David R. Henderson  

Canada's Election Outcome

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Co-blogger Scott Sumner writes:

Yesterday's win for the Canadian Liberals was a huge win for libertarian policies in North America:

If Scott had simply inserted the word "some" before "libertarian," I would agree with him. He has correctly identified the most libertarian part of Justin Trudeau's campaign platform: the call for legalizing marijuana.

But I think we need to look at more details to judge whether this was "a huge win for libertarian policies in North America." In measuring freedom, it is always hard to judge a government that has many policy proposals because some proposals go in favor of freedom and some go against. Justin Trudeau has advocated both kinds.

But I don't want to get to those issues until a later post, when I've had time to look at details. For now, I want to explain what I think happened in the election, specifically why Harper lost so many seats and Trudeau gained so many.

So here's some background. I'm giving it because I was just on the phone with an American friend who follows politics closely but knew nothing about the players in Canada or some of the history. And I've been watching U.S. news channels and seeing that there's a lot they've missed. I follow Canadian politics somewhat closely because I grew up in Canada and lived there until I was almost 22, and still have Canadian citizenship as well as American.

Start with Stephen Harper, the current Prime Minister. When he became Prime Minister in 2006, a number of my Canadian libertarian friends and I were excited. He seemed like almost one of us. He had earned his Masters in Economics and read and understood people like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. He also had had a huge role, on the outside, pushing for cuts in the federal budget in the mid to late-1990s. (See footnote 18 of my Mercatus study.) But, over time, he became less and less libertarian. He also seems to have perfected micro politics: thinking about policy changes that will appeal to this or that voting bloc independent of whether the policies fit with an overall philosophy.

Take the niqab. Here's what Zack Beauchamp wrote early in October:

Unlike a standard headscarf, a niqab covers both a wearer's hair and face, excluding the eyes (this BBC illustrated guide is helpful if you're confused). It's not especially common among Muslims in North America -- but one woman, named Zunera Ishaq, wanted to wear it to her Canadian citizenship ceremony in January 2014.

She wasn't allowed. Back in 2011, Harper's government had banned the wearing of niqabs during such ceremonies, and Ishaq couldn't become a citizen until she underwent the ceremony. That forced her to choose between wearing clothes she saw as a religious obligation and becoming a citizen in her adoptive country. Ishaq sued the government, arguing that this policy violated her rights -- and this February, she won. That was the beginning of the 2015 niqab controversy in Canada.

By the way, she was willing to identify herself privately by taking off the niqab, but insisted on wearing the niqab to the ceremony.

Beauchamp tells about it in more detail. Harper made this a campaign issue and it seems to have backfired on him, especially when, as Beauchamp writes, "A few days ago, Harper's government proposed a specialized tip line for reporting "barbaric cultural practices," which it said included honor killings." My impression is that many Canadians saw this as going too far in an anti-Muslim direction. And Justin Trudeau made political hay over the niqab issue.

Also, after the man who murdered a Canadian soldier went into the Parliament building and started shooting before he was killed by an heroic government official, Harper went on TV and said, "We will not be intimidated. Canada will never be intimidated." His being unintimidated lasted only a short time because his government put together a bill, C-51, kind of Canada's version of parts of the USA PATRIOT Act. Justin Trudeau argued for amendments in Parliament and the Conservative government made enough amendments to get Trudeau's support. But he says he would like to alter it further. According to the Canadian magazine Maclean's:

He [Trudeau] went on to offer some examples of changes he would make if he becomes prime minister by winning the election slated for Oct. 19, including "narrowing and limiting the kinds of new powers that CSIS and national security agencies would have." Trudeau also said the Liberals would bring in mandatory review of the Anti-Terrorism Act every three years, and introduce oversight of CSIS by a committee of MPs.

One other piece of context is that Stephen Harper has further centralized an already centralized government. Here's how conservative Canadian Conrad Black put it:
Harper has gagged Parliament (and probably misled it in the Mike Duffy affair), and garrotted his own cabinet and caucus, but has sat as silent and inert as a suet pudding while the courts of the country, incited by the jurisdictionally putschist chief justice, Beverley McLachlin, have steadily assumed the rights of the federal and provincial legislatures under the authority of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Pierre Trudeau promoted the charter as an antidote to endless dispute over the federal-provincial division of powers, not as a matrix for the emasculation of legislators.

Finally, Harper became totally unhinged when discussing marijuana legalization, saying, two weeks before the election, that marijuana is "infinitely worse" than tobacco.

So that's the setting for this election. My own view is that if Harper had resigned, say a year ago, his replacement would either have won a majority or have won a plurality of seats in Parliament.That's how much it appears that this election was personal. Many people, even his otherwise allies like Conrad Black, dislike Harper.

In a few days, I'll write about other Trudeau policy views besides his views on marijuana, both good (of which there are a few) and bad (of which there are probably more than a few.)

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory

COMMENTS (13 to date)

Probably I agree with you, David, that pot legalization alone does not make a libertarian land. I suppose that the best human order, while ridding itself of coercive constraints (of "government" as commonly understood), must build networks of voluntary constraint. We can benefit from society (and trade) only to the extent that others are trustworthy.

So, what news would I hear as good news? Stories of people taking on responsibility. Of people making and showing themselves to be trustworthy. Stories of, for examples:

  • people who want to smoke pot showing they will take responsibility for any ill effects which may ensue, and
  • government making such self-responsibility possible by repealing paternalistic interventions.
That's my beautiful theory. But the trouble with my theory is that no medium (news organization) can make a living conveying such stories. Maybe, but I'm still trying to figure it out.

RPLong writes:

I was living in Canada when the Conservatives originally ousted the Liberal Party. I was very surprised by how different the Conservative Party was, compared to Harper's rhetoric when he was the head of the Alliance Party. But I chalked that up to compromises he had to make in order to form a coalition party with the PCs.

I remember how shocked everyone I knew in Alberta was when the Conservatives changed the tax rules on income trusts. These were important investments for two key Conservative segments: the oil industry, and senior citizens in the west who had come to rely on income trusts as retirement income. (I knew many such seniors who had donated to the Harper campaign.)

For me, that was when it was clear that Harper was not even remotely a libertarian, and the policies he enacted over the ensuing years felt like a long, slow series of disappointments to me.

One thing I do like about the Liberal victory: I'm glad there is still a center-left option for Canada, besides the more extreme NDP. For a short while, that, too, was in doubt.

ThomasH writes:

What a great country where imposing a ban on the niqab would be unpopular enough to be a factor in the election. Oh Canada!

Nathan W writes:

That "reporting "barbaric cultural practices,"" idea was beyond silly. It involved a bunch of things that are already illegal, and that any decent citizen would already report on, and was obviously designed as a part of his racist dogwhistle campaign strategy.

RPLong - if the Harper Conservatives had been anything like what they promised when they won the 2006 election, they probably would have been in power for a very long time.

But I lost all faith in them on day 1. In his very first public appearance, he answered pre-approved softball questions only. There is no trusting a political "leader" that is unwilling to face tough questions. This foreshadowed an era of the greatest level of government secrecy and muzzling experienced in Canadian history.

And their first budget made it plain as day that they planned to run roughshod over the constitution, which they did. They eliminated a $3 million annual fund for people to challenge government decisions on the basis of constitutionality. For such a piddling amount of money, there was only one possible conclusion: they planned to do unconstitutional things which would affect people who couldn't afford to pay their own legal fees. This ultimately proved very true as well.

Alex writes:

"My own view is that if Harper had resigned, say a year ago, his replacement would either have won a majority or have won a plurality of seats in Parliament.That's how much it appears that this election was personal."

This seems to be consistent with what conservative-candidate campaign managers have been saying in the post-election fall out: local voters often liked their conservative candidates, but their dislike of Harper was greater.

Jason Clemens writes:


Nice piece! There's no way this election should be interpreted as a libertarian win. Just check out the platform of the Liberal Party. Also, the polling is pretty convincing, to me at least, that this was largely a beauty contest rather than a policy or ideas-based decision on the part of the electorate. Simply put, Harper was personally unpopular and the electorate wanted him gone.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Jason Clemens,
Thanks. Re libertarian win, recall that it was my co-blogger Scott who made that claim and he did it on some pretty limited evidence. I will get into all this, as promised, in my next post.

Karen Selick writes:

Unfortunately, Justin doesn't even do a good job on the marijuana issue. He plans to legalize possession and consumption, but not production. Canada already has an oligopoly of companies licensed to produce medical marijuana. They are wrapped up in miles of regulatory red tape. Individuals can't just grow their own medical marijuana. And Justin plans to maintain these restrictions on production.

Tom West writes:

I will admit that dislike of the Harper government had a lot more to do with the subtle changes that he made more than his wider policies.

Choices like making the civil servants responsible to the government rather than to the Canadian people or removing the mandate of Elections Canada to encourage people to vote, or simply making it more difficult for Canadians to vote are subtle changes that damage the institutions that the Canada runs upon for seeming political gain.

I can imagine it would be fun to play Diplomacy with Harper, for it is a game where absolutely everything is subordinate to the goal of winning. However, I don't think that same attitude is ideal for ruling a country.

Janet Neilson writes:

I stand by my assessment that Harper was as good on paper before he was Prime Minister as anyone libertarians have been excited about. It was worth being happy in 2006. I quit politics completely after his second budget, in 2007, because that was, imo, as good as we're ever going to do.

His MA wasn't just in econ, his thesis was on the ineffectiveness of Keynesian policies. He didn't like to be called a libertarian, but it was because he didn't like the 'atheistic' connotations (I suspect he was conflating with objectivism) and said he preferred to be called a classical liberal. He'd said to supporters that he wasn't so concerned about things like drugs. He had quit politics on principle to run a pressure group for smaller government and sued the government to fight campaign finance laws in the name of free speech. His writing (scrubbed from the Internet surprisingly effectively) was inspiring for anyone who wanted smaller, less intrusive government.

I think he did much more good as that guy putting pressure on the leaders of the government than he did as a big-spending PM who eliminated the mainstream public voice in favour of principled support for balanced budgets.

Nathan W writes:

Janet - In his younger years he also helped to found the Northern Foundation, a white supremacist group. And numerous times in speeches delivered in the USA he expressed his hatred and disdain for Canada in a great number of ways.

Would you praise the on-paper creds of a guy who delivered a speech including the following? "Human rights commissions, as they are evolving, are an attack on our fundamental freedoms and the basic existence of a democratic society... It is in fact totalitarianism. I find this is very scary stuff."

That, from a man who tried to operate the entire governing apparatus as his personal fiefdom through the PMO.

Jonathan writes:

When is that second post on Trudeaus policy coming out?

David R. Henderson writes:

When is that second post on Trudeaus policy coming out?
Soon. It’s a long platform and a bit of a dog’s breakfast. I’ve given up on my idea of being comprehensive. Instead, I’ll make a bunch of judgment calls about what’s important.

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