Model, Politics, Quick Fix

They don’t hate your values; they just assign them no weight

[3-minute read]

Content Warning: Extensive discussion of the morality of abortion

Previously, I talked about akrasia as one motive for socially conservative legislation. I think the akrasia model is useful when explaining certain classes of seemingly hypocritical behaviour, but it’s far from the only reason for social conservatives to push for legislation that liberals oppose. At least some legislation comes from a desire to force socially conservative values on everyone [1].

Liberals are terrible at understanding the values underlying conservative legislation. When an anti-abortion single issue voter took a reproductive rights seminar at Yale, he was surprised to hear that many of his classmates believed that anti-abortion laws were aimed entirely at controlling women’s sexuality, rather than stopping the (to his eyes) moral crime of abortion [2].

This is an easy mistake to make. It’s true that limiting abortion also limits women’s financial and sexual freedom. In the vast majority of cases it’s false to claim that this is a plus for the most vociferous opponents of abortion. To their detriment it also isn’t a minus. For many of the staunchest opponents of abortion, the financial or sexual freedom of women plays no role at all in their position. Held against the life of a fetus, these freedoms are (morally) worthless.

People opposed to abortion who also value these things tend to take more moderate positions. For them, their stance on abortion is a trade-off between two valuable things (the life of a fetus and the freedoms of the mother). I know some younger Catholics who fall into this category. Then tend to be of the position that things that reduce abortion (like sexual education, free prenatal care, free daycare, and contraceptive use) are all very good, but they rarely advocate for the complete abolition of abortion (except by restructuring society such that no woman feels the need for one).

Total opposition to abortion is only possible when you hold the benefits of abortion as far less morally relevant than the costs. Total support likewise. If I viewed a fetus to be as morally relevant as a born person, I could not support abortion rights to the extent I do.

The equation views my values as morally meaningless + argues strongly for things that would hurt those values can very easily appear to come out to holds the opposite of my values. But this doesn’t have to be the case! Most anti-abortion advocates aren’t trying to paper over women’s sexual freedoms (with abortion laws). Most abortion supporters aren’t reveling in the termination of pregnancies.

This mistake is especially easy to make because you have every incentive to caricature your political enemies. It’s especially pernicious though, because it makes it so hard to productively talk about any area where you disagree. You and your opponents both think that you are utterly opposed and for either to triumph, the other must lose. It’s only when you see that your values are orthogonal, not opposed that you have any hope for compromise.

I think the benefits of this model lie primarily in sympathy and empathy. Understanding that anti-abortion advocates aren’t literally trying to reduce the financial security and sexual freedom of women doesn’t change the fact that their policies have the practical effects of accomplishing these things. I’m still going to oppose them on the grounds of the consequences of their actions, even if I no longer believe that they’re at all motivated by those specific consequences.

But empathy isn’t useless! There’s something to be said for the productivity of a dialogue when you don’t believe that the other side hates everything about your values! You can try and find common values and make compromises based on those. You can convince people more effectively when you accurately understand their beliefs and values. These can be instrumentally useful when trying to convince people of your point or when advocating for your preferred laws.

Abortion gave me the clearest example of orthogonal values, but it might actually be the hardest place to find any compromise. Strongly held orthogonal values can still lead to gridlock. If not abortion, where is mutually beneficial compromise possible? Where else do liberals argue with only a caricature of their opponents’ values?

Epistemic Status: Model


[1] Socially liberal legislation is just objectively right and is based on the values everyone would have if they could choose freely. Only my political enemies try and force anything on anyone. /sarcasm ^

[2] People who aren’t women can also have abortions and their ability to express their sexualities is also controlled by laws limiting access to abortion. If there exists a less awkward construction than “anyone with a uterus” that I can use instead of “women”, I’d be delighted to find it. ^

Model, Politics

Socially Conservative Legislation as Akrasia Managment

[5-minute read]

If you hang out with people obsessed with self-improvement, one term that you’ll hear a lot is akrasia. A dictionary will tell you that akrasia means “The state of mind in which someone acts against their better judgement through weakness of will.”

Someone who struggles with it will have more visceral stories. “It’s like someone else is controlling me, leaving me powerless to stop watching Netflix” is one I’ve often heard. Or “I know that scrolling through Facebook for five hours is against my goals, but I just can’t help myself”.

I use commitment contracts (I agree to pay a friend a certain amount of money if I don’t do a certain things) or Beeminder (a service that charges me money if I fail to meet my goals) to manage my akrasia. Many of my friends do the same thing. Having to face consequences helps us overcome our akrasia.

If you’ve ever procrastinated, you’ve experienced akrasia. You probably know the listlessness and powerlessness that comes with it, and the frantic burst of energy that you get as the due date for your task nears. Commitment contracts impose an artificial deadline, allowing akratics to access that burst of energy need to break free from an endless cycle of Netflix or Facebook.

Obviously it would be better if akrasia could be wished away. Unfortunately, I haven’t really met anyone who has entirely succeeded in vanquishing it. All we can do is treat the symptoms. For those of us stuck with akrasia, managing it with sticks (and perhaps the occasional carrot) allows us to accomplish our goals. Time your sticks right and you rarely get the listlessness or the shame that can go with it.

Recently, I’ve started viewing social conservatives who push for tough morality laws and then personally fall short of them as more than risibly hypocritical. I’ve begun to think that they’re deeply akratic individuals who think that strong public morality is their only hope for living up to their own standards.

This model has fundamentally changed the way I look at the world. When I read John Scalzi’s rant about covenant marriage while researching for this post –

As a concept, it’s pretty damn insulting. “Covenant Marriage” implicitly suggests that people won’t stay married unless they subject themselves to onerous governmental restrictions on their personal freedoms; basically, it’s the state telling you that it expects you to get a divorce at some point, unless it makes it too annoying for you to get a divorce to make it worth your while. The State of Arkansas is banking on sloth, apathy and state bureaucracy to keep a bunch of bad marriages together, as if bad marriages are really better than divorce.

– All I could think was yes! Yes, that is exactly what some of the people pushing covenant marriage believe and want. They believe that a bad (or at least difficult) marriage is better than a divorce. But they don’t trust themselves to stay in a difficult marriage, so they want to strongly bind their future self to the decisions and values of their current self.

Most of the akratics I know have been unable to overcome their akrasia via willpower. Only the consequences they’ve set up are effective. By the same token, social conservatives who frequently let themselves down (like serial adulterer Newt Gingrich, or any of these nineteen others) might be trying to overcome their failings by increasing the consequences. For everyone.

On one hand, this leads to onerous restrictions on anyone who doesn’t share their views. On the other hand, there aren’t many levers left to accomplish this sort of commitment device except through legislation that affects everyone. Look at marriage; in America, no-fault divorces are allowed in every state. You can enter a so-called “covenant marriage“, with more onerous exit requirements, but these are only offered in a few states and can be avoided by divorcing in a state with different marriage laws. Adultery laws are all but dead.

Even enforcing fidelity through prenups is difficult. Such clauses have been ruled unenforceable in California. While some other states might decide to enforce them, you’re still left with the problem of actually proving infidelity actually occurred.

This isn’t to say that I have a problem with no-fault divorces. If I didn’t support them for helping people leave terrible marriages, I’d support them for ending an embarrassing daily spectacle of perjury. But it is amazing that many governments won’t let consenting adults make more stringent marriage contracts if that’s what they choose. America let people get underwater mortgages that could never be repaid. But it won’t let a pair of adults set harsh penalties for cheating?

Faced with such a dearth of commitment options, what’s an akratic to do? Fail? If you’re religious, this is opening you up to the possibility of eternal damnation. That’s clearly not an option. Fighting for regressive “family values” laws becomes a survival mechanism for anyone caught between their conservative morality and their own predilections.

I know societal punishments aren’t a perfect solution for akrasia. Many people desire not to shoplift, yet shoplift things they don’t need anyway, despite all the penalties. Beeminder isn’t a perfect solution either. Some people lie. Some people give up. But it helps some people. It helped me.

For some people, societal punishments are the only thing that will work. In a push to liberalize everything about society, liberals really have backed some people into a corner. It wouldn’t be that hard to let them out. Make cheating clauses in prenups enforceable and allow them to include punitive damages. Allow couples to set arduous conditions on their own divorce. Listen to what people want and see if there are ways that we can give it to them and only them.

I can see the obvious objections to this plan. It might sweep up young romantics, still indoctrinated by their parents and ruin their lives. Some (from the liberal point of view) bad contracts could become so common that everyone faces strong social pressure to make them. But these are both issues that can be addressed through legislature, perhaps by requiring a judge to certify adequate maturity and understanding of the contract (to address the first concern) and forbidding preferential treatment from institutions or businesses based on marriage (or other salient contract) type (to address the second).

There are some things that liberals and social conservatives will probably never be able to compromise on. Gay marriage, trans rights, and abortion… these should be our non-negotiable demands. What makes these our red lines is the realization that we must allow individuals to make their own choices (and not deny them any benefits that people who make other choices receive). The cornerstones of social liberalism are a celebration of authenticity and an openness to the freely made personal choices of others, even when we disagree with them. Even when we think they’re nonsensical. Even when we think they’ll bring only grief.

It’s the authoritarian who seeks to make their choices the choices of everyone. Too often that authoritarian is the social conservative. Allowing them to sanction themselves won’t end that. Too many are motivated by self-righteousness or a belief that what works for them must necessarily work for everyone else. We can’t fix that. But we sure as hell can be better than it.

Epistemic Status: Model

Model, Politics, Quick Fix

Some thoughts on Canadian “family values” conservatives

I’d like to expand on one of the points I raised yesterday about Canadian social conservatives and the sorts of things they can expect from Andrew Scheer, because I think the Canadian approach to “family values” conservatism is desperately under-theorized.

Yesterday I claimed that the main way that Harper pushed so-called family values was through economic incentives to have a 1950s-style nuclear family. Both income splitting and the Universal Child Care Benefit were designed to make it more feasible to have a single income family.

This is a radically different tack than taken by American family values candidates, who primarily exercise their beliefs by banning sex education, fighting against gay marriage and adoption, and restricting access to abortion [1]. The American approach attempts to close off all alternatives but a heterosexual, monogamous, child-producing marriage. The Canadian approach is to bribe people into this (and to drop the heterosexual part).

The cynical explanation for the policies pushed by Harper is that they represent a tax break for the favoured constituencies of the Conservatives. But this strikes me both as deeply uncharitable and uncorroborated by statements made by members of the Conservative Party.

At the Conservative Leadership Convention, the party devoted as much time to thanking J.P. Veitch (Rona Ambrose’s fiancé) as they did to thanking Rona Ambrose. They thanked J.P. for putting Rona’s career aspirations above his own and for his tireless support of her in her role as interim party leader.

Can you imagine the Liberals taking the time to thank Sophie Grégoire Trudeau for her work supporting her husband? The liberal individualistic notion of liberation tends to gloss over and thereby systemically devalue the work that supportive spouses do. To liberals (even many socialist liberals), work is where people go for self-actualization. Self-actualization can’t exist in the home.

There are sound reasons for this emphasis. While the Conservative tax breaks are gender neutral (and apply even to gay marriages), no one believes that the majority of stay at home spouses will be men. There certainly won’t be no men staying home – I consider myself generally more likely to stay home with kids than any partner I’m plausibly going to have – but they’ll be a minority.

As a free choice, the home is a reasonable option for many people. But as a prescribed social role, being stay-at-home mothers made many women incredibly miserable. Emancipation through work as the default seems to me as a not-unreasonable reaction to this trauma. But conservatives have ideological reasons to oppose the social structures that make dual-income families possible.

In Rona Ambrose’s farewell speech, she clearly articulated the core disagreement between Canadian liberals and conservatives. “Liberals believe in government”, she said, “but we believe in people”. I’d rephrase this slightly – liberals believe in institutions, while conservatives believe in individuals.

Viewed through this lens, it makes sense that Conservatives wish to return child-rearing to the sphere of the domestic. Key policies planks of Canadian leftists – like all day Kindergarten and $15 a day daycare – instead seek to further remove child-rearing from individual parents and move it into a formalized institutional system.

Both of these approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. It is beginning to look like starting school early may lead to inattention and hyperactivity. If daycare is like school, then proposals like $15 a day daycare have the potential to be incredibly damaging. With income splitting and child tax benefits, we could be encouraging parents to delay formal schooling, thereby avoiding the negative consequences associated with an early school start.

On the other hand, it’s uncommon, even with income splitting and child tax benefits, for one spouse to have an income that could plausibly support their entire family. $15 dollar a day daycare would be a boon to low-income families that are caught in the dual-income trap.

There’s no prescription here. I think some parts of the family values platform threaten to turn back important progress. I think other parts hint at a potential for better outcomes than we currently have. I will point out that it seems almost as if Canadian conservatives listened to liberals who pointed out that if they really cared about reducing abortion rates, they’d cover prenatal healthcare, maternity leave, and make it less expensive to raise a child.

I’d much rather have a political conversation about the amount of tax benefits we should give to people with children than I would about women’s right to choose, so I can’t help but be thankful that the Canadian Overton window is what it is. With Andrew Scheer elected as conservative leader and signalling no intention to wade into the debate over abortion, I think we really can call the Overton Window settled in its current configuration [2]. This leaves all Canadians with a question. How much do you think the government should subsidize nuclear families?

I’m not yet sure of the answer myself.


[1] I want to be clear that I’m talking about execution here, not beliefs. Canadian social conservatives believe many of the same things as American so-cons and vote remarkably similarly to their American counterparts when they’re in opposition. The key difference is how they behave when they’re in power. Nine years of Conservative governments (four of which saw the Conservatives as the majority party) brought no change in the legal status of gay rights or abortion in Canada. That would be unprecedented in America.  ^

[2] On Facebook, I said: “If the trend is that Liberals/NDP push [our] social policies of choice and the Cons don’t roll them back, then we still win in the long run.” I stand by that statement. I would prefer that Conservatives were as enthusiastic about pushing for positive social change as I am. Given that I don’t live in that world, I’ll settle for one where conservative politicians don’t to push back.  ^

Ethics, Philosophy, Politics

What use a Monopoly on Violence?

Remember Horseshoe Theory? It’s the observation that in many ways, the extremist wings of political movements resemble each other more than centrists or their more moderate brethren. We see this in anti-Semitism, for example. In any given week this year, you’re about as likely to see anti-Semitism come from Stormfront… or the British Labour Party.

I’ve been thinking about horseshoe theory in light of another issue: the police. Let me explain.

Like most denizens of the internet, I’ve been exposed to libertarians of various persuasions. One common complaint I’ve seen among these libertarians is a belief that the state has an illegitimate monopoly on violence. This is most frequently bundled with calls to abolish the police in specific and government in general. Now I see calls to abolish the police coming from the left.

I disagree strongly with calls to abolish the police. It’s not that I’m a great fan of the police: I’m a member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Union and I believe in strong checks and balances on law enforcement power. It’s just that one lesson we’ve learned repeatedly over the past century is that radical change to public institutions rarely goes smoothly. We should always remember caution when people suggest tearing up everything we already know without really planning for what will happen next.

So despite high profile incidents of unjustified police violence, I support the state’s monopoly on the means of violence. Beyond simple caution, here are my reasons.


Violence has been with us forever. War is rightfully one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, one of those four almost primal forces responsible for killing so many humans. Trying to reduce violence is important. But it isn’t the only fight. Any policy proposal sees diminishing returns. Beyond a certain point, effort that could be spent reducing violence could more effectively improve lives through other means (for example, by fighting malaria, or global warming).

We could reduce violence conducted by the state by abolishing the police. But state violence is a useful lever for other policy priorities. Trying to reach other goals (like economic equality or public order) are often worth some risk of state violence.

This process of trading-off must be undertaken by each body politic, as willingness to tolerate risk differs between countries. Canada, America, and Switzerland, for example, all have accepted higher rates of gun violence than other developed countries in exchange for more freedom to own and use firearms.

People generally have a right to own whatever they want to own. People also have a right not to be randomly shot. With guns, these two rights can be in conflict. The more people who have guns, the more likely I am to be randomly shot. Society has to come together and negotiate a trade-off between these two rights that they can (collectively) stomach. The weird thing about these negotiated trade-offs is that they can look ridiculous, even from inside of one (ask any American liberal how they feel about gun rights and you’ll see what I mean). It is certainly possible to have values such that no amount of firearm ownership is justifiable if it leads to deaths. Just as it is possible to have values such that no amount of intoxicant usage is permissible if it leads to death. [1]

Like intoxicants or guns, society must negotiate on the amount of violence it will permit. These negotiations are most convenient when they can be done with a single organization, or a single umbrella group. Consider, for example, the relative difficultly of abolishing the death penalty (one form of violence undertaken by states) in Singapore, America, and Syria.

In Singapore, abolishing the death penalty would be relatively simple (not to be confused with easy). There is one organization (the city-state) with an absolute monopoly on violence. To abolish the death penalty, lobbyists can focus their effort on one group of people. They will probably be opposed, because any organization who wishes to keep the death penalty will also know exactly who to lobby. This isn’t so much a strength or weakness as it is the endpoint of yet another negotiation. Singapore has chosen a system of government where people only need to worry about one set of rules. This is a sensible choice for a small, densely populated island without a lot of local variation.

In America, there are fifty-one authorities that must be lobbied in order to abolish the death penalty. Each state has a limited monopoly on violence solely within its borders (and therefore controls crime and punishment within them). But there is also a federal government that has a separate limited monopoly on violence, in this case, violence across state lines or against the union as a whole. In such a system, it is perhaps easier for opponents of certain types of violence to see them abolished in one region or another (see, for example, the death penalty in Massachusetts), but much harder to see it abolished across the nation as a whole.

I should mention that this isn’t just a matter of scale or population size. Canada is also a federal democracy, but the monopoly on violence is held solely by the federal government. Therefore, there was only one organization that had to be convinced to end the death penalty.

Imagine now trying to abolish the death penalty in Syria. You would have to negotiate with the Assad Regime, the Kurds, Daesh, Al-Nusra, and the scores of small rebel groups that hold and administer territory. Not only will you face difficulty in each negotiation, you will face difficulty even trying to negotiate, because there is no umbrella organization with the means to force smaller subdivisions of political power to allow you freedom of movement or guarantee minimum rights. This is a different situation than in America, where the federal government uses (what is ultimately) the threat of violence to ensure that states allow the free flow of commerce, ideas, and people.

A single organization (or set of franchises) with a monopoly on violence doesn’t just make it easier to target specific cases of violence. It can in fact reduce the overall amount of violence in a society simply by virtue of existing. This is the other reason that Syria sees much more violence than polities where there is an organization that holds a monopoly on violence. As long as no organization exists to use the threat of violence to force other actors to refrain from violence – to jealously guard its own monopoly on violence, as it is – then these actors will use violence in disagreements with each other.

In a civil war, the central government loses its monopoly on violence and other actors attempt to use violence to gain their own monopoly. We see the same pattern of increasing violence in the Mexican Drug Trade. Aggressive government enforcement broke cartel monopolies on local violence, allowing for various groups to fight to attempt to create their own hegemony.

In the context of police violence, having one group to negotiate with is extremely useful. It means that there’s only one battle to be fought. And in constitutional democracies, it gives reformers a powerful weapon by way of the court system. The courts may force (using the threat of violence) individual police departments to conform to certain practices. Imagine a country instead with only private security forces and a court system without access to the threat of violence. It would be impossible to enforce any rulings on these private security forces.

Abolishing the police will not abolish people’s desire for protection. Leftists should be scared of unaccountable private security firms. Anyone who loves peace and order should be scared of the conflicts between these firms.

17th Century Philosophy

There is a very short list of political philosophers whose works have shaped and guided revolutions. To have written works that inspire such drastic change in society doesn’t require or even suggest correctness. But it does suggest an understanding of the values that people hold closest to their hearts.

The 17th century English philosopher John Locke is on that list. I’ve written about Locke in the context of justice before, but his ruminations on the state of nature are also applicable here.

During Locke’s life, there was open debate among philosophers as to the “state of nature” – the shape human existence would take without government or laws. The state of nature was an artificial construct. It shares more with the ideal zero energy state used in molecular dynamics simulations than it does with prehistorical societies; it’s a baseline to compare political arrangements with, much as zero energy states are a baseline to compare molecular arrangements with.

Hobbes famously claimed that in the state of nature life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” – a war of all against all. On the other hand, Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that the state of nature was the only state of true freedom; to him it was much preferable to life in the eighteenth century.

John Locke held a different view. He believed that the state of nature was generally pleasant – in the state of nature, all people had the rights “to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature.” These “natural laws” might be broken by some people, Locke reasoned, at which point all people would have a right to punish them for their transgressions (as you can see, Locke was a Christian philosopher and his work is riddled with references to The Almighty; a less religious appeal to natural law would be an appeal to the moral impulses that seem to be more or less universal).

Locke did see one problem with this set-up. In most cases, those most likely to pursue justice would be the aggrieved party. While Locke believed that natural law gave everyone a right to punish wrongdoers, he also believed that in practice punishment would come from those they wronged. Locke understood that people were imperfect and not always capable of mercy nor proportionality. So Locke reasoned that justice could not exist without society and the people society appoints to mete it out.

Locke’s judges would by necessity need some force of bailiffs to assist them. There is an enormous amount of practical tasks that need to be done for judges to do their jobs. Suspects must be apprehended and interrogated, witnesses interviewed, physical evidence collected, and crimes investigated. These tasks must also be undertaken by someone other than the aggrieved party for there to be any chance at fairness. This is where police come in.

I don’t believe that the police are the only thing preventing us from existing in Hobbes’s state of nature. People are basically good and just. But they are also flawed and imperfect, closer to monkeys than gods. I also don’t believe in Rousseau’s claims of an earthly paradise; institutions do too much good for me to believe that life would improve without them (although, had I lived when he did, I may have felt differently). Locke, Locke I believe got it right. Without government, most people would be good, help their neighbours, and continue as they always had. But some people would take what isn’t theirs or hurt others.

I’ve heard total equality bandied about as a solution to the problem of violence and theft in the absence of the police. The logic goes that if everyone had total equality, we wouldn’t need police. This isn’t a real solution. Inequality currently exists. There is no way to redistribute possessions that isn’t coercive. You’re not going to convince Peter Thiel to give away his possessions out of the goodness of his heart (he doesn’t have one, except in the literal sense). The only way to force him to give money away is through the threat of force. This is impossible without an organization capable of carrying through on that threat. All legislation, whether it’s criminal law, CO2 emissions targets, or consumer protection, relies ultimately on the threat of violence against those who don’t follow it. Redistributive legislation – taxation – is no different.

Perhaps we could achieve equality and then abolish the police. But equality is a disequilibrium. Even if all skills were equally in demand (they aren’t) and all people equally capable of work (they aren’t), innate differences in desire for work or possessions would remain. Some people would work more – and presumably be rewarded more – than others. Even at the height of collectivism in communist Russia, with private ownership of any means of production outlawed, people found ways to game the system or took to the black market to accrue wealth. Equality can’t last without someone to enforce it, violently if it comes to that. You can call these enforcers whatever you want, but they will always be essentially ‘the police’.

Leaving that problem aside, there is no evidence that equality would stop all crime. In a society that undergoes radical transformation, there would be sore losers, willing to fight to get their old power back. There would also be all the crime that has nothing to do with wealth or possessions. Equality can’t stop murders committed by jealous spouses, road rage, hate crimes, vicious bullying, and a host of other crimes that draw their motive from something other than worldly possessions.

So this society without police would have to deal with crime. John Locke’s theories on the state of nature show us how this would fail. Justice, if it could even be called that, would become a private good, available to those with the resources to pay for it (admittedly, not a problem if you’re violently enforcing equality) or the wherewithal to do it themselves.

But would it really be justice? If society wanted to maximize the number of wrongdoers it punished, then it wouldn’t bother with things like “reasonable doubt” or “right to an attorney”. One of the little discussed uses of the police is to make it look like things are being done whenever there is a scare around criminal activity, so as to prevent public panic. Police might authorize extra patrols not to protect the public, but to protect people matching the description of alleged criminals from vigilante “justice”.

Without the police, people would have to seek their own justice. And they’d do it poorly. Given that society (at least, every society I know of) is racist, can we really expect individual people to do it any better than the police? Imperfect due process (and I know the due process counts for far less when you aren’t white) is surely better than none. Without the police, people of colour face a nation of George Zimmermans.

Recent Statistics has looked at violent crime data out of Chicago after the video of Laquan McDonald’s murder was released. They found a (statistically) significant increase in violent crimes, correlated with a decrease in proactive police behaviour (here measured by a decrease in police patrols and stops). They weren’t able to tease out the root cause of the decrease in proactive policing (it could have been the release of the new video or an increase in the amount of paperwork officers now must do after interacting with the public). The increase in violent crime bucks seasonal trends and can’t be blamed on a warmer than average winter – winters even warmer than the last one have seen no large spike in deaths.

This should not be surprising in light of the earlier sections. When the police are proactive, it is clear that the state has a monopoly on violence and is willing to use it. But as the police retreat and arrests go down, we see both the effects of different groups competing to fill the void and reprisal killings (which are much more difficult when suspects are behind bars).

I don’t wish to say that the answer to all violent crime is more police patrols and more random stops. As the FiveThirtyEight article points out, there are costs associated with proactive policing. Sometimes police tactics labelled as proactive are also unconstitutional. Opposing unconstitutional police tactics – even if they reduce violence – is one of the trade-offs around violence I discussed earlier and one I strongly endorse. If alienation, segregation, and police violence is the price we pay for a reduction in violence through proactive policing, then I would believe it to be a price not worth paying. Some police tactics should be off the table in a free and democratic society, even if they provide short term gains.

But if, on the other hand, proactive policing saves lives without damaging communities and breeding alienation, then I would oppose rolling back these policies. One article in a newspaper – even one renowned for its statistical acumen – isn’t enough to drive public policy. More research on the costs and benefits of various policing programs, including controlled studies is desperately needed. To this end, the lack of a centralized police shooting database in the United States is both a national tragedy and a national disgrace.

A Legitimate State Monopoly Over the Means of Violence

The modern definition of a state acknowledges that it must have a monopoly on the means of violence within a territory. Without this monopoly, a state is powerless to do most of the things we associate with a state. It cannot enforce contracts or redistribute wealth. It cannot protect the environment or private property rights. I have yet to see a single serious policy proposal that adequately addresses how these could be accomplished without police.

This is all not to say that the current spate of police shootings is tolerable or should be tolerated. Free and open societies can and must expect better behaviour from those they empower with the ability to use violence in undertaking the aims of the state.

As citizens of a free and democratic society, we should continue to pressure our leaders to accept and perpetrate less violence. But we also must acknowledge that the bedrock our society is built on is the threat of physical force. This doesn’t make our society inherently illegitimate, but it does mean we must always be contemplative whenever we empower anyone to use that force – even if they’re people we otherwise agree with and especially when force is used primarily against the most vulnerable members of society.

We should fight for a society where the government holds only a legitimate monopoly on the means of violence. Where violence is used only when truly necessary and not a moment sooner. Where security forces are truly subservient to civilian leaders. Where police shootings of unarmed civilians are an aberration, not a regular occurrence. We aren’t there yet. But we could be.

Epistemic Status: Ethics

[1] Trade-offs between different rights are the proper territory of legislation and acknowledging this is separate from the harmful moral relativism that has infected leftist rhetoric on international relations. There is a distinct difference between trade-offs among competing rights and a fearful refusal to acknowledge universal and inalienable human rights.


Falsifiable, Politics

Kellie Leitch and Liberal Democracy

Note: A previous version of this post referred to Kellie Leitch as “Ms. Leitch” instead of “Dr. Leitch”. I don’t know how I forgot she was a doctor, but I’m deeply sorry that I did. 

Kellie Leitch recently put out a survey that asked potential Conservative voters “should the Canadian Government screen potential immigrants for anti-Canadian values as part of its normal screening process for refugees and landed immigrants.” This has proved controversial, to say the least. It’s been described as a dog-whistle and has prompted other candidates to ask her to leave the race.

Dr. Leitch later clarified that she meant immigrants should be screened for: “intolerance towards other religions, cultures and sexual orientations, violent and/or misogynist behaviour and/or a lack of acceptance of our Canadian tradition of personal and economic freedoms”.

I have a lot of conflicted feelings about this. First, I’ve heard Canadian progressives wish that they could screen their conservative brethren for those biases and throw out the ones who fail. Certainly there must be some overlap between people angry about Kellie Leitch’s statement and those who would cheer this sort of thing on if the target were Canadian Christians and not recent immigrants. I view this sort of moral relativism as fundamentally at odds with liberal democracy and want no part in it.

But Kellie Leitch was a member of Mr. Harper’s government and one of his cabinet ministers. Even if she marched in the Pride Parade this year, it’s reasonable to assume she’s let a lot of anti-gay and anti-women bigotry pass (especially because she’s recently met with the Wildrose Party). Even if her voting record on private member’s bills was rather different than many of her colleagues (see her support for Bill 279), she was still a member of the Harper cabinet and is therefore complicit in its lack of support for queer and female Canadians.

Whether hypocrisy lies with Kellie Leitch, her opponents (or both) is an important question. In a liberal democracy, we should only legislate around classes of things. We should not say: “it is hate speech when a Christian attacks gay marriage, but okay if an atheist does it”, we should instead say either “it is permissible to disagree with gay marriage as long as you don’t call for violence against specific gay people” or “it isn’t permissible to disagree with gay marriage”. In either case, the prohibition targets Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and Atheists equally.

Liberal democracy can result in different groups of people being treated differently. The general principle “the government should compensate groups for past wrongs” results in very different outcomes for Japanese-Canadians who are descended from those who were interred during World War 2 and recent arrivals from Britain (namely, the recently arrivals from Britain get nothing and the descendants of interred Japanese-Canadians get a cash transfer). But the general principle doesn’t discriminate; circumstances do.

In this case, it’s hard to evaluate who is sticking to general principles and who is engaging in special pleading. Is Kellie Leitch acting from the general principle “Canada should only be for those who agree with Canadian values” or is she using coded language to say “we should keep Muslims out of Canada”? And are her detractors acting on the principle “Canada should be welcoming to newcomers” or the principle “we don’t like Conservatives and will take any excuse to attack them”? As Dr. Leitch’s detractors are a large, amorphous group with no spokesperson, both of those are probably true to varying degrees among the individual members. Dr. Leitch is unfortunately more opaque. Is she a political opportunist, or is she seeking power to quietly change the Conservatives from within?

So it’s unclear if Kellie Leitch’s implied proposal (that we begin screening potential immigrants for “anti-Canadian” values) can be defended as principled or not. Perhaps we can turn to a simpler test: is it needful? Wherever legislation codifies a limit on freedoms, it should be done only when there is a genuine need for it. This general democratic ideal is written into the very first section of the constitution of Canada, which stipulates freedoms should be impaired only in ways that can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. Jurisprudence likes the Oakes test builds up a framework for laws that limit freedom that require them to be connected to a pressing objective, proportional to the urgency of the objective, and rationally capable of bringing about the objective.

Before returning to musings on liberal democracy, we should evaluate enhanced screening through the lens of urgency and capability. We must ask: is Canada’s immigration system broken? Is the current immigration system eroding Kellie Leitch’s enumerated Canadian values and leading to a worse Canada?

I can find no fault in Kellie Leitch’s list of values and am going to assume that this post isn’t aimed at anyone who fundamentally disagrees with them. Given these values as a goal for Canada, accepting that any erosion of these values would be an urgent problem, and given that there are many countries around the world where the majority of people don’t support these rights/values, it should not be prima facie unreasonable to be worried that immigration from certain countries could threaten these values, or that legislation could be deployed to screen immigrants such that these values are no longer threatened.

A world in which immigration does threaten these values would have one or more of the following characteristics:

  1. There is an ongoing crisis of integration in Canadian society, with a significant proportion of newcomers failing to pick up “Canadian Values” if they did not already possess them.
  2. There are groups immigrating to Canada with the express purpose of shifting Canadian society closer to their (repressive) ideal.
  3. Immigrants to Canada aren’t screened or are screened inadequately for their ability to fit into Canadian culture.

Let’s go through them one by one.

1 – Crisis of Integration

I feel like one of the purposes of any blog I run is to slightly repackage the ideas of Joseph Heath for those who don’t follow Canadian politics blogging. Case in point is his post about the recent protests around the Ontario Sex-Ed Curriculum. In it, he argues that:

[Conservatives] don’t realize how hard it is to transmit a culture that deviates in any significant way from the mainstream. It’s not enough to have a home environment that is radically different. You need to create extensive social isolation, so that children and their peer groups are insulated from every aspect of mainstream society, including schools and the media. This is why religious sects often move to distant rural areas, and limit access to radio, television, internet, etc. This is also why progressives worry about “social exclusion” and racism – because these are some of the few forces powerful enough to create the level of isolation required to impair successful integration. Absent these forces, Canadian suburbs are like giant machines for churning out generic Canadians, and there’s very little a family can do about that.

Surveys show the Canada is consistently one of the best countries in the world at integrating immigrants. While there was a recent slip in Canada’s rankings, this is directly attributable to the policies of the Conservative party – the sorts of policies that can create the social and economic isolation that has caused such integration problems in Europe. With these policies set to be reversed under the Liberal government, there is currently little danger of a serious and protracted integration crisis.

I’d also like to highlight what Joseph Heath obliquely points out: the Canadian method of integration is sneaky. We don’t demand overt displays of patriotism (like Americans). Instead, we count on an excellent public school system to expose children to a diverse peer group and let that do the job of integration for us.

2 – Creeping Threat

This is the stuff of conspiracy theories, not statistics (alas that no one includes stealthy conquest on the list of travel purposes). To deal with this point, I propose a thought experiment. Given that people (in general) don’t to pointless things, what seems more likely: people moving to Canada, in the hopes of moving a famously tolerant society towards whatever form of oppression they prefer, or them moving instead to a country already much more closely aligned with their desired outcome?

It beggars belief to think that with so many countries out there where this sort of thing would be vastly easier that anyone would pick Canada. For Buddhist hardliners, there is Burma, for Islamists, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or the remnants of Daesh. For conservative Christians, the American Deep South.

But I can offer one further reassurance. Let’s presume that a variety of groups are all trying to do this. Since none of them agree on what exactly the ideal society is, they don’t talk or coordinate. For some inexplicable reason, hardline Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians all pick Canada to make their heaven on earth. And then promptly all run into each other and their intractable disagreements.

This sort of creeping threat only works if it comes from one viewpoint only. If everyone is trying it, they’re either going to fight each other to extinction, or realize what Europe did in the 1700s and 1800s: when you have intractable disagreements about religion and morals, your options are liberal democracy or death. See Joseph Heath, again.

All of this of course also ignores the fact that Canada takes in less than 1% of its population in immigrants every year and that most of those immigrants assimilate in one generation, leaving a supermajority of Canadians primed to oppose any imposition of alien values.

3 – Existing Screening

It’s pretty hard to immigrate to Canada, despite what Americans on the wrong side of presidential elections tend to believe. To be able to immigrate to Canada, you’ll probably need a college education, proficiency in English or French, and unless your education and past work experience are impressive, either family already in Canada, or a job lined up.

All of these things indirectly select for people who are good fits for Canada. The language requirement selects for people who’ve already absorbed one of our languages and as a consequence, been exposed to media that encodes for our values (or similar values). The education requirement selects for people who are willing to learn. Having a job in Canada means you’ve already convinced some Canadians you’re a good cultural fit and having relatives means that you’ll have others to help you integrate (and know what you’re getting into).

And related to the above; people aren’t stupid. I have trouble believing any significant amount of people who believe women shouldn’t be educated will move to a country where their daughters will be taken away from them and given to foster parents if they aren’t sent to school. I have trouble believing that people absolutely, viscerally sickened by gay people will move to a country with some of the largest gay pride parades in the world; where like it or not, their children will be taught that there’s nothing wrong with being gay.

These two forces combined mean that it’s relatively rare for someone deeply at odds with Canada’s culture to move here.

Given that these three points did not hold up to close scrutiny, there appears to be no urgent threat to “Canadian values”. I would therefore consider additional screening to be unnecessary legislation for the sake of legislation. Given that the rhetoric around such screening could be harmful – leading many new arrivals to feel like they are inherently suspect or less worthy of being Canadian – I would not support any candidate who proposed it.

I remain genuinely unsure what Kellie Leitch’s goal is. I went into this blog convinced she was another hypocrite who was only using queer Canadians when it suited her racists agenda. And yet, she voted yea to Bill 279 (to treat gender identity as a protected class) despite almost every single one of her cabinet colleagues opposing it. She does appear to have a principled and reasonably long standing support for queer rights. She voted the party line on whipped bills (as does basically every MP in Canada), but when she’s allowed to vote her conscience, we see that it is rather different than many of the other Conservatives. She may be a political opportunist who can sense which way the wind blows. Or she may be trying to change the conservatives from within.

If I was sent the survey, I would have answered no to her question. But I can’t believe that her question was beyond the pale. It represents a reasonable position and could be implemented in a principled way. That the evidence doesn’t currently support it as necessary means merely that it shouldn’t be implemented, not that no one should say it. Liberal democracy works best when we’re reminded that there are people working from different sets of axioms. This reminder keeps us on our toes and reinvigorates our support for universal rights that aren’t tied to membership in any one group or ideology.

These disagreements remind us that we cannot impose our will or morality by fiat on anyone else, but also that they are bound by the same prohibitions. This is a set of rules that I’m happy to play by. I hope that Dr. Leitch is too.

Epistemic Status: Falsifiable

Falsifiable, Politics

Liberal Democracy: Not Dead Yet

This post is a response to a recent Slate article.

A quick summary: the coup attempt in Turkey, terrorist attacks in France, Brexit in the UK, and rise of Trump in the US are all connected and can be viewed as the four horsemen of the end of liberal democracy. As the last defenders of liberal democracy struggle with the spectre of illiberal democracy (the will of the people unadulterated by any pesky rights for minorities) they throw up roadblocks in the form of undemocratic liberalism (rights for minorities without any of that pesky voting). Defenders of liberalism need to restore the core promise of democracy – that it will lead to ever increasing wealth if we’re to keep the “fact” that no wealthy, consolidated democracy has ever fallen true.

I didn’t buy the theory. I think some of this came from me having factual disagreements with it – Chile was wealthier than the US had been for most of its history and had over a hundred years of successful democracy before its coup. And if we want to plumb all of history, there are dozen of examples of Greek city-states, rich and consolidated for their time collapsing back into oligarchy, timocracy (in the Platonic sense) or dictatorship. The Roman Republic – the wealthiest and most powerful democracy of the day, cosmopolitan and technologically advanced – collapsed into dictatorship as well.

(I also have minor factual quibbles, such as references to the writings of Socrates, when in fact Socrates detested writing and wrote nothing down)

Some of my disagreement comes from the stunning exclusion of Canada. I can see why. Including Canada would have significantly diluted the point. It really messes with your rhetorical flow to say (after every prediction of doom) “except Canada somehow seems to be doing alright”. Yet while everyone else is (seemingly) going crazy, Canada is safely boring. Our news services are quite happy to point this out to us (and laud it to us).

(It’s not like everything is perfect in Canada. Our unemployment rate is higher than that in the US and Alberta is currently in serious trouble. But the idea of liberal democracy isn’t under attack now and it wasn’t under attack even in the darkest days of the Harper era. I may despise Stephen Harper’s policies, but that’s where it stops. He didn’t weaken the rule of law.)

I’m also deeply skeptical of the assertion that leaders have selflessly thrown up democratic roadblocks in order to protect liberalism. I think it much more likely that no one really planned anything. They just did what was necessary in the moment to keep their jobs.

But even assuming the theory (in general) holds true, why is Canada doing okay? I think any robust theory of the supposed breakdown in liberal democracy needs to include a fudge factor to explain how Canada has (thus far) escaped the fallout.

One theory of mine: systems of government last for a few hundred years, then break down under the strains of events the founders never planned for. The 200-300 year cycle is repeated for almost every empire. Those that survive longer than that change form around that mark. The Roman Republic becomes the Roman Empire. The Ming lose the Mandate of Heaven and become the Qing. The Qing lose the Mandate of Heaven and become the PRC (which I think of as the Mao dynasty, such is its similarity to past forms of Chinese government).

Canada incorporated our constitution in the 1980s. It’s well suited for modern life. But the US constitution and system of government – like those of some European nations – is over 200 years old. It’s reached its sell by date. America’s polarization is largely caused by the design of their government. A switch to mixed member proportional or the Westminster system could do a lot to help with the polarization problem, ending the incentive to please primary voters.

This is just one theory. I have many equally plausible ones:

  1. Canada has had no stagnation in wage growth for the average family, a key difference between it and the US. Maybe therefore Canada still retains the ineffable belief that the future will be better than the past? I thought this was true, but statistics say otherwise. If incomes in Canada really are stagnant, where is our disaffected rage? Why is it absent?
  2. Canadians have something about our culture that makes us innately more compatible with liberal democracy? Populist anti-immigration politicians are more common in Quebec, which has more cultural similarities with Europe. I don’t like this theory, because theories that hinge on one being superior to others tend to be wrong.
  3. This year is a temporary aberration in terms of violence and political disorder. In general violence has been decreasing over the past few decades, and 2015 actually saw a decrease in terrorism deaths. Up until the rise of Trump and Brexit, people in NRX were the ones writing articles about how their ideology was doomed and liberalism would always triumph and that was terrible. Maybe we’re over-reacting and getting scared by temporary reverses in fortune and online publications are reacting to this trend by milking us for ad revenue as we panic. If this is true, at this point next year, Britain will still be in the EU (with no invocation of Article 50 in sight), Trump will be embarrassed, defeated, and gone and we’ll all congratulate ourselves on a victory that was nothing more than a regression to the median. (See: In Favour of Niceness, Community, and Civilization)
  4. Global warming is making everyone more violent, ill-tempered and disagreeable and if we don’t stop the temperature increase we’re all going to kill each other.

In general, I’m on board with the radical idea that radical ideas normally stink, so I will suss to hoping that (3) is the correct explanation.

Epistemic Status: Falsifiable