can't take on the hardest stuff, even for those you love the most, no matter how much you wish you could, no matter how much they'd like to let you.

And when you think about it, wanting to take all of the hard stuff on for someone else is perverse and patronizing - no one wants to be treated as a child who needs to be taken by the hand. Everyone wants to be able to stand on their own.

It feels selfish to take time for yourself when you know someone who's struggling, but it’s more selfish for a friend to take everything you've got. Be a good friend, but insist on the same for yourself. And take the time you need to take care of yourself. You’re worth it. Realizing just how worth it you are is one of the most important things any of us can do for our own health, and showing someone else that it's OK to make time for yourself is can be one of the best things you can do for them.

And to all those who are fighting to get by: You can find a way to do it. And you're not alone. Please, it doesn't have to be out loud for all to hear, but let's talk.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A story of Kakha Bendukidze

Last week the world lost Kakha Bendukidze. I didn't know him, but I think the stories of people who make the world a freer place go untold too often, so I will tell the only story that I know about him. I heard it from Tom G. Palmer, a living hero of mine. The story is not long, but it will always stick with me:

Kakha Bendukidze was a Georgian-born businessman, public figure, and reformer. He returned to Georgia after a corrupt and brutal regime was overturned and aided in dramatic liberal reforms. To show the end of the days of police brutality and a return to a humane police force, he tore down all of the stations that had become symbols of oppression to the people who lived under the regime of President Eduard Shevardnadze and replaced them with police stations with transparent walls.

From what I know, Kakha spent the better part of the past year working to try to recover and protect the freedom of people in Ukraine.

It can seem easiest to do nothing, unless you are the type of person who can't stand it. From everything that I can tell, Kakha Bendukidze couldn't stand doing nothing when doing good was an option.

I will remember his story.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

#MyOttawa: There's something about The Hill

Photo as posted from Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen
Ottawa. It's not my favourite city, I gripe about it sometimes. But there's something cool about how Canadians 'do' government. It's a different place from, say, Washington, DC, and the Parliament Buildings and their grounds are different from the White House.

Before yesterday, if I'd wanted to, I could walk up to the Parliament buildings, lean against the sandstone and try to identify all the carved sculptures (the most famous being the beaver) above the door through which I've walked many times, and through which I'm fairly sure Michael Zehaf-Bibeau entered yesterday, armed with a rifle and aiming to continue what he'd started by killing unarmed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier a few minutes before.

I suspect that many people in Ottawa are finding, as I am, that the open nature of Parliament and its grounds holds symbolic importance that we'd not taken stock of before yesterday. The lawn on Parliament Hill really is 'our space', and our space is welcoming. In the winter you can make snow angels on the lawn. In the summer it's open on Wednesdays for yoga. On a sunny, breezy, summer day you could have a picnic on Parliament Hill. Why not?

The Hill isn't important because it's where the Canadian government works and sits (though it's that, too) but because it is, in a lot of ways, representative of what makes living in Canada pretty great. It's relatively open, uniquely beautiful, and plucky in a way that makes you happy to be from here. It is not a kitschy tourist attraction that can be sealed off, locked down and treated as off-limits in the way that some, especially those who don't live here, are claiming it should be without changing its nature.

I work about three blocks from the War Memorial three days a week, and was in a meeting across the street from my office when the shootings took place. From the second story of the World Exchange Plaza, I watched SWAT teams running, armed, through the streets. When I tried to look toward Parliament, I was shooed from the windows by security. After a couple of hours, we were allowed to cross the street to return to our office, and a few hours later we left, but could only do so through the South door. I walked West (the East was blocked) and looked toward Parliament Hill to see police at every intersection and no one on the street. The way was blocked. The space was not open. Not even when I first moved here did the city seem so alien.

Zehaf-Bibeau was a coward and a criminal who was handled professionally and effectively by Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vicker, the RCMP, and Ottawa Police. He frightened us all as we waited for word from friends and loved ones under lock down, but no one I've spoken to has been anything but grateful of how first responders treated us while it was in effect. While there are certainly improvements that can be made, such as to security for military guards and how the Parliament Buildings are accessed from the outside, I hope that as the investigation wraps up we do not satisfy a murderer by elevating him to someone capable of changing the generally open, and as we saw yesterday, prepared nature of Ottawa and Parliament Hill. Not, as Andrew Coyne said so well, at the cost of our national spirit.

Ottawa was strong yesterday. We shouldn't react, and we shouldn't be treated, as though we were weak.

Update: Margaret Wente and Scott Gilmore have good columns on this, too.

I'd like to thanks friends who also live or have lived in Ottawa, work or have worked on Parliament Hill, and were under lockdown in different circumstances than I yesterday for their feedback in writing this post. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"A curious but understandable thing happened in the eighteenth century. By then, the cities of Europeans had done well enough by them, mediating between them and many harsh aspects of nature, so that something became popularly possible which previously had been a rarity - sentimentalization of nature, or at any rate, sentimentalization of a rustic or a barbarian relationship with nature[...]

In real life, barbarians (and peasants) are the least free of men - bound by tradition, ridden by caste, fettered by superstitions, riddled by suspicion and foreboding of whatever is strange. "City air makes free," was the medieval saying, when city air literally did make free the runaway serf. City air still makes free the runaways from company towns, from plantations, from factory-farms, from migrant picker routes, from mining villages, from one-class suburbs.

Owing to the mediation of cities, it became popularly possible to regard "nature" as benign, ennobling, and pure, and by extension to regard "natural man" (take your pick of how "natural") as so too. Opposed to all this fictionalized purity, nobility and beneficence, cities, not being fictions, could be considered as seats of malignancy and - obviously - the enemies of nature. And once people begin looking at nature as if it were a nice big St. Bernard dog for the children, what could be more natural than the desire to bring this sentimental pet into the city too, so the city might get some nobility, purity, and beneficence by association?"

- Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Chapter 22, "The kind of problem a city is"

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Activists' privilege and romanticizing famine foods

As a wacky foodie, I am more apt than most to spend the resources (mostly time) to make unusual ingredients taste good, though I won't go to the lengths that restaurants like Noma will. But I understand that this is a luxury, rather than a practical skill. There's a reason tasty preparations of many wild foods are so expensive to come by: they need more resources. That is why it is more expensive. Insisting upon increased reliance on such food will never be the key to lowering the price of food, to sustainability or to increasing accessibility of food for the most desperate. 

I wish that (normally affluent) activists who suggest that people with the most tenuous access to food divert their resources in this direction could see how insensitive they're being. Even the failure to realize that the time it takes to garden, let alone to forage, clean, and boil lichens for three hours, is prohibitively expensive to many people shows how out of touch they are.

That's why Pierre Desrochers is right on the money in this article:
"Although wild ingredients might be free, the attendant foraging and preparation costs are significant. What they would probably find most amazing, however, is that what they typically knew as ‘famine foods’ are now commanding a significant premium over plentiful and convenient things that actually taste good rather than ‘wild’. 
Unfortunately, for many of our remote ancestors, the absence of effective transportation, such as railroads and container ships, meant that they had no choice but to survive on a local diet and, in the process, put all their agricultural eggs into one geographical basket. This was always a recipe for disaster."
Read the whole thing here.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The past without rose-scented kerchiefs.

Those who worry about the pollution and noise that they imagine to be new to cities since the advent and proliferation of car travel have forgotten the horse. Much like a reliance on a home-grown food suppy, we can romanticize and enjoy horses as we do precisely because we are wealthy enough that we no longer rely upon them. Since I first read this excerpt published in The Death and Life of Great American Cities from a description of London in 1890, I've not been able to shake it. The past is lovely seen through the rose-coloured glasses (and scented cloths) of those who never had to live it. 
"The Strand in those days... was the throbbing heart of the people's essential London. Hedged by a maze of continuous alleys and courts, the Strand was fronted by numbers of little restaurants whose windows vaunted exquisite feeding; taverns, dives, oyster and wine bars, ham and beef shops; and small shops marketing a lively variety of curious or workaday things all standing in rank, shoulder to shoulder, to fill the spaces between its many theatres... But the mud! [A euphemism.] And the noise! And the smell! All these blemishes were [the] mark of [the] horse... 
The whole of London's crowded wheeled traffic - which in parts of the City was at times dense beyond movement - was dependent on the horse: lorry, wagon, bus, hansom and "growler," and coaches and carriages and private vehicles of all kinds, were appendages to horses. Meredith refers to the "anticipatory stench of its cab-stands" on railway approach to London: but the characteristic aroma - for the nose recognized London with gay excitement - was of stables, which were commonly of three or four storeys with inclined ways zigzagging up the faces of them; [their] middens kept the castiron filigree chandeliers, that glorified the reception rooms of upper and lower middle class homes throughout London, encrusted with dead flies and, in late summer, veiled with jiving clouds of them. 
A more assertive mark of the horse was the mud that, despite the activities of a numerous corps of red-jacketed boys who dodged among wheels and hooves with pan and brush in service to iron bins at the pavement-edge, either flooded the streets with churnings of "pea soup" that at times collected in pools overbrimming the kerbs, and at others covered the road-service as with axle grease or bran-laden dust to the distraction of the wayfarer. In the first case, the swift-moving hansom or gig would fling sheets of such soup - where not intercepted by trousers or skirts - completely across the pavement, so that the frontages of the Strand throughout its length had an eighteen-inch plinth of mud-parge thus imposed upon it. The pea-soup condition was met by wheeled "mud-carts" each attended by two ladlers clothed as for Icelandic seas in thigh boots, oilskins collared to the chin, and sou'westers sealing in the back of the neck. Splash Ho! The foot passenger now gets the mud [still a euphemism] in his eye! The axle-grease condition was met by horse-mechanized brushes and travellers in the small hours found fire-hoses washing away residues... 
And after the mud the noise, which, again endowed by the horse, surged like a mighty heart-beat in the central districts of London's life. It was a thing beyond all imaginings. The streets of workaday London were uniformly paved in "granite" sets... and the hammering of a multitude of iron-shod hairy heels upon [them], the deafening, side-drum tatoo of tyred wheels jarring from the apex of one set to the next like sticks dragging along a fence; the creaking and groaning and chirping and rattling of vehicles, light and heavy, thus maltreated; the jangling of chain harness and the clanging or jingling of every other conceivable thing else, augmented by the shrieking and bellowings called for from those of God's creatures who desired to impart information or proffer a request vocally - raised a din that... is beyond conception. It was not any such paltry thing as noise. It was an immensity of sound..." (pp. 341-342, December 1992 Vintage Books edition)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Tools of power and power over tools

My friends on the left often advocate the use of public powers that have been used (or were originally intended) to suppress causes they would have sympathised with. Examples include occupational licensing, closed shop union legislation, the minimum wage, and urban planning.

The reconstruction of Paris between 1853 and 1869 by Haussmann and Napoleon was designed to control uprisings by breaking up and moving working-class neighbourhoods and facilitating troop movement though the city, but it also aimed to make Paris manageable for bureaucrats, planners, businesses, and tax collectors, and more comfortable for the bourgeoisie.

The intent of city plans is to make a city and its neighbourhoods understandable to those tasked with administering them. Poor neighbourhoods with complex streets, housing arrangements, and social relationships are likely administered by a college-educated planner who, odds are, has very little experience with how the poor live.

Asymmetrical access to power includes the power to create and implement plans, resulting in plans that demolish poor (though, according to their residents, functioning) minority neighbourhoods like Black Bottom in Detroit or Africville in Halifax, far more frequently than the neighbourhoods of better enfranchised residents.

The hope is that tools like urban planning can be used for good, but the ability to turn them back to their original intent shouldn't be ignored given the state's history of structural discrimination in support of the status quo.

This post was inspired by my ongoing reading of Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Declare Independence

It seems like you're supposed to feel old as you leave your twenties, but getting older is actually pretty awesome. If you have the right attitude about your twenties you'll love them but you'll never want to do that again. It's the perfect time to figure out what kind of person you are and the type of person you want to be. The things that happen are important, formative, fun, and exhausting. You make mistakes because you're supposed to make mistakes. Be smart. Learn from them. You'll be fine.

Today I'm 30 years old. I'm an early millennial. We grew up in the dying days of the way things used to be - and everyone's exasperated with us for it.

People develop theories about how the world should work. They don't like randomness, especially when it comes to failure. They want explanations and to be able to point to something that "went wrong." There was, therefore, a formula for a successful life:

        • study hard 
        • extracurriculars
        • get into good school
        • go to good school
        • study useful topic
        • get good, stable job
        • ??? (inserted as the futility became more obvious)
        • grown up!

Millennials attended elementary and high school under the long and fading shadow of what success used to look like, then saw it pass over us completely. We're the generation whose lives ended all illusions that the old model might pull through. Without it nobody seems to know what success should look, but they don't seem happy that they can't recognize what we're doing. We don't conform to old expectations: we don't get married earlywe don't buy carswe don't buy homes. We don't do the things that people think we ought to do when they think we ought to do them to make things the way they think they ought to be because that's they way they've always been! (It's not, but nevermind.)

Those aren't the only expectations we don't fulfill. Governments and banks do not deal well with change, and we're changing things. The forms for the lives we're choosing aren't standard. When you need to provide a permanent address, what do you do if it's on the road, or in a van? Gay marriage has extended legal equality to another type of committed, long-term relationship, but it's not like everyone's covered. Like the flexibility of contract work? (I do!) Get ready to learn about the obscure side of a tax system that's designed to handle one employer with matching employee tax forms using pre-calculated, automatic deductions.

Millennials are figuring out how to set our own course, but it feels like the world is trying harder than ever to entrench standardized systems for interchangeable pieces into which we just. don't. fit. The longer we try to achieve a version of success designed by people who think they know what's best for us better than we do, the longer we'll flounder.

We have different ideas of what life ought to look like - we want things to be the way we think they should be. And, by the way, that's not demanding and obnoxious. That's awesome. It's an attitude that can drive change and make things more responsive. It rejects stagnation. It can make things better. Let's want that. Let's not settle out of fear of seeming spoiled.

Let's stop looking backward and choose to move forward. Let's define success at the individual level. The old convention of a stable, lifelong job is over for nearly everyone. Maybe the key lesson for a generation at which so much negativity has been directed is to worry less about what other people think our success ought to be. Life isn't about control. You don't need all the answers to live it. Life is about figuring them out. The longer you work toward it, the further you'll get.

So I guess it's a good thing I'm 30. Happy birthday to me.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

War is never good for prosperity

The following was intended to be a letter to the New York Times, but I came across the article in question too late to send my response to them.
I am typically a fan of Tyler Cowen’s work, so I was disappointed to read his piece, "The Lack of Major Wars May Be Hurting Economic Growth." (June 13, 2014) 
In an era without the existential threat of total war, it’s true that powerful economic interests can take precedence over “the national interest” driving government decision making. The politically connected are invested in the economic status quo that produced their success and privileged status. The policies that they favour will be geared toward slowing changes that could endanger their relative positions if they cannot stop them completely. Rapid economic growth has never happened without changing that status quo.

War is not the only – and should not be anyone’s – preferred strategy for countering the powerful economic interests that push policies that slow growth. We need not choose between peace and prosperity, but we must choose between prosperity and planned predictability.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ontario, it's OK to not vote.

OK, enthusiastic voting advocates, here's the deal:

Your "right to complain" and participate as part of civil society is most certainly not handed out as a prize for voting. There are more meaningful ways that you can contribute to the world than by sticking a piece of paper in a cardboard box once every few years.

If you want to vote, vote well. If you don't think you can vote well with the time you have available today, it's ok! There are a lot of ways that you can make the world a better place. Today isn't your only chance.

How to vote well:
If you're going to vote, you should do it responsibly. Reading the platforms written by the advertisers for each party is not informing yourself. You should, at a minimum, have read some basic economics. Understood the trade-offs that each policy stand that you take are likely to have, and decided that those trade-offs *are worth it* - not that they don't matter or don't exist. You should try to identify your own cognitive biases and do your best to overcome them before making a decision. You need to be comfortable with the idea that any policy that you're approving for your own benefit can be used by someone you disagree with in the future.

The idea that everybody ought to vote comes from the idea that so long as enough of us vote, we cancel out each others' mistakes and come up with the best solution. But if voters don't overcome their policy misconceptions, the more people vote, the more wrong the outcome will be.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Read for ideas, not identity.

Attending a conference by The Libertia Society, "Write-Hers for Liberty," last weekend got me thinking about why it's good to read more female authors. I don't think it's because they're women. Nothing about women, or the way they think or experience the world, is fundamentally different. Their work should be judged on its merits, not by its source.

Someone looking for a balanced understanding may feel they ought to read something written from "a woman's perspective" because women are more likely to have had certain experiences. But experiential knowledge is important because of the experience, not because the person writing about it falls into the right category.

The reason to seek out women in the liberal tradition is that they are poorly represented in the popular canon in spite of having made valuable contributions. Those who haven't read Rose Wilder Lane's Credo miss the insights of an intellectual journey from communism to liberalism. Failing to read Voltairine de Cleyre's Anarchism means missing a passionate, rather than analytical, defense of radical individualism. And those who don't read passages like this one from Isabel Paterson's The Golden Vanity might neglect the importance of choosing one's own way in life as a search for truth and meaning. The Libertia Society is helping to correct one deficiency in the material that liberals read, not basing its mission on a belief about the value of female authors as female authors.

People interested in ideas should resist the urge to read someone because they are a woman or a man, because they are trans, gay, bisexual, monogamous, polyamorous, Jewish, Buddhist, black, white, Burmese, or anything else. To do so comes uncomfortably close to not reading them because they fall into any particular category.

Read about things you don't understand until you do. Find good work. Think about it. Share and support it. Don't worry about where it comes from.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Inclusive liberty or no liberty at all

Inclusive liberal democratic societies face a challenge: What happens if the people we allow to participate don't want to be free? Do loose immigration policies and multiculturalism endanger freedom?

The concern of the day (though historically I doubt it's exceptional) is about Muslims. The argument goes like this: "Muslims have a higher birth rate than other groups in Western countries, and many of them want something like Sharia law and an Islamic state. Islam lacks an appreciation for the civic virtues that support liberal democracies in primarily Judeo-Christian countries. If we admit Muslims freely and allow them to vote, they will become too powerful and we will end up less free - or not free at all."

I don't believe any part of that is true, but let's suppose that all of it was. What's a liberal democracy to do?

I argued earlier that the way to promote the virtues that support a free society is to practice (and test and defend) them, and that practicing them is done by standing up for one another. If it is to be meaningful and robust, liberalism must be a fundamentally cooperative and inclusive exercise.

If we make concessions that allow infringements on the liberties of others, however targeted they may be, we erode support for the values we claim we're trying to save. If our liberal institutions are in danger, we are making them more vulnerable by allowing targeted concessions.

If the laws and values of a liberal society are not robust to the challenges presented by a specific group, they are not robust at all. Those who are willing to make exceptions because of one perceived threat open the door to others. They should not be surprised if they are blindsided - perhaps by those they empowered to make their exceptions.

There is no quick and easy solution. Liberty is a collaborative exercise, not a free-for-all. If we want to preserve the foundations of a liberal society, we must enforce them. The best, maybe the only, way to do that is to insist they are upheld consistently and for everyone.

What are the virtues of a free society?

What role does virtue play in establishing or maintaining a liberal polity? What virtues play that role? How can we best foster those virtues?

Ask a group of economists and a group of philosophers the first question and you may see them split down the middle: Economists tell you that you need to get the incentives right, while philosophers insist that it's all about virtue. Incentives are definitely important - but what do we do when the rules, and the incentives to fix them, are wrong? That's where virtue, or something like it, comes in.

I'm convinced the relevant virtues must include humility (we don't know all the answers to complex problems or what's best for others), respect (because we don't know what's best), patience (fostering prudence), vigilance for and tenacity in the face of adversity, and creativity (problem solving). They are built through habit, but must be justified by results and through discussion.

As liberals, nothing should upset us more than when the state forces us to act worse than we are. When laws prohibit us from feeding the homeless, or paying for someone else's parking, we need to stand up for one another. Tenacious insistence on not only our own ability, but the ability of others to act decently - to be free! - emboldens us to stand against further injustice. It builds relationships with those we defend. It teaches us the cooperative skills (bolstered by humility and respect) that are needed to find meaningful solutions to complex societal problems that are otherwise tossed to the government and forgotten.

The virtues that support a liberal society are not what we think of as heroic virtues. They are built on small acts that lie within reach for each and every one of us.