David R. Henderson  

Respect for Authority: The Case of Canada

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Last September, my friend Stephen Cox wrote an excellent obituary of another friend of mine, Ronald Hamowy. Here's one paragraph that got me thinking:

Ronald was a professor in the Department of History at the University of Alberta from 1969 until his retirement in 1998, at which time he immediately moved back to the United States. He detested conformist cultures, and he regarded both his department and, it is fair to say, Canada itself as epitomes of conformism. I once asked him what was wrong with Canada, and he said, "I'll tell you. If you walk into a store in Canada, and you find a customer having a dispute with a sales clerk, 90% of the other customers will immediately side with the clerk. That person is regarded as an official, and therefore the one to obey." He attributed this defect of Canadian culture in large part to the migration to Canada of people opposed to the American Revolution. They set the tone.

Ron--and Steve with this paragraph--have put their finger on one of the things that most upset me when I was growing up in Canada. But now that I have lived in the United States for over 40 years, I am torn. Actually, I've been torn since 1980, when I tried to write a book review of Edgar J. Friedenberg's Deference to Authority: The Case of Canada for Libertarian Review. When you write about something, you have to think harder than if you just read something and put it down.

On the one hand, within days of moving to Los Angeles in September 1972, I had become aware of how different Americans are from Canadians in this respect. And I came down on the side of Americans.

But here's why I'm torn. I think there are two kinds of authority--and both Friedenberg and Hamowy muddle them.

The kind of authority that I like Americans resisting is government authority. Here's a piece I wrote in 2010, on the 40th anniversary of a Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, claiming totalitarian powers. But, by the way, if you think that Americans still do that, you probably haven't traveled by commercial airline in the United States for, oh, about 11 years. Nevertheless, it is true, I think, that Americans still resist government authority more than Canadians do. Even there, though, there's a problem. What if, perish the thought, the government is doing something good? So what if, for example, the policeman is pursuing a murder suspect that he has good grounds to suspect? If I thought the policeman had good grounds, I would want to help him. So I would be deferring to, or respecting, authority.

The second kind of authority that I think you should respect is private authority where it is backed by something credible. Take Hamowy's example that Cox quotes:

If you walk into a store in Canada, and you find a customer having a dispute with a sales clerk, 90% of the other customers will immediately side with the clerk.

Notice that Hamowy said that this is a defect. Why? Shouldn't it depend on whether the sales clerk or the customer is right? I don't know about you, but I've been in many lines where there are disputes between customers and clerks and I would say that at least 80% of the time, the clerk is in the right. The customer didn't bring back his receipt, he didn't bring back the product within 14 days of purchase, or whatever. So if Hamowy was saying that 90% of Canadians side with the clerk vs., say, 40% of Americans, then I think the Canadians were closer to the right answer.

By the way, that's why I never finished my review. Of course, now I realize that I should have written the review that way--telling the reader why I'm torn.

P.S. As regular readers know, I usually try to answer commenters in the comments. Today, though, I'm in Manhattan to tape a segment with John Stossel for his Thursday show. So it's likely that my response(s) to commenters will be delayed until Wednesday.

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Hazel Meade writes:

I also grew up in Canada, and after living in the states for a few years, came down on the American side.

I recall in Canada attending "Social Studies" class. I can't recall if there is an analogy in the US, but the Canadian version essentially is a mixture of patriotic Canadian propaganda and political indoctrination. It essentially consisted of the teacher leading a series of debates about differences between the US and Canada. With, of course, the inevitable conclusion being that Canada was better.

But the one that struck me as the wierdest was how they compared America's "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", to Canada's "peace, order, and good government", as defining words in their respective constitutions.
America is all about liberty, and Canada is all about order. I picked liberty.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Hazel Meade,
All good points.
To these, I would add two:
1. My guess is that you learned your U.S. history on your own, as I did. But when I talk to Americans my age, they tell me that they learned a lot of U.S. propaganda in class. However much he might have overstated things, there's a reason Howard Zinn's book struck a nerve.
2. One of the places where you might expect to see the greatest propaganda in Canadian history courses is the war of 1812-14. But my vague recall is that my teacher, Mrs. Nicholson, played it straight. I didn't come out thinking either side was the good guy.

Ken B writes:

I too am a Canadian living and working in the USA. I second most of what David says (not about Zinn, whom I have not read.)

I get accused of being more American than Canadian by a lot of Canadians. The odd thing is that while I am and intend to remain Canadian, I also think that very often I am in some ways more American than most Americans. And those ways include ones I suspect David would reject. I believe in American exceptionalism (I just think we're part of it, as are a few other countries), and I think "American scripture" is important, and wonderful. I like to tweak Canadian friends with the Gettysburg address or the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. For all our virtues we have nothing like that, and it's too bad. You couldn't make Mr Smith Goes To Ottawa either, but not for the right reasons, and that's too bad too.

Hazel Meade writes:

Ken B, Yes, I get that a lot too. Canadians are strangely preoccupied with their cultural purity (particularly for a culture that prides itself on being multi-cultural). Spend too much time in the US, or, especially, develop too positive a view of the US, and it's "oh no, you're Americanized now!".

Matt C writes:

As I get older I do find myself adopting more old person attitudes.

I used to think that the less Americans respected their government, the better. Less respect meant less trust, which meant less power for the state over the long run.

We got the less respect, but it didn't work out the way I expected. If it led to anything, it was only to lower expectations and a higher tolerance for open lies, dirty dealing, and gross irresponsibility.


Ken B writes:

The ironic thing Hazel, is that is probably LESS true of me now than before I moved here, due to changing my mind on a few issues. One thing in particular though I like more about America than I did before is that American society is better at judging people by their capabilities and actions, not who they are or where they come from (a judgment most Canadians will violently reject).

Mike writes:

Despite being Canadian (and somewhat nonconformist), I think one has to be clear about what conformism means. Americans are pretty clear in their idolatry of power. I read Gene Healy's Cult of the Presidency and I think his analysis could easily extend to other aspects of American life. Does median American acceptance--even enthusiasm--for government imperialism, or other violations of basic freedoms, not suggest there is a deep acceptance of authority? Look at the huge swathes of former anti-war protesters who are now totally cool with drone killings. They haven't changed their minds because they gave the issue a lot of thought.

On the other, Canada's drab social conventions and distaste for overt individualism might be more what Hamowy was referring to. There is indeed a knee-jerk anti-Americanism in some quarters, but that is driven largely by a visible minority of those with access to media, political messages, etc. But if you look at international opinion polls, the only country on Earth more pro-American than Canada is Israel.

Philo writes:

“I usually try to answer commenters in the comments.” That’s good of you, and we commenters appreciate it. Of course, you’re not up to Scott Sumner’s standard in this respect, but who is?

John Thacker writes:

Here, enjoy this montage of people refusing to cooperate with DHS checkpoints, David. It might warm your heart.

David Henderson,
I am confused about the history of your graduate education. I think I remember you telling that you were moved to consider graduate school at U. Chicago when a professor from that school gave a talk at your undergraduate school in Canada. But recently I've been reading about your graduate education at UCLA. I hope I can read the complete report sometime.

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks. And you're right that I'm not up to Scott's standard but I was amazed when he told me how much time he spends on blogs.
@John Thacker,
Thanks. I watched the whole thing. Very heartening.
@Richard O. Hammer,
You remembered correctly. I tell the longer story in "Hooked on Economics," Chapter 2 of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey, which I'm going to try to put out on Kindle this summer. Short version: U. of Chicago, VPI, U. of Virginia, and UCLA all made offers. UCLA made the best one.

Joe Cushing writes:

In your two examples of times to respect authority, I don't see you showing any respect for authority. What you are showing respect for is the truth.

More and more, America is becoming the land of Checkpoints. While most of us have completely submitted to the TSA checkpoints because they have the power to keep you from flying, there is some resistance at DUI and interior border patrol checkpoints. There are many YouTube videos of people who refuse to answer the questions of either authority as is their 5th amendment right to not do so. Even when the police overstep their power and arrest people, they still hold firm and refuse to answer.

yet another david writes:

Hi David, I am a libertarian still living in Canada. I used to think that the US was freer, that it was kind of a promised land from a liberty perspective, that Americans were less deferential to authority and that the US was so lucky to have its liberty-based "founding myths" and its longer-lived, more explicit, constitution. I have a more nuanced view now. In fact, notwithstanding Canada's big government mentality, I think I am likely to be freer in Canada now and in the future than in most parts of the US. There are many dimensions to our loss of liberty and in any given country, one may be further ahead along some dimensions and worse off on others.

On the deference thing, I would make a few points.

1) Canadians are far less in thrall to and enthusiastic about foreign military adventurism than Americans (there's no "Canadian exceptionalism" as far as I am aware) and, as we all know, "war is the health of the state".

2) Americans are certainly noisier in their lack of deference and, in particular, make more vigorous use of their free speech rights (of which they probably have more than Canadians, at least for now). However, as an empirical matter, whatever lack of deference existed (perhaps it was not so widely distributed as commonly thought?), it has been insufficient to stop, or even slow, it appears, the steamroller advance of the state.

3) Canadians have nothing even remotely approaching the kind of reverential awe that Americans do for their leaders (e.g. all together now, in hushed tones: "the Office of the President"). I live in Ottawa and most seem to view politicians, even senior politicians, as other ordinary Canadians who happen to hold office for awhile, not members of an imperial class or otherwise sacred individuals. Ex-prime ministers and even current senior ministers don't have an entourage and swarms of security people in the way that their US counterparts do. Canadians like the Queen, it's true, but she doesn't have a kill list or any other powers. (Related: see Americans' reverence for that ultimate symbol, that graven image, of the state - the flag)

4) Deference is sometimes the result of an expectation of or belief in legitimacy. It appears to me that while Canada has big government, the state is less openly aggressive towards its own people. I am thinking here of the grotesquely vicious US "justice" system, the surveillance state, the proposed ex-Patriot Act, kill lists/drones, etc. One might characterize it as the US government showing almost no deference whatsoever towards it own citizens. Put another way, I am not sure that Americans are any better than anyone else at demanding the deference they are due from the state. When confronting that part of the state that can imprison you or seize your property, it appears to me that one is better off in Canada than in the US. (David, I don't know whether you followed Conrad Black's case in the US, but it is instructive. I also found it a sickening expression of arbitrary state power. In addition, a certain member of the appellate judiciary often revered amongst free-marketish economists showed what appeared to me in my innocence as a shocking lack of concern for a man's liberty. My illusions of American liberty were crushed. A Canadian lawyer named Steven Skurka wrote a reputedly good book about it entitled"Tilted").

5) Contrary to what one might expect, I think reliance on custom and evolved tradition in common law and parliamentary procedure can encourage an element of "state deference". More explicit or highly codified rules provide a "bright line" up to which the state knows it can safely expand and also provide a target for creative and perverse interpretation so that, over time, with the help of a compliant judiciary, it can be successfully drained of meaning (see: US Consitution).

6) Judging from the extent of coverage in mainstream media outlets, I think concern over police brutality or excessive force may have been more widespread in Canada than in the US and appears to have had some affect (inquiries, etc.).

7) If Americans were as magnificently lacking in deference to authority as is commonly claimed, Ron Paul or Gary Johnson would now be President.

8) Canadians don't put their hands over their hearts during the national anthem.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

May I suggest a different perspective on the example given of Canadian responses?

First, consider that there is a difference between conformity of conduct and "recognition" of authority (or submission).

In the case of a sales clerk, it is altogether likely that most Canadians would see the position of the sales clerk as "serving" customers; thus, while not servile, being in the position of "service" hence on the defensive.

Canadians, and a large segment of rural Americans might see that position of the sales clerk as the position of an "underdog" in a "tilted" contest. It may very well be more a matter of sympathy than inclination toward authority. Sympathies generally have a commonality in any culture that may appear as conformity.

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