Political promises and proportional representation

Screen Shot 2017-11-16 at 5.09.31 PMWhat have you got yourself into, Pippin?

Opponents of proportional representation sometimes argue that multiparty government (which is the norm under PR) leads to greater political cynicism and less accountability, because it encourages parties to make promises that they’re guaranteed not to be able to keep. The NDP’s compromise with the Greens on the minimum wage issue provides a good example of this dynamic (even though we have a single party minority government at the moment, not a multiparty coalition). The NDP needs the Greens to stay in power, and the Greens demanded that the NDP abandon its minimum wage commitment. This may leave people who voted for the NDP in part because of its minimum wage commitment wondering why they bothered.

There’s something to this criticism, but campaign promises get broken all the time under the current system. Sometimes breaking a promise may turn out to be the best course of action, all things considered (I think this is true of the minimum wage promise, and I blame the Greens), and sometimes this is because the promise never should have been made in the first place.

In fact, I’m skeptical about the value of the kind of political promise at issue here. What’s distinctive about a promise is that it gives the promisor normally overriding reasons to perform the promised action, even if performance would seem to conflict with the dictates of prudence, custom, self-interest*, or most kinds of competing claims. If a promise did not normally override these other considerations, it would be redundant. So the kind of political promise at issue involves a party creating overriding reasons for itself to potentially violate the dictates of prudence, custom, self-interest, or most kinds of competing claims.

Put this way, it doesn’t seem like the practice of making political promises is something we should value, let alone design our institutions around. We want governing parties to make prudent decisions in keeping with custom and to impartially adjudicate competing legitimate claims, and insofar as parties meet this ideal, we want their interest to be promoted. Of course we also want to hold parties accountable. But parties needn’t be held accountable for promises. Rather, they can be held accountable for performance. Assessments of performance are sensitive to the contextual considerations that must be ignored in order to keep a promise. And it is not clear that that proportional representation makes this any more difficult than it is right now.

*The kind of self-interest I have in mind is legitimate self-interest, i.e. self-interest within the bounds of morality and justice. The pursuit of self-interest outside those bounds is always overridden by moral reasons, without the need for promises.


Response to Jean Swanson: What if taxing the rich isn’t enough?

bHFM2uKIllustration by Clifford Harper. Nothing to do with the topic except insofar as Harper’s vision also includes the eradication of poverty

Yesterday the Georgia Straight published an urgent call to action for the eradication of poverty penned by veteran activist (and recent city council candidate) Jean Swanson. As Swanson’s story of her experience with this year’s Welfare Food Challenge illustrates vividly, social assistance rates in BC remain totally inadequate; new provincial government’s recent $100 increase to the monthly rate came with an explicit acknowledgement that the province has a long way to go to meet its obligations to people living in poverty. To this end, the premier named a Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction (Shane Simpson) with a mandate to develop a poverty reduction strategy for BC. The minister will be supported in this task by an advisory committee named last month.

Given this province’s dismal history of neglect and abuse of the poor, Swanson’s enthusiasm for these initial steps is understandably restrained. She writes:

I hope it’s using this committee to build support for actually ending poverty, not entrenching it or reducing it a little bit. I hope it’s not using the committee to stall on taking the obvious actions we desperately need. I hope it’s not going to be afraid to tax the rich to get some money to raise welfare rates and build thousands of units of social housing.  

It’s unlikely, however, that raising taxes on the rich alone would be sufficient to fund the eradication of poverty. Nor does raising taxes on the rich alone require much in the way of political courage. After all, the rich are, by definition, a small minority of the population. Taxing the rich is the easy part. The hard part — the part that does take political courage — is getting the non-poor, non-rich part of the province on board.

For present purposes, let’s call the non-poor, non-rich part of the province the “middle class.” To eradicate poverty, the middle class must pay higher taxes. This means that actually winning the middle class to the cause of poverty eradication necessarily means winning their support for higher taxes on the middle-class. How can this be achieved? I don’t have the whole answer — no one does. But I think I do have a few suggestions on how to move forward.

First, people’s willingness to pay taxes is partly related to their perception of others’ willingness to pay taxes. That is, people are more likely to pay if they think others are paying, and they’re more likely to cheat if they think others are cheating. This means that focusing public debate about tax policy on the fact that top earners are failing to pay their fair share may have the perverse consequence of making the middle class less willing to pay their fair share.

Can this problem be solved simply by raising taxes on the rich until they are paying their fair share, and then turning our attention to the taxes paid by the middle class? I’m not so sure. The judgment that the rich do not contribute their fair share is a comparative judgment. One of the relevant comparisons that goes into making this judgment is the comparison between the top and bottom of the economic ladder. A rich person’s position is regarded as obscene in comparison to a poor person’s — what seems so objectionable is that he has so much while she has so little. Unless poverty is eradicated, then, it is not clear how any feasible level of taxation on the rich could appear to satisfy the demands of fairness. And because higher taxes on the rich are not sufficient to eradicate poverty, we would never reach the point where it seemed fair to turn our attention to the taxes paid by the middle class.

This is certainly not to say that the public debate about tax policy should ignore the rich. As I’ve argued here before, we would have good reason to raise taxes on the rich even if these taxes wouldn’t bring much new revenue. But I do think talk about taxing the rich takes up a disproportionate amount of the debate, and this is likely to weaken support for the more broad based tax measures that are needed to fund the eradication of poverty. This has to change — we need to talk more about what (and how) the middle class ought to pay.

My second suggestion is emphasizing the broadly shared benefits of a social guarantee against poverty. In the postwar era, rich countries built up welfare state institutions with broad public support, such as universal healthcare systems that protected people from income shocks due to illness or injury. As the political scientist Kathleen Thelen has argued, today’s economy exposes people across the economic spectrum to greatly increased risk of income shocks due to downsizing, displacement and obsolescence. But for the most part, welfare states have not kept up with these new risks. For much the same reason that we built universal healthcare programs, now we need to build programs that collectively provide a universal guarantee against poverty. And just as universal healthcare attracted broad support on account of broad exposure to the risk of financial ruin due to illness or injury, so can a universal guarantee against poverty.

Finally, at the risk of sounding naïve, I think we need to put the moral dimension of poverty eradication centre stage. Moral reasons are, by definition, normally overriding reasons for action. So if an action is morally required, for a morally competent agent it does not count against that action that it may be difficult, painful, expensive, or otherwise unpleasant. This means that although it can be very difficult to convince someone that an action is morally required of them, once they have been convinced they can normally be counted on to follow through regardless of whatever preferences they may have (e.g. a preference for lower taxes). As a matter of fact, eradicating poverty is morally required. The strongest reasons that count in favour of eradicating poverty are moral reasons. Those of us who already support the eradication of poverty, then, should have no hesitation in making the moral case for the eradication of poverty.

UPDATE: Trish Garner of the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition has written an excellent column that reaches some similar conclusions. In particular, Garner emphasizes the moral urgency of eradicating poverty, and connects poverty eradication with the logic of legacy welfare state institutions. Her column can be found here: Welfare Rates Should Be Set to Allow for Simple Dignity

Does religious neutrality imply scientific neutrality?

The controversy over Governor General Julie Payette’s remarks to the Canadian Science Policy conference continues! Today it was reported that Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall has sent a letter to Payette in which he accuses her of suggesting that “it is simply risible some Canadians would subscribe to a view of creation that is rooted in the divine.” He then urges her “to avoid denigrating or mocking the many adherents of faiths that believe in a Creator” during any future visit to Saskatchewan.

Wall’s letter zeroes in on the portion of Payette’s remarks where she expressed dismay at the level of ignorance about scientific accounts of the origin and development of life. As I argued in my last post, there is no inherent contradiction between belief in a divine creator and belief in the claims of any of the natural sciences. Thus it cannot be true that Payette mocked or denigrated religious Canadians as such simply by virtue of mocking or denigrating those who do not accept evolutionary science. But some Canadians’ religious beliefs do directly contradict evolutionary science. Did Payette fail to accord their views the kind of respect they are entitled to expect from representatives of the state?

It is reasonable to expect the state to maintain strict neutrality on specifically religious matters. However, it is not reasonable to expect the state to maintain strict neutrality on all matters with which religions may be concerned. For example, a religion may preach that witches are servants of a supremely evil entity, but the state’s duty of neutrality is not violated if it prohibits the stoning of witches. The freedom to kill goes beyond the limits of any reasonable conception of religious liberty. To show that the state has violated liberal norms of religious neutrality, then, it is not sufficient to show that this or that conflict between state and religion has been resolved in the state’s favour.

This should come as welcome news to Brad Wall, because if it were not the case, he would be implicated in a far more profound violation of those norms. After all, evolutionary science is part of the public school curriculum. It is also taught in publicly funded postsecondary institutions. Even if a student sincerely believes in Young Earth Creationism as a matter of religious faith, they can expect to receive a failing grade for giving Young Earth Creationist answers to evolutionary science questions. If religious neutrality is violated any time a conflict between state and religion is resolved in the state’s favour, then the government of Saskatchewan violates religious neutrality any time it permits evolutionary science to be taught in public schools.

The state’s duty to maintain neutrality on religious matters does not extend to maintaining neutrality on matters of public safety, human rights, or scientific fact. The claim that natural processes are not sufficient to explain the origin and development of life is a claim about scientific fact. The state and its representatives are not obligated to be neutral about the truth of scientific claims. Moreover, insofar as the state is responsible for encouraging scientific education, it is obligated not to be neutral about the truth of this claim. As it turns out, the claim is false. The state is thus obligated to treat the claim as false. Payette can be reasonably criticized for the tone in which she made this point. But she cannot be reasonably criticized for treating false scientific claims as she is obligated to treat them.

Payette spoke up for science, not scientism


In a column published in the Globe & Mail, David Mulroney accuses Governor-General Julie Payette of insulting Canadians — in particular, Canadians who profess some religious faith — by using her platform to preach scientism, “the notion that the only valid means of understanding anything and every is via science and the scientific method.” In support of this claim, Mulroney cites Payette’s remarks to the Canadian Science Policy Conference, in which she expressed dismay at the status of science in political life and in society at large. In particular, Payette singled out continuing political controversy over the reality of anthropogenic climate change, ignorance about scientific accounts of the origin and development of life, and widespread belief in non-evidence-based medical treatments that seem to be grounded in nothing more than wishful thinking.

To claim on the basis of these remarks that Payette “seems to be endorsing a form of what is commonly referred to as scientism” is overreaching. Because Payette does not explicitly endorse scientism in any form, this seeming must be based on inference. And as Mulroney immediately demonstrates, it is a very bad inference.

Mulroney notes right away that science may not answer the fundamental riddle of existence (“why there is something rather than nothing”). If this riddle has an answer, and it is not a scientific answer, then scientism is false. Moreover, Mulroney also argues that the application of scientism by states has led to moral disasters including totalitarianism and eugenics. Moral inquiry is non-scientific by nature; this means that if there are true answers as to what constitutes a moral disaster, then scientism is false. So far, so good.

But surely it is possible to believe that no informed person can doubt the reality of anthropogenic climate change, naturalistic accounts of the origin and development of life, or the inefficacy of snake oil, while also believing that there are such things as moral disasters or that there is a non-naturalistic ultimate explanation for the existence of the universe. In order to conclude that Payette endorses scientism, it must be impossible — or at least especially difficult — for her to endorse both sets of claims. But nothing in the first set of claims contradicts anything in the second. Nor is it at all clear that anything in the first set of claims makes anything in the second merely less likely to be true. So we cannot conclude on the basis of her remarks that Payette endorses any kind of scientism. To the extent that Mulroney’s complaint that Payette’s remarks insulted Canadians depends on the charge of scientism, then, his complaint should be dismissed.

Why proportionality matters

Screen Shot 2017-10-30 at 8.22.57 PM
Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg of the Moderate Party meets with representatives of her Labour and Green Party coalition partners in the Danish political drama Borgen

Supporters of proportional representation claim that first past the post is defective because it allows gross disproportionality between the popular vote and the distribution of seats in the legislature. As I discussed in my last post, defenders of FPTP may reply that under FPTP there is no such thing as the popular vote, because FPTP only allows for the tabulation of votes by candidate. What supporters of PR mean by “popular vote”, however, is just the share of all votes cast for candidates from each party. The existence of those numbers is undeniable. Of course those numbers are not tabulated for the purpose of determining winners, but that’s precisely why supporters of PR object to FPTP.

Defenders of FPTP may respond that the composition of the popular vote does not provide a straightforward accounting of people’s considered preferences. This is partly because many people are so-called strategic voters. But even the choices of “sincere” voters are shaped by the political environment of which the electoral system is a part. PR supporters assume that the popular vote is a closer approximation of people’s considered preferences than the resulting distribution of seats. But this assumption is unwarranted. Change in the electoral system is likely to cause change in the popular vote. And if the popular vote changes because the rules for translating votes into seats change, this suggests that the popular vote has no special claim to be the authentic expression of the people’s collective will. And if the popular vote lacks this special claim, then it is unclear why we should find disproportionality especially troubling.

In my view, this defence misconstrues the significance that supporters of PR attribute to the popular vote under FPTP. In order for the defence to work, PR supporters must be pointing to the discrepancy between the popular vote and the distribution of seats because they regard the popular vote as democratically authoritative; because the distribution of seats fails to reflect the democratically authoritative popular vote, the mechanism for translating seats into votes must be defective. But PR supporters are not committed to the view that the popular vote alone is democratically authoritative; they are only committed to the view that disproportionality is democratically defective. The challenge for the supporter of PR, then, is to supply grounds for thinking that disproportionality is a defect without attributing special democratic significance to the popular vote.

One possibility is that under any electoral system, both the popular vote and the resulting distribution of seats are democratically authoritative. If an electoral system does not take the popular vote into account in translating votes into seats, it fails to respect the popular vote’s equal democratic authority. FPTP is such an electoral system; thus, it is democratically defective, By definition, only a proportional electoral system can respect both expressions of authority. So if more democracy is better, all things being equal, then proportional representation is preferable to FPTP.

Another reason why disproportionality might be a defect is that it makes cooperation between voters much more difficult. This feature of FPTP is sometimes obscured by critics’ fondness for the argument that FPTP encourages strategic voting. The irony is that although FPTP may very well encourage strategic voting, it also makes “strategic voting” an almost useless strategy. Voters simply do not have sufficiently reliable information about each other’s intentions at the riding level (the only level that counts under FPTP) for strategic voting campaigns to work. However, voters do have sufficiently reliable information about each other’s intentions at regional, provincial or national levels for more limited kinds of strategic voting to succeed — provided that aggregate votes at the regional, provincial or national levels are electorally significant (as they are under PR). This means that under PR, people may vote strategically to ensure a breakthrough for a minor party, boost the standing of a preferred party’s prospective coalition partner, or block an especially disliked party from gaining ground. If the possibility of this kind of cooperation between voters translates into more popular self-government rather than less, then PR is again preferable to FPTP.

Finally, disproportionality might be a defect because it gives voters fewer choices. Defenders of FPTP have argued that this can be a virtue, because disproportionality encourages the formation of ideologically moderate and inclusive big-tent parties. But supporters of PR may respond that the need to form multiparty coalitions in order to win power under PR encourages ideologically moderate and inclusive governments, mitigating the advantage claimed by FPTP. If PR and FPTP both encourage moderate, inclusive coalitions (albeit by different mechanisms), then the fact that PR offers voters more choices can act as a tie-breaker.

At this point, FPTP’s defenders can ask why more voter choice is all that important if it just leads to the same kind of compromises we see in the big-tent parties under FPTP. One reason is that more voter choice means more, smaller political parties. Smaller political parties are likely to be more internally democratic. More internally democratic political parties operating under the discipline imposed by the necessity of interparty coalition-building create more opportunities for meaningful political participation. Increased opportunities for meaningful political participation will improve the quality of our democracy. So, if PR increases voter choice, PR is likely to improve the quality of our democracy.

So as it turns out, one can make a case for proportional representation without mistakenly assuming that the composition of the popular vote is unaffected by the electoral system or that the popular vote is a uniquely authentic expression of the will of the electorate. Concern for proportionality is justified as long as the popular vote has some normative significance. It is further supported by other considerations such as the value of a wider array of choices for voters and a better climate for informed decision-making. And although they are not conclusive, these reasons are at least sufficient to establish a presumption in favour of proportionality. It is therefore incumbent upon defenders of the status quo to provide equally compelling reasons to prefer a system that allows such extreme disproportionality as FPTP.

Why not proportional representation?


“Proportional representation” (PR) refers to a family of electoral systems for parliamentary elections that tend to result in each party receiving a share of seats that at least roughly matches the proportion of all votes cast for that party’s candidates. Proponents of PR tend to take it for granted that proportionality is a desirable goal, and point to the disproportionality of election results under the system currently used for provincial and federal elections in Canada (usually called “first past the post” or FPTP for short). Defenders of the status quo, on the other hand, tend to deny that there is anything objectionable about the lack of proportionality under FPTP.

Defences of FPTP against the charge of disproportionality can be divided into two types. According to the first type, disproportionality is a virtue of FPTP. On this view, disproportionality creates an incentive to build large, inclusive and ideologically moderate parties. Furthermore, the system’s tendency to result in single-party majority governments improves accountability, while its tendency to translate small swings in the party vote into large shifts in party standings makes it easier for voters to get rid of governing parties they don’t like.

The second type of defence — my focus in this post — is simply to deny the salience of disproportionality altogether. At its most extreme, this kind of argument denies that proportionality is conceptually coherent in the context of FPTP. A more moderate approach is to accept the concept of disproportionality but deny its relevance to the evaluation of FPTP.

An example of this second type of defence was recently provided by Brian Marlatt, a former candidate for the Progressive Canadian Party. Marlatt points out that general elections under FPTP take the form of a large number of local elections. Each of these local elections chooses a single winner according to a plurality formula (i.e. the candidate with the most votes wins); there is no separate national election in which votes are cast for parties. The share of the vote captured by each party nationally may provide an interesting piece of trivia, but there is no unfairness in disregarding numbers to which the system does not purport to assign any importance whatsoever.

A similar argument is given by political journalist Dale Smith in his book The Unbroken Machine. Smith argues that critics of FPTP simply do not understand how it works. If they did, they would see that there is no problem with disproportionality between parties’ shares of seats and votes. Under FPTP, elections are about the voters in a riding choosing one representative to send to the capital; they are not about the overall composition of the legislature. Pointing to the disproportionality of election results under FPTP only reveals critics’ ignorance.

One can argue that there is an inherent illogic in the way we look at proportional representation (PR) schemes. For one, it seeks to apply a result that doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation. In the case of a federal election, what is being voted on is who will represent each constituency in the House of Commons. No matter that people might feel they’re voting for the party, or the leader, or whatever other consideration they might have in mind, the ballot they are casting is for the representative in that seat in the House of Commons. Saying that seats need to be apportioned otherwise would indicate that the votes being cast were to determine the composition of the House of Commons in an overall cohesive manner rather than to determine its population of individual MPs. (p. 54)

The defences given by Marlatt and Smith are very puzzling; faced with criticism of FPTP, they simply reply that elections in Canada operate according to the principles of FPTP. This may be a compelling argument against the charge that FPTP fails on its own terms, by promising but not delivering proportional results. But is this the essence of the case for PR? Obviously not. By taking the desirability of proportionality for granted, advocates of PR sometimes seem to assume that FPTP shares the goal of proportionality and is just very bad at delivering it. But this is not an essential feature of the pro-PR position. The only thing that’s essential to the pro-PR position is the belief that representation ought to be proportional. And if a person thinks that representation ought to be proportional, there is no reason why learning that FPTP does not aim at proportionality should make them any more likely to support the status quo. For Marlatt and Smith’s arguments to work, they must provide reasons independent of the constitutive rules of FPTP why a good electoral system needn’t be proportional.

Instead of defending disproportionality directly, both Marlatt and Smith take aim at the measures needed to ensure proportionality. Both writers share the concern that PR systems give too much power to political parties, which are not directly accountable to voters, at the expense of individual politicians, which are. Moreover, PR may increase the centralization of power within parties. Smith worries that under a mixed-member proportional system (MMP, the kind of PR most often prescribed by Canadian reformers), party leaders will have a free hand in selecting people to fill the party list seats, weakening the power of the rank and file in the riding associations.

It’s true that an MMP system could be designed with these flaws. But as Smith makes clear in his own call for reform of the status quo, so can FPTP (an issue I discussed previously here). And these flaws are not essential to MMP; an MMP system could be designed to avoid them (by means of regional list nominations and open list voting, for example). In other words, Smith is comparing the worst possible implementation of MMP with the best possible implementation of FPTP. It should be little surprise — and of even less interest — if MMP comes up short in this kind of comparison. At most, these criticisms can only serve as a caution against viewing PR as a political panacea. They are not effective against the more reasonable view that that PR is simply likely to be an improvement.

On Jagmeet Singh’s social democratic credentials: a response to Rick Salutin


In a column at Rabble, Rick Salutin has harsh words for the candidates in the NDP leadership race, and especially for Jagmeet Singh. In Salutin’s view, Singh does not even belong in the NDP and would be more at home among the Liberals, or the Mulroney-era Progressive Conservatives. Two claims are cited in support of this conclusion. First, Salutin claims that Singh favours income testing pensions, putting us on a slippery slope towards a two-tier health care system in which the poor are insured by the state while the rich are insured privately. Second, Singh is vocal about individual rights, whereas the NDP is traditionally supposed to be more concerned about what Salutin calls “collective rights”. In this post, I will explain why both of these complaints are without foundation.

As originally stated, the first of these claims is manifestly false. Singh’s proposed Canada Seniors Guarantee involves consolidating a number of seniors’ benefits, including the Old Age Security pension and the Guaranteed Income Supplement — both of which are already income tested. And it increases the progressivity of these programs, so that low and middle income seniors will receive larger benefits, while high income seniors receive less (or nothing at all). But the Canada Seniors Guarantee would not affect Canadian Pension Plan benefits. Salutin’s claim that Singh favours income testing pensions as such is not true.

But perhaps this is too nitpicky. Even if the specifics are off the mark, Salutin’s underlying concern still merits a reply. This is the charge that once we allow income testing in one program, we undermine the basis for universality in other programs. This works in two ways. First, Salutin claims, income testing undermines the society-wide solidarity that generates support for programs like the universal health care system. Second, once income testing is allowed in one program, progressives can no longer consistently mount principled objections to two-tier healthcare.

How does income testing undermine solidarity? “[B]y separating the benevolent haves from the needy, petitioning underclasses,” Salutin claims. The thought here seems to be that directing income support to the poor makes them dependent on the contingent, arbitrary attitudes of the well off; such dependency is incompatible with the underlying relationship of mutual recognition and respect between equals that distinguishes solidarity from other forms of assistance. But Salutin’s charge seems more apt as a complaint about charity — that “cold, grey, loveless thing”, as Clement Attlee put it. I don’t see how it applies to a state-run income support program funded from the public treasury and administered as an entitlement with simple, transparent, legally defined criteria. The latter, it seems to me, expresses rather than undermines solidarity. If Salutin wants to maintain his objection to targeted aid, he needs to do a good deal more work to make clear the connection between the kind of objectionably paternalistic relationship exemplified by private, discretionary, charitable assistance to the poor and a system based on a right to public social assistance, administered to the poor as a matter of social justice. Unless this connection can be established, the first of Salutin’s objections fails.

Salutin’s second objection fallaciously deploys the slippery slope argument against income testing any part of the welfare state. Salutin begins with the reasonable assumption that his readers are committed to universality in the health care system. He then claims that if income testing is permissible for some benefits, it must be permissible in the health care system. The basic form of this argument (what philosophers call modus tollens) is deductively valid, meaning that if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. So are the premises true?

I share Salutin’s commitment to a universal system of public health insurance, so I accept the first premise. But the second premise is false. Of course, there is good reason to think that universal social programs help build a supportive political climate for the welfare state as a whole (including those parts of the welfare state that are not universal). Perhaps this is a sufficient reason to preserve the universality of the public health care system. But as as anyone who has paid attention to the debate on two-tier health care should know, there are other equally (if not more) compelling reasons to preserve the current system.

In fact, the left’s defence of universal public health insurance has largely focused on the negative consequences of a two-tier system for those who would continue to depend on the public system. If the private sector is given a larger role in health care, the quality of care available available through the public system will suffer. Those who continue to use the public system will be those who cannot afford better insurance — people with low and middle incomes. The principle that justifies universality in the public health care system is the principle that we ought to give priority to the needs of the worst off — the same principle that justifies directing income assistance to those with low and middle incomes. Far from putting us on a slippery slope to the end of universal public health care, Singh’s proposal essentially involves the consistent application of the very same principle that justifies universal public health care.

Salutin’s second charge against Singh is that he has been especially vocal about individual rights rather than “collective rights”, the latter supposedly being a more a more appropriate object of concern for social democrats:

Singh’s lawyerly stress on individual rights is strongly Liberal too; if anything’s distinguished the NDP, it’s been backing collective rights, such as medicare, unions etc. With Singh, it’s really a question not of what differentiates the NDP, but: Why aren’t you a Liberal? Maybe he wound up at the wrong meeting, the night he decided to get involved.

It is not clear exactly what Salutin means by collective rights; he provides no definition, and judging by the examples he provides, he does not seem to have in mind the more familiar categories of group rights or social rights. Social rights, of which access to health care is a textbook example, are generally borne by individuals, not groups. And union rights are a straightforward consequence of the individual right to freedom of association — no doubt one of the reasons why it took so long for freedom of association to be recognized as one of the basic liberal rights! But no matter how idiosyncratically Salutin wants to draw the distinction between “individual” and “collective” rights, he appears to be profoundly ignorant of our movement’s history. In reality, social democrats have never been indifferent to individual rights of any kind. The earliest struggles of the labour movement — from which parties like the NDP developed — were about securing civil and political rights as often as they were about wages and working conditions. Under Tommy Douglas, the Saskatchewan CCF enacted the first Bill of Rights in the country — 35 years before the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Likewise, BC’s Human Rights Code was passed into law by BC’s first NDP government, led by Dave Barrett. Far from marking him as an outsider, Singh’s work defending people’s rights —as a lawyer, activist and elected representative — is in keeping with the best traditions of the party.

Jagmeet Singh on poverty and inequality


Today, the Toronto Star issued an endorsement of Jagmeet Singh. Obviously I agree that Singh is the best choice to lead the NDP, and I think the editorial board makes a number of interesting points in its endorsement. However, I found this part puzzling:

[Singh] doesn’t appear to have a deep interest in policy issues; during a meeting with the Star’s editorial board it wasn’t clear that he fully appreciates the differences between policies aimed at eradicating poverty and those designed to fight economic inequality. They are different problems that imply very different solutions.

Here is the exchange this passage is apparently referring to:
Q: Your platform is quite strong on anti-poverty measures but contains less specifically aimed at inequality, what would you do to address that?
A: There is policy we put forward towards poverty reduction focused around those who are the most unequal in society: seniors in poverty, the working poor and Canadians with disabilities. We also coupled that with the Better Work Agenda focusing on people who are in precarious work, as well as how we can build better work. We also want to end unpaid internships with no exceptions and to reinstate the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act to ensure there are high standards of labour rights protections for workers at the federal level — which would encourage more equity and fairness for workers.


In response to the Star’s question, Singh points out that his antipoverty policies are also effective at reducing inequality. They reduce inequality by improving the position of the worst off. Unless specifically aiming at reducing inequality means aiming at reducing inequality while specifically aiming not to achieve any other worthwhile policy goals (an absurd definition, in my view), it strikes me as a mistake to say that Singh’s antipoverty policies are not aimed at reducing inequality.

Perhaps there is another way to interpret what the Star is concerned about. One way to reduce inequality is to improve the relative position of the worst off, and antipoverty policy is one way to achieve this kind of improvement. But inequality between the highest and lowest positions in the economic structure is not the only kind that matters; we are also concerned about how income and wealth are distributed across the range between the highest and lowest positions. Even if the lowest position has been raised as high as possible, we may still have reason to be concerned about inequality because everyone occupies either the highest position or the lowest. We should, I believe, give priority to the eradication of poverty. But we should also, to the furthest extent consistent with this priority, try to to fill out the ranks between the highest and lowest economic positions. And it is true that an exclusive focus on poverty reduction means neglecting this worthwhile goal.

But if this is what the Star means when it talks about inequality, its criticism of Singh still misses the mark. Right after mentioning his proposed poverty reduction measures, Singh mentions policy meant to fight precarious work. Precariousness affects workers beyond the bottom of the economic scale, and it presents an obstacle to those at the bottom trying to move up the scale. It follows that measures against precariousness are in fact measures intended to fight inequality in this second sense of the term. This is also true of ending unpaid internships, which are (if I’m not mistaken) mostly an issue for degree holders with relatively high expectations of future earnings, not the poorest of the poor. And it is true of improved labour rights protections, which secure the positions of workers across the income distribution. Moreover, Singh has also proposed a raft of tax reforms aimed at making the system more progressive, including higher income taxes on the top one percent of earners and a hefty new estate tax.

The Star’s complaint that Singh has not only ignored inequality, but does not even understand what it is, turns out to be completely baseless (not to mention condescending). In my view, Singh’s response to the board’s question demonstrates a stronger grasp of the issues than the board itself.


Free trade and “right to work” laws


This weekend, the Globe and Mail reported that Canadian representatives are demanding an end to US “right to work” laws as part of a renegotiated NAFTA. Much of the reaction on Twitter was highly critical; I probably wouldn’t have seen the article at all without these mocking tweets.

Despite the name, “right to work” laws have literally nothing to do with the right to work. They simply exempt employees at unionized firms from having to pay for representation. Because employees exempted under RTW are still represented by a union and covered by a collective agreement, they reap almost all the benefits of membership without sharing the burdens. Unions need money to function, and RTW deprives unions of their major source of funding. As a result, union density (the proportion of eligible labour market participants who are members of a union) in RTW states is extremely low.

The case for including the demand to repeal RTW as part of NAFTA negotiations is as follows:

1. RTW laws are designed to suppress unions — they illegitimately infringe union rights.
2. Union rights, as the saying goes, are human rights.
3. RTW laws illegitimately infringe human rights. (from 1 & 2)
4. If unions are suppressed in a given territory, firms in that territory have lower labour costs, all things being equal.
5. American firms have lower labour costs because of laws that illegitimately infringe human rights. (from 3 & 4)
6. Firms with lower labour costs have a competitive advantage over firms with higher labour costs, all things being equal.
7. RTW laws give American firms a competitive advantage by illegitimately infringing human rights. (from 3, 5 & 6)
8. Free trade agreements should prohibit governments from illegitimately securing competitive advantages for firms in their territory.
9. A free trade agreement with the US should prohibit RTW laws. (from 7 & 8)

To be clear, this is not the only basis on which one could justify the demand to repeal RTW. One might also argue that it ought to be included in the agreement as a social protection measure, for example. But I think it is the argument that’s hardest to refute for people who support free trade (if only because the category free trade supporters has more members than the category free trade supporters who also demand social protection clauses).

The argument is deductively valid, so the conclusion can only be false if one of the premises is false. The vulnerable points, I think, are premises 1 and 8. RTW laws have many supporters, including Coyne. These supporters will obviously deny premise 1, the claim that RTW illegitimately infringes union rights. Premise 8, on the other hand, may be challenged on purely pragmatic grounds, as Emmett Macfarlane does here:

The pragmatic objection is not very successful, as it turns out. Macfarlane’s claim seems to be that we don’t include human rights conditions in trade agreements because this would rule out trade with too many countries. But every part of this claim is false. The NAFTA regime already includes measures intended to secure labour rights. Obviously this has not prevented Canada from trading with countries with much worse human rights standards.

What about Macfarlane’s claim that the goal of trade negotiations shouldn’t be to increase costs? As the argument I provided above makes clear, Canadian negotiators are not aiming to increase costs. Still, it is true that increased costs are a foreseeable consequence of the negotiators’ demands. With this in mind, Macfarlane’s claim can be restated as follows: “Trade negotiations should not pursue goals that are expected to increase costs.” As a normative claim, that might be true. But as a descriptive claim about free trade negotiations, it is certainly false.

Free trade negotiations are aimed at lowering trade barriers. Consider state subsidies, one kind of barrier often targeted in free trade negotiations. If a foreign government subsidises its country’s steel industry, for example, this presents a barrier to Canadian steel producers trying to do business in that country. Canadian negotiators will probably demand an end to the steel subsidy, even though this means higher costs for Canadian firms currently benefiting from cheap, subsidised foreign steel. RTW is a similar kind of non-tariff barrier. The goal of free trade negotiations is fulfilled if repealing RTW eliminates a barrier to international trade, whether or not the costs to some firms or consumers are increased as a result.

What’s the point of lowering trade barriers, then? The answer is that trade barriers are bad for competition, and competition leads to lower costs and more innovation overall. If our hypothetical foreign steel producers lose their state subsidy, for example, they face greater competition from Canadian producers. To stay profitable, they will need to find a way to compensate for the lost subsidy. Perhaps they will invest in new production techniques or find new suppliers so they can continue to sell cheap steel and still turn a profit. Or they might choose investments aimed at improving the quality of their products so as to justify higher prices. Or they might get out of the steel business altogether and enter some other industry instead.

The same logic applies to the elimination of RTW. Some portion of the competitive advantage American firms currently enjoy is attributable to the suppression of union rights. If union rights were protected in the United States, American firms would face greater pressure to develop new products and production techniques because they could no longer count on artificially low labour costs to sustain profitability. According to conventional wisdom, this pressure should keep costs lower over the long run. And the applicability of the conventional wisdom to this particular case can only be denied if one denies that American firms are capable of developing new products and production techniques. Such a denial would entail that new depths of poverty are the only kind of innovations we have left to look forward to under capitalism. And this conclusion would call far more into question than just the “right to work”.

Three ways to resist Mulgan’s pre-existence argument

Brother Edward, condemned to seek redemption for the crimes of another life

Last time, I explained Mulgan’s argument that benevolent theism implies that persons exist (and exercise moral agency) before they are born, and why the success of this argument would have dire consequences for benevolent theism. In this post, I’ll take a brief look at three strategies for resisting the pre-existence argument that are available to benevolent theists.

1. The pre-existence argument depends on accounts of personal identity and moral responsibility that are false.

On Mulgan’s view, pre-existence (and only pre-existence) can explain away the appearance of gross unfairness in the distribution of evils (roughly, the fact that bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people). For pre-existence to provide the necessary explanation, we must be entities that existed and exercised moral agency before birth, and, from birth to death, continue to bear full moral responsibility for our choices before birth. Neither psychological nor physical or hybrid views of personal identity could ground the claims of identity and responsibility that pre-existence requires. We can have no psychological or physical relation to our hypothetical pre-existing selves. Only a brute relation could make me identical to and responsible for the choices of a pre-existing self. But positing brute facts should be a last resort when all other explanations run out. And given the availability of promising alternative accounts of identity and responsibility, there is no need to resort to brute explanation. If a brute relation is needed to explain how we could be responsible for choices we made before birth, but there is in fact no such relation, then we cannot be responsible for choices we made before birth. This means that pre-existence cannot increase the proportion of deserved evils in the world and is therefore superfluous.

2. A world that is made better by desert is made worse by sin.

Mulgan argues that if moral desert has any value at all, a world in which all evils are deserved is better than a world with undeserved evils. Given the choice between creating worlds with and without undeserved evils, God must select the latter. But only sin (which I use here to mean wrongful action) can make agents deserve to have evils visited upon them. This means that world in which all evils are deserved will contain far more sin than a world in which some evils are undeserved. If moral desert has some value, it seems plausible that sin has disvalue. Thus, any increase in the proportion of deserved evils will always be offset by a corresponding increase in the amount of sin and therefore could not possibly make the world better overall. At the very least, then, if it is permissible for God to create a world with any evils in it at all, it is permissible for God to create a world in which any number of evils are undeserved. This makes pre-existence entirely unnecessary.

3. The claim that all evils are deserved generates a paradox.

One could only deserve evils in virtue of having committed sin. One can only commit sin by visiting undeserved evils on another. But Mulgan’s account of pre-existence requires that all evils are deserved; the point of pre-existence is to show how this could be the case. If evil is always deserved, then there can be no sins, and if there are no sins, no one can deserve to have evils visited upon them. But plainly there are evils in the world, and if there are evils in the world and no one deserves to have evils visited upon them, then there are undeserved evils in the world. So the claim that all evils are deserved generates a paradox, and is therefore necessarily false.