Does convention really forbid the disallowance of provincial law?


Here’s something interesting about a relatively obscure part of the Canadian constitution. You know the powers of reservation and disallowance? Probably not, because if you were born after 1961 neither of them have been used in your lifetime, so here’s a summary. Basically reservation empowers a lieutenant governor to pass a provincial bill up to the federal government to be approved or quashed, while disallowance empowers the federal government to quash a law that has received assent at the provincial level (as long as this is done within one year). These powers were used willy nilly for a time following Confederation, but were increasingly regarded as intrusive, undemocratic and contrary to the spirit of federalism. The last time a provincial bill was reserved, the federal government approved it on principle despite almost certainly disagreeing with the substance (Diefenbaker was PM, while the reserved bill originated from the CCF-controlled legislature in Saskatchewan). While the provisions on reservation and disallowance are still in the books, the usual story is that they’re obsolete by convention.


In 1992, a major package of constitutional reforms — the Charlottetown Accord — was submitted to a referendum. Among these reforms, sections 55 and 90 of the Constitution Act 1867 — the provisions of the Act that define the powers of reservation and disallowance as they apply between the provincial and federal governments — had been rewritten. The new version omitted the power of reservation but retained the power of disallowance. This seems to undermine the usual story that the power of disallowance is obsolete by convention.

Why? Recall that a constitutional convention is an unwritten, non-justiciable (meaning it can’t be enforced by the courts) constitutional rule that exists only in virtue of being recognized and treated as binding by the political actors to whom it applies. To say that the power of disallowance is obsolete by convention is to say that the relevant political actors recognize and treat as binding a rule that forbids the use of the power of disallowance. If disallowance is forbidden by convention, then the legal rule permitting disallowance is of no use. But if the legal rule permitting disallowance is of no use, why would you deliberately redraft the relevant provisions to retain the rule permitting disallowance? The only reasonable conclusion, I think, is that the rule permitting disallowance as a matter of law was retained with the intention that disallowance ought to be permitted, full stop.

If this was the intention, then the inclusion of the rule permitting disallowance suggests that disallowance is still permitted as a matter of convention. That’s because Charlottetown represented just about the broadest elite consensus you can imagine. Every major political party and all the provincial governments supported it; it failed to pass only because it was defeated in the referendum. We can conclude, then, that the power of disallowance was acceptable to most of the political actors to whom an anti-disallowance convention would apply. This means that as of 26 years ago, there was no convention forbidding the use of disallowance. So the claim that there is now a convention forbidding the use of disallowance can’t depend on the observation that disallowance hasn’t been used in a long time — after all, that was true in 1992 too. To conclude that there is now a convention against disallowance, something must have happened in the last 26 years that indicates disallowance is now regarded as forbidden. As far as I can tell, nothing like that has happened. I conclude that disallowance is still permissible both as a matter of law and as a matter of convention.

That’s not to say that Trudeau could ring up Julie Payette tomorrow and start quashing provincial laws all over the place. I concede that the use of disallowance would be contrary to the prevailing political mood, which currently favours a more decentralized kind of federalism. But a constitutional convention is more than a prevailing political mood. Moods are more changeable, for one. And over the course of Canadian history, the prevailing mood has at times favoured the practice of a considerably more centralized kind of federalism. If and when the pendulum swings back in that direction, it is reasonable to think that the power of disallowance could be exercised regularly once again.


Is Scanlon a virtue ethicist?

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According to T. M. Scanlon’s contractualist ethics, an act is wrong if it violates a set of principles that no one could reasonably reject. Reasons for rejecting a principle must conform to two restrictions. First, they must be personal reasons; one cannot appeal directly to impersonal values to reject candidate principles. Second, they must be individuals’ reasons; contractualism does not allow the aggregation of mild objections to outweigh a small number of very strong objections. Being a violation of contractualist principles or some narrower set of special obligations to others are not the only ways an act can be wrong, however. It would also be wrong, Scanlon suggests, to use fine spirits as paint thinner, to develop an obsessive preoccupation with work or sex, to be indifferent to the suffering of non-human animals, or to use the Grand Canyon as a landfill.

It is not plausible, Scanlon argues, that these things would be wrong because no one could reasonably reject principles that disallow them. Rather, these other kinds of wrongdoing are related to violations of the principles that no one could reasonably reject through the higher order property of representing a failure to respond properly to different values. Violating contractualist principles involves a failure to respond to the distinctive value of persons in the distinctive ways that this value calls for; using fine spirits as paint thinner involves a failure to respond to the distinctive value of fine spirits in the distinctive ways that that value calls for (e.g. by enjoying a good whisky’s complex flavours, or at least getting joyfully smashed with some pals). According to Scanlon’s view, there is no underlying master value that ties all these things together. Rather, both values and principles of right and wrong are constructed from reasons, the most basic normative entities. To value something, on this view (what Scanlon calls a “buck-passing” theory of value) is to see the reasons to treat that thing in certain ways and not others.

Given this more general account of right and wrong, it becomes clear how impersonal values may bear indirectly on the rejectability of candidate principles. Conformity with contractualist principles is a proper response to the value of persons in part because of our distinctive nature as creatures that recognize and respond to reasons. If a candidate principle would leave no room in my life for certain impersonal values — in other words, if it leaves me no room to recognize and respond to reasons to alleviate the suffering of non-human animals, for example — then I have reason to reject it; refusal to take this reason into account in assessing the relevant principle would demonstrate contempt for my value as a person, as well as that of the animal.

Because Scanlon’s contractualism emphasizes principles of right and wrong, it is often regarded as a species of deontological (duty- or rule-based) ethics. Odd as it may sound, however, I think it may be more fruitful to think of Scanlon’s moral philosophy as a species of virtue ethics. What I have in mind by virtue ethics is a family of approaches to moral theory that focuses on the character of the agent and a humanistic ideal of flourishing or eudaimonia, as opposed to approaches that focus on conforming to fundamental duties or bringing about optimal states of affairs. On this view, contractualism merely specifies requirements of the classical virtue of justice, which seems to cover more or less the same moral terrain that Scanlon refers to as “what we owe to each other”.

Given that his contractualism does not purport to be a complete moral theory, why say that Scanlon’s philosophy is a species of and not merely consistent with virtue ethics? The first reason is that the normative authority of contractualist principles is derived from character traits and capabilities that ought to be included in any plausible list of the virtues and the elements of human flourishing. By acting on contractualist principles, Scanlon argues, we establish a basic moral relationship with others — a relationship of “mutual recognition”, as Scanlon calls it. This is not, of course, the only moral relationship. We have duties to friends and family members that we do not have to complete strangers. Plausibly, we also have special duties to neighbours, fellow citizens, classmates, co-workers, etc. But the relationship of mutual recognition, Scanlon argues, is the foundation upon which these other relationships are built. For example:

Friendship, at least as I understand it, involves recognizing the friend as a separate person with moral standing—as someone to whom justification is owed in his or her own right, not merely in virtue of being a friend. A person who saw only friends as having this status would therefore not have friends in the sense I am describing: their moral standing would be too dependent on the contingent fact of his affection.[…]

As is well known, it is crucial to friendship that we are moved to do things for a friend by the special affection and regard that we hold for him or her as a friend, not simply by consideration of a kind that we owe to everyone. But […] friendship also requires us to recognize our friends as having moral standing as persons, independent of our friendship, which also places limits on our behavior. (What We Owe to Each Other, p. 164-165)

As Mark LeBar has pointed out*, this kind of recognition seems very much like a virtue even though Scanlon does not explicitly characterize it as such. Moreover, seeing and treating others in this way is also a precondition for developing virtues and modes of flourishing peculiar to family, friendship and political life.

Second, it is not clear how the contractualist formula can be given much in the way of determinate content without reference to the virtues and the forms of flourishing. For example, as noted above in the discussion of impersonal values, we have reasons for benevolence to animals. And the trait of benevolence contributes to (both causally and constitutively) a relationship with non-human nature that is part of a plausible humanistic ideal of flourishing. The virtue of benevolence and the kind of relationship it is bound up with will often have a significant bearing on the rejectability of principles concerning what we owe to each other. Overall, I strongly suspect that the virtues and the relationships with which they are connected have some bearing on the rejectability of principles more often than not.**

Third, Scanlon stresses that contractualist principles are not categorically binding rules, not do they specify a clear ethical decision procedure. The interpretation and application of contractualist principles always calls for the exercise of judgment, which he describes in terms reminiscent of the virtue ethical concept of practical wisdom or phronesis. Contractualist morality is action-guiding for an agent only to the extent that he or she possesses the master virtue of practical wisdom.

At the very least, then, Scanlon’s contractualism seems to be a fairly comfortable fit with virtue ethics — more so, it seems to me, than with deontology or consequentialism. This suggests that attempts to develop a first order contractualist ethics may profit from closer engagement with the virtue ethical tradition; likewise, attempts to fill out accounts of the virtues are likely to benefit from greater attention to contractualists’ efforts in mapping the domain of what we owe to each other.

*In his chapter “Virtue and politics” in the Cambridge Companion to Virtue Ethics.
**Robert Adams makes an argument to this effect in the fourth section of his article “Scanlon’s Contractualism: Critical Notice of T. M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other,” The Philosophical Review, 110 (2001): 563–86.

Response to Welbanks: Some problems with the case for free tuition

TimeLordsTIOTThey probably didn’t charge tuition at the Time Lord Academy either, and you know how egalitarian they were

The Georgia Straight has published a short column by Douglas Welbanks that purports to rebut criticisms of free tuition by Postmedia’s Tristin Hopper. Although Welbanks makes a number of worthwhile points about defects with the status quo, the part of his column specifically concerned with defending free tuition relies heavily on three unsatisfactory arguments. 

1. Free tuition is not a “free ride” for the wealthy because the wealthy pay taxes.

The wealthy also pay taxes under the status quo, which does not include free tuition. This means that if tax rates are held constant, free tuition would indeed be a free ride — an additional benefit the wealthy receive while paying a smaller proportion of their wealth into the system. The obvious response would be that taxes on the wealthy should be raised. But Welbanks admits that under the status quo, the wealthy are already not paying their fair share, and this calls for tax reform. However, there are no details on what reforms would ensure that the wealthy pay their fair share under the status quo, let alone after free tuition has been introduced. This is not, I suspect, because the answer is so obvious that it doesn’t need to be stated. Tax policy is hard. Given the difficulty of answering this question, I do not see how Welbanks can rule out in advance the possibility that ensuring the wealthy pay their fair share would have to involve a mix of taxes and user fees — including tuition fees.

2. Opposition to free tuition implies ignorance of free public education and universal health care.

This is really a sort of slippery slope argument, in which support for certain existing free services is claimed to lead inexorably to support for making some other service free. But an opponent of free tuition can just as easily turn around and say that support for free tuition leads inexorably to support for free all you can eat cookies. Neither of these are good arguments. Unless the causal chain is spelled out, slippery slope arguments are fallacious.

It is possible that Welbanks thinks the chain leading from public education and health care to free tuition is too obvious to elaborate. But if he were to attempt do so, it might turn out that there are relevant differences between these services. For example, it might be relevant that free public education is mandatory whereas postsecondary education is not, or that universality in the health care system results in a more equitable allocation of resources than a two-tier system. Relevant differences like these, I think, make it unlikely that a non-fallacious version of the slippery slope argument will succeed.

3. Many other wealthy countries, most of which are far more egalitarian than Canada, provide universal free tuition.

This is an excellent reason to take a look at free tuition. But it is not a good reason to conclude that free tuition is a more egalitarian policy. Whether free tuition is a more egalitarian policy depends on the policy’s effects on real opportunities for postsecondary education. As Alex Usher has shown, postsecondary attainment rates in countries with free tuition are lower and more strongly correlated with parents’ attainment. Free tuition does not seem to be part of the explanation for these countries’ successes in the pursuit of equality.

This is not to say that free tuition is an inherently bad idea. I think there may be ways to do it that would avoid the pitfalls that commentators like Hopper and Usher are worried about. But the first step in arguing for a free tuition regime worth wanting is to acknowledge that those pitfalls exist in the first place.

Why democratizing the party policy process is always doomed

Formally speaking, a political party convention is the organization’s supreme policymaking authority. But in practice, the convention qua policymaking body mainly serves to display support for policy decisions already taken by the leadership. Yes, resolutions passed by the convention end up in the policy book. But the leadership is not obligated to actually pursue anything in the policy book. Nor are the policies it chooses to pursue limited to those included in the policy book.

Nevertheless, no convention is complete without a pitched battle between supporters or opponents of this or that resolution. The mere presence of a controversial resolution on the convention agenda can cause the party serious political embarrassment, while the prospect of such a resolution actually coming to a vote is treated as mildly more worrisome than the coming of Ragnarok. Under these conditions, the convention qua policymaking body acquires a secondary function of demonstrating the relative strength (in terms of numbers, organizational capacity, and procedural acumen) of a party’s internal factions or ideological tendencies.

This state of affairs is understandably frustrating for many party members, a large proportion of whom are motivated to get involved in party politics in the first place because they perceive this as an opportunity to influence policy in a meaningful way. And as a result of this frustration, party members have often tried to overhaul the policy process so that the formal promise of authoritative* member control over policy can be reflected in practice. Such efforts are rarely met with any degree of success, and successes tend to be temporary rather than incremental. This establishes a vicious cycle; each setback seems to confirm activists’ suspicion that the party is dominated by elites who are out of touch with the rank and file, and the cure is to bring those elites to heel through further — inevitably doomed — attempts to capture the policy process.

However, the fundamental difficulty with democratizing the policy process in the ways that activists envision arises from the conflict this creates with other mechanisms in the larger democratic apparatus that party policy processes are meant to serve.

Some of these other mechanisms are internal to the party. Party leaders, for example, are increasingly likely to be selected by the membership at large, and members ostensibly choose leaders largely on the basis of their policy commitments. This selection process gives the leader a far more convincing claim to a democratic mandate to set party policy in practice compared to an assembly of convention delegates, most of whom are unknown except to the local activists they represent and who meet as a body only once every year or two.

Activists’ demands for authoritative control of policymaking also creates a conflict with external democratic mechanisms. The practice of democracy within parties must serve the practice of democracy in a system of representative, responsible government, and this requires that a party’s elected officeholders be responsive to policy demands originating outside the party organization, from individual members of the public or organized interest groups. Insofar as authoritative member control of policy conflicts with the ability of officeholders to respond to such policy demands, the goal of a “more democratic” policy process conflicts with the broader goal of democratic political process.

This is not to deny that political parties suffer democratic defects or that these defects can and should be corrected. It is just to say that the usual approach to correcting the democratic defects of our political parties is inevitably doomed, for very good reasons. Efforts to make political parties more democratic should focus on other avenues for reform.

*By authoritative control I mean the legitimate power to force a party’s officeholders to adopt positions that they would not otherwise have adopted.

Proportional representation and party discipline


In recent years, much of the discussion of democratic reform in Canada has focused on two themes: proportional representation and party discipline. To some observers, this pairing seems paradoxical. After all, the movement for proportional representation stresses the importance of political parties in a representative democracy, while critics of excessive party discipline stress the ways that parties can undermine the representative responsibilities of individual legislators. Some critics even go so far as to argue that parties ought to be abolished altogether.

The appearance of a paradox, however, is an illusion. Although proportional representation cannot satisfy those who call for an end to party politics, there is a strong affinity between the case for PR and the concerns of the moderate critics of party discipline. This follows from the fact that although party cohesion tends to be higher under any form of PR than it is under FPTP, PR tends to produce a larger number of competitive parties.

The main criticism of excessive party discipline, I take it, is that it results in a legislature that is less reflective of the full range of public opinion on political matters. At its most extreme, this makes legislators mere placeholders for their party leaders. And because there are usually only two or three party leaders in the legislature, the legislature is completely dominated by just two or three perspectives. Although in practice a leader must pay attention to the views of their caucus in order to remain in power, members can only express themselves freely in caucus meetings that are closed to the public. And even then, the leader — who normally enjoys a separate mandate from the party membership and exercises unrestricted control over disciplinary measures up to and including the right to expel a sitting member from the party or block their nomination — has an enormous amount of leverage.

Proportional representation presents a partial solution to this problem. This works in two ways. First, PR almost always increases the number of parties in the legislature. Even assuming that the simplified picture presented above holds true at all times, this means that the legislature will still do a better job of reflecting the full range of public opinion. Second, PR reduces the leader’s leverage by lowering barriers to entry for new parties. The threat of expulsion or a vetoed nomination has significantly less force if it is relatively easy for a group of renegades to set up a new party with a reasonable prospect of being returned to the legislature in the next election. This is likely to lead to a freer exchange of ideas within closed caucus meetings as well as in public proceedings of the legislature and its committees.

Finally, it should be noted that enacting PR is entirely consistent with other measures that have been proposed to restore balance to party discipline, such as legislating a procedure that caucus members can use to remove party leaders, transferring sole control over nominations to riding associations or regional bodies, and subjecting the most severe sanctions for members to the collective control of the party caucus rather than the leader.

These measures may sound familiar; all of them were included in the early drafts of Michael Chong’s Reform Act. By the time the Reform Act passed, unfortunately, every one of its provisions had been watered down to the point of meaninglessness. While the movement for proportional representation in Canada remains strong and continues to bear fruit, the other major theme in the conversation about democratic reform seems to have petered out for now. Given that these themes are in fact closely related, however, citizens who are still concerned about excessive party discipline in BC and the country at large have good reason to get behind proportional representation.

Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 6: Equality, contractualism and capabilities

1296-1Reasonable agreement between equals with distinct properly valued ends

In my previous post in this series
, I argued that all persons possess an equal intrinsic non-monetary value. While this conclusion rules out the kind of argument against extreme economic inequality propounded by Danny Dorling, it provides the basis for a distinct, fundamentally egalitarian critique of particular economic, social and political inequalities.

Before proceeding, here’s a recap of the story so far. Reasons are real; there are considerations that count in favour of being, doing or believing some things rather than other things. Our beliefs about what reasons we have can be justified in the pursuit of reflective equilibrium between general principles and our considered judgments about particular cases. In this pursuit we frequently rely on social processes — including political struggle and society-wide “experiments in living” — to counteract biases that distort our thinking, to gather new information, and to test the reasonableness of our judgments.

Last time, I left open the precise nature of our equal intrinsic value. However, this summary hints at an historically popular answer: the intrinsic value of a person is closely related to the capacity for autonomy, or self-governance on the basis of reasons. For some philosophers, such as Kant, this is an identity relation — the value of a person is their capacity for autonomy. But many people, especially today, find this hard to swallow because it implies that young children and persons with severe cognitive disabilities have no value and are owed nothing as a matter of justice. The intuitive connection between our ability to recognize and act on the basis of reasons and our distinctive value can be vindicated by loosening the relation so that the equal intrinsic value of a person consists in their being the kind of creature that has the capacity for autonomy. Very young children and persons with severe cognitive disabilities meet this criterion. Their lack of autonomy is merely a contingent fact about what they happen to be like; it does not change what kind of being they are.

If this is the basis for the intrinsic value of persons, what is the proper response to that value? What does it mean to treat a person according to their worth? Monetary values are easy to deal with — if something is valued at $4.99, the proper response to that value (if you’re going to respond to that value at all) is just to throw down $4.99 (plus applicable taxes). But in a way, the principle is the same. Just as you honour monetary values with money, you honour the capacity to recognize and act on the basis of reasons with reasons — by treating others in ways that can be justified to them, insofar as they are reasonable. This basic idea can be fleshed out in a variety of ways and has taken a number of well known forms including the Golden Rule, the Confucian concept of shu, Kant’s categorical imperative, and — particularly relevant to the present discussion — the contractualist ideal of reasonable agreement on principles of conduct or institutional design.

This clarifies why, if the equal value of persons has nothing to do with money, vast economic inequalities would still be objectionable. The distribution of income and wealth in society is not a purely natural artifact; it is the outcome of a massive system of social cooperation that includes a wide range of institutions across both the public and private sectors. Property law, tax policy, industrial relations frameworks, public services, the legally approved governance structures of private firms, and the essential features of national constitutions — all of these interrelated elements collectively comprise what Rawls calls the basic structure. The basic structure has a pervasive effect on our life prospects; this gives each of us a compelling interest in the design of that structure, and generates the requirement that the principles underlying the structure’s design be justifiable to each person. The degree of economic inequality Dorling observes in his society fails to meet this standard; such vast inequalities would be permitted by principles that could reasonably be rejected or would be forbidden by principles that would be accepted by all. This explains at least one reason why egalitarians should object to extreme economic inequality.

But let’s not stop there. Although it seems plausible that principles permitting extreme inequality could be rejected and principles forbidding extreme inequality would be accepted, a good theory of justice should spell out the bases of rejection and acceptance. In doing so, we gain a better idea of what the guiding principles of a just society’s basic structure would actually require, a more vivid picture of what that society would look like, and more practical guidance concerning the kinds of policies that might get us there.

Given the realist stance towards normative reasons that I have adopted in this series so far, a natural starting point is to ask what we have reason to want out of life. One influential approach to this subject follows the work of Martha Nussbaum, who has proposed the following list of capabilities that are central to social justice, where capabilities are defined as effective freedoms or real opportunities to achieve functionings (“beings and doings”) that one has reason to value:

From “Capabilities as Fundamental Entitlements: Sen and Social Justice” by Martha Nussbaum

Unlike the other theorists discussed in this series so far, Nussbaum is not a contractualist. But she has acknowledged that there are strong affinities between contractualism and her own approach; where the two do not actually converge with each other, they are at least compatible with each other.

Nussbaum’s capabilities approach is not a full theory of justice. One reason for this is that it does not specify rules to govern the distribution of capabilities (or the goods that are necessary to secure the central capabilities). But it does impose a constraint that any distributive rule must be able to meet. The capabilities spelled out in Nussbaum’s list are of fundamental importance for all of us. In contractualist terms, this means each of us can reasonably reject principles for the design of the basic structure that would deprive us of any of these capabilities. It also gives each of us reason to accept principles that would secure the central capabilities, even if this means giving up chances for the unlimited accumulation of riches. In order for a society to be considered minimally just, then, the central capabilities must be guaranteed to all, at least up to some threshold of sufficiency. It is impossible to determine a priori exactly where this threshold is located. We can only grope towards it through a combination of social experimentation and the ongoing quest for reflective equilibrium. In practice, this kind of uncertainty does not pose much of a practical problem, because it is safe to say that we are far short of reaching this threshold wherever it is, and there is no shortage of excellent ideas for how to get there.

The egalitarian approach to theorizing about justice that I’ve been discussing here flows smoothly from the realist view of normative reasons with which this series began. Our capacity to act on the basis of reasons generates the requirement that the principles underlying major social institutions must be justifiable to all. It also helps establish a universal, objective standard by which the justifiability of these principles can be assessed: the ability of a basic structure designed in conformity with those principles to secure the central capabilities. And unlike Dorling’s meritocratic principle, this standard explains why both monetary and non-monetary inequalities — in access to health care, personal safety, recreational opportunities, and so forth — are objectionable. Given its explanatory success and its strong meta-ethical foundation, the egalitarian approach is clearly worth pursuing further.

All posts in this series

1. Meta-ethics and progressive politics
2. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 2: Partners in crime
3. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 3: Moral knowledge and reflective equilibrium
4. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 4: Social struggle and moral knowledge
5. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality

Why the minimum wage is like free trade

Much like the debate on the minimum wage, the Darvaza gas crater fire has been raging for decades and shows no sign of abatement

Over the last week or so, Ontario’s scheduled minimum wage hike has sparked a new round of debate on the wisdom of this policy, and in a column at the National Post, Andrew Coyne has reiterated his preference for a guaranteed minimum income rather than a minimum wage. The column is worth reading, but his conclusion should be rejected.

Coyne’s reasoning is that raising the minimum wage can end up hurting some of the people it is meant to help. If it becomes more expensive to employ people, then some people who would otherwise have low-paying employment will end up having no employment at all. Raising the minimum wage may well increase overall labour income, he admits, but gains for those who are lucky enough to keep their jobs do not justify the burdens imposed on those who lose out. If minimum wage hikes were the only means available to increase the incomes of poorly paid workers, then we might face a real dilemma. Fortunately, he points out, this is not the only means available. Supplementing workers’ low pay with a basic income scheme would achieve the same goal without unfairly burdening the worst off. Given our collective refusal to pursue this alternative, minimum wage supporters’ indignant rhetoric about greedy employers seems hypocritical.

I agree with some of the points Coyne raises, especially where he invokes sound Rawlsian principles holding that the well-being of the worst off should be our paramount concern, the aggregate benefits of a policy do not cancel out the burdens imposed on actual individuals, and the task of ensuring a decent standard of living for all is a job for the basic structure of society as a whole rather than employers in particular. However, Coyne’s conclusion should be resisted, because these principles are not incompatible with the minimum wage as such; they can easily be reconciled by implementing a minimum income scheme alongside a minimum wage.

Coyne’s reluctance to address this third option is puzzling, especially because the kind of dilemma he points out is extremely common. He even points out a comparable situation himself: free trade. Increased competition in open markets promotes innovation and leads to lower prices for consumers; while the overall gains can be substantial, however, so too may be the costs to the worst off. Even if we assign absolute priority to the interests of the worst off, however, we are not obligated to erect trade barriers to shield them from these costs. Instead, we can redistribute some of the gains from free trade in the form of cash transfers and active labour market policies, thereby maintaining or improving the situation of the worst off without having to forgo the benefits of a more open domestic market.

The analogy between free trade and the minimum wage is appropriate because Coyne grants the validity of a Bank of Canada finding that minimum wage hikes will increase labour income overall. Coyne does not contest that this is a legitimate policy goal; his objection is just that this goal must not be pursued at the expense of the worst off. But he does not consistently apply the principles his argument invokes.

A Rawlsian focus on the basic structure works both ways; the obligation to ensure a decent standard of living for all doesn’t fall on employers or the government in particular, and specific responsibilities arising from this more general obligation may be assigned to either of them depending on what division of responsibilities would result in the best overall basic structure consistent with the requirements of justice. A basic structure that secures a decent standard of living for all and increases overall labour income by assigning employers the responsibility to pay a minimum wage and assigning government the responsibility to provide a basic income is preferable to one that achieves only one of these objectives. Coyne — and the rest of us — ought to support both of these policies, not try to pick one or the other.

Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality

primeThe ultimate basis of Optimus Prime’s authority is egalitarian rather than meritocratic, and if it’s good enough for giant alien robots it’s good enough for me

In a post at the LSE blog (adapted from one of his books), Danny Dorling criticizes gaping inequality as a threat to the moral sentiments (feelings of sympathy and kindness towards one’s fellows, for example, which reflect the obligations we owe to them) and the welfare state. Although Dorling makes several sharp observations about some of the negative consequences of extreme inequality, his complaint that extreme inequality fails to respect the value of persons misses the mark:

The 1 per cent, by definition, will always be those taking the largest slice, but not always such a great fat slice, leaving slithers [sic] for the rest. Question those who say that it can only be this way. Try to question them kindly rather than with incredulity. A society based on merit would be remarkably equitable compared with what we face today. No one is worth 3,000 times another person. The three-thousand fold inequalities within the 1 per cent are just as indefensible as those between them and the other 99 per cent.

As this passage makes clear, the basis of Dorling’s complaint is meritocratic, not egalitarian. On this view, it seems, each person has a cash value that varies according to individual merit, and people ought to be paid according to their cash value. Some people are more meritorious than others, and so should receive higher pay; a person who is twice as valuable as another should have their salary doubled, for example. But in our society, the richest people can earn thousands of times more money than the poorest. This cannot be justified by Dorling’s meritocratic criterion, because (plausibly) no one is worth thousands of times more than anyone else.

This is not a very satisfying line of reasoning, for three reasons. First, the inequalities that Dorling is prepared to accept seem likely to have the same deleterious effects on the moral sentiments and the welfare state as the inequalities he objects to. If I believe I am, at the fundamental level, worth twice as much as another individual, I am unlikely to regard them as sympathetically as someone just as valuable as or more valuable than me. The fact that they are fundamentally worth less than others means that they are less deserving of my sympathy than others. Likewise, if I believe that the economic system has been arranged on a meritocratic basis so that each person gets at least roughly what they are worth (again, in a fundamental sense), it is difficult to see why I should support the welfare state; it would seem as though each person already receives what they deserve, so social spending would involve taking from the deserving and giving to the undeserving. If concerns about the moral sentiments and the welfare state are part of the reason why Dorling objects to extreme inequality, then, they are also reasons to object to the milder meritocratic inequalities Dorling’s view supports.

The second problem with the meritocratic view is that it requires the state to make intrusive, degrading and presumptuous assessments of each individual’s worth. There is even more at stake here than the ability to sympathize with one’s fellows. Democratic, liberal states are defined by a commitment to essentially egalitarian norms within the political sphere, including the equal weighting of votes and a system of equal basic rights and liberties. But to maintain meritocratic inequalities in the economic sphere, the state would also have to commit to a set of essentially inegalitarian norms operating alongside the egalitarian norms of liberal democracy. This arrangement seems unstable to me; I think it is extremely unlikely that the state can sustain a full commitment to both of these fundamentally incompatible sets of basic norms at the same time. After all, if some people are viewed as being worth less than others in a fundamental sense, it is not clear why there should be a commitment to egalitarian norms in any sphere. I also find it hard to believe that state’s determination of each person’s fundamental value could be effectively insulated from political influence. Even if it were possible for the state to accurately determine each person’s merit, there would be a powerful incentive for political factions to skew these determinations in favour of their own interests.

Finally, it is implausible that the fundamental value of a person is a cash value. Money itself is only instrumentally valuable. For something to be instrumentally valuable, it must be useful for some intrinsically or non-instrumentally valuable purpose. So what is the intrinsically valuable purpose for which money is useful? It is natural to think the answer is that having money is necessary for us to thrive. But if the fundamental value of ourselves is itself a monetary value, then the value of persons cannot provide the necessary grounding for the instrumental value of money. In the absence of any other plausible candidate for the source of money’s instrumental value, we must conclude that persons possess intrinsic value from which the instrumental value of money can be derived.

If the value of persons is intrinsic, does it follow that it must also be equal? Perhaps not. But what could account for inequality in the intrinsic value of persons? Instrumental considerations (such as a person’s usefulness for some purpose) and judgments of character are extrinsic factors — by definition, they cannot enhance or diminish one’s intrinsic value. Because we have already ruled out the dependence of morality on God’s commands, divine decrees cannot explain inequality in intrinsic value either. This leaves the possibility that variation in the value of persons could be a brute fact — a fact with no further basis, reason or explanation.

Allowing that there could be brute moral facts, however, would be inconsistent with much of the account of morality and moral knowledge provided in this series. Moral facts cannot be directly observed, and brute facts cannot be directly inferred. Brute moral facts, then, would be inaccessible to both reason and observation. Without confidence in any of our moral beliefs, we would have no grounds to believe in morality at all, and if there are brute moral facts, we could not have confidence in any of our moral beliefs. And if we have no grounds to believe in morality at all, then we certainly have no reason to believe that there are brute moral facts. It follows that belief in brute moral facts cannot be justified, and therefore inequality in the intrinsic value of persons cannot be a brute fact.

Having established the intrinsic value of persons and ruled out all possible bases of inequality in this value, we must conclude that all persons possess equal intrinsic value. So what does this imply about economic inequality, the issue that kicked off this discussion? If income and wealth have no bearing on the value of a person, does that mean extreme inequality of income and wealth is consistent with each person possessing equal value? Not at all. In fact, compared to meritocracy, this egalitarian perspective provides a much stronger, more rationally coherent foundation for generalized sentiments of sympathy and kindness and their institutionalization in the welfare state. It also gives us reason to close the social distance created by material inequalities, and to ensure that those inequalities are restricted to levels that benefit everyone. Overall, egalitarianism gives a much more satisfying explanation of why extreme economic inequality is objectionable — it brings us closer to reflective equilibrium than the meritocratic view. The next part of this series will explore the egalitarian perspective in more detail, clarifying its connections with both the meta-ethical foundations established so far and the realm of progressive social and economic policy.

All posts in this series

1. Meta-ethics and progressive politics
2. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 2: Partners in crime
3. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 3: Moral knowledge and reflective equilibrium
4. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 4: Social struggle and moral knowledge
5. Meta-ethics and progressive politics, part 5: Meritocracy versus equality

A brief response to Daniel Zamora on basic income

In Jacobin, Daniel Zamora has an essay criticizing basic income, a topic I’ve written about on this blog a number of times. I found Zamora’s argument unsatisfying, for reasons I outline briefly here:

1. Zamora points out that Guy Standing’s small UBI costs 6.5% of GDP without achieving a large reduction in the poverty rate, whereas the cost of eradicating poverty only amounts to around 1% of GDP. This is very odd, because Zamora is using the same trick as the UBI advocates who like to pretend the program would be cheap. A program that only brings people up to the poverty line is functionally equivalent to a UBI with 100% clawback at the poverty line. It’s not a realistic option, so it’s not a reasonable comparison.

2. Zamora complains that a UBI sufficient for a decent standard of living — the only kind worth considering, in his view — would be too expensive; in France, he figures this would cost about 35% of GDP. But this assumes that the full amount would be paid out to everyone (including children) and none of it would be recovered through a clawback rate or taxes. In other words, he only considers the least efficient implementation you could possibly come up with. This weakens the cost-based argument tremendously. A UBI with more realistic parameters would still be very expensive, but not that expensive; as I’ve discussed here before, it could be fully funded in Canada by raising the GST to roughly the same level as Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway.

3. Zamora complains that proposals for an UBI assume that the unemployed don’t want to work or that cash can compensate for unemployment. This is false. While some advocates of a UBI surely believe one or both of these claims, there is no necessary connection between them. A UBI solves the problem of being cash-poor (not having enough money) without solving the problem of being work-poor (not having valued employment), but so what? There’s no a priori reason why the same program has to address every dimension of poverty. Perhaps it’ll turn out that the best solution to being cash-poor will also solve the problem of being work-poor, but we can’t just assume that this is the case.

4. Early on, Zamora complains that a small UBI will not be sufficient to increase workers’ bargaining power, so the promise of transforming the labour market will remain unfulfilled. But then later on, he seems to forget that he thought a large UBI could increase workers’ bargaining power. If the division of labour in our society sucks and people don’t like it, a large UBI gives workers real leverage to change it. So the idea that a UBI necessarily props up an unacceptable division of labour doesn’t hold water.

5. Finally, maybe I’m just not in the target audience. Close to the very end, Zamora asks:

Isn’t the best way to fight against capitalism to limit the sphere in which it operates? Establishing a base income, by contrast, merely allows everyone to participate in the market.

As a social democrat, I don’t have a problem with capitalism in the minimal sense, i.e. an economy where there is some role for private ownership and market exchange. I just want it to be restricted to certain spheres (e.g. it’s good for candy bars and clothing, but not so good for health care and a just distribution of income and wealth) and everyone has opportunities for participation on fair terms. In other words, I don’t care if the best way to fight against capitalism as such is to indiscriminately limit the sphere in which it operates, because I don’t think capitalism as such is bad. If I did, I might be more sympathetic to Zamora’s argument.

Site C and sunk costs

In recent days, a number of commentators and news outlets have discussed the sunk cost fallacy in connection with the government’s decision to proceed with construction of the Site C hydroelectric project. Without exception, I’ve found the handling of this issue completely unsatisfactory and highly misleading with respect to the meaning of the sunk cost fallacy and/or the reasoning cited in support of the government’s decision. Before getting to the problem, let’s get clear about what this fallacy involves.

Suppose I buy a movie ticket, but I find the film boring, amateurish, aesthetically repellent and morally repugnant. I could walk out and find something more worthwhile to do with my evening, but I stay put. After all, I’ve already paid for my ticket. I can’t bring myself to waste it, so I suffer through the rest of the film. I have just committed the sunk cost fallacy, allowing the unrecoverable costs I incurred in the past to take precedence over expected returns in the future. Assuming my goal is to have a fun evening, those costs are irrelevant; the only thing that’s relevant is whether I will have a fun evening if I stay in my seat.

Some critics of the decision to proceed with Site C claim that this is exactly what’s wrong with the government’s decision. Ministers have pointed out that if the project is abandoned, the government will have spent $4 billion with nothing to show for it; superficially, that does look like the fallacious reasoning in the movie theatre example. But it is not fallacious to consider sunk costs to the extent that these costs actually have some bearing on the future.

The total bill for Site C is expected to be around $11 billion. About $2 billion has been spent. Completing the project should cost about $9 billion. At this point, cancelling the project would cost an additional $2 billion. Therefore, cancelling Site C can only be justified on cost-benefit grounds if there is an alternative power project with equal value to the province but a total bill of only $7 billion or less. In the government’s assessment, there is no such alternative; thus, cost-benefit calculation favours completing the project. So, costs that have already been incurred in the course of the Site C project are cited in support of the decision only because they relate to the amount of money the province will have to spend in the future. That is why the government has not committed the sunk cost fallacy.

This is not to say that the government is not open to criticism on other grounds. Not committing basic errors of reasoning is a low bar to clear, after all. The government’s critics may wish to argue that the cost of completing the project has been underestimated, or that the costs of alternatives have been overestimated. Or they may argue that cost-benefit considerations should not have been allowed to override property rights, treaty rights, or Indigenous rights. For those who wish to make these arguments, credibility is a precious resource. It would be a mistake to squander this resource on misrepresentations.

Full disclosure: I’m a member of the NDP and I opposed continuing the Site C project.