A Sketchy Speculative Comparison
By Wendy McElroy
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
Canada and the United States have much in common. Both are democratic and geographically isolated, lending them an environmental sense of safety. Both evolved from British colonies and, so, have similar cultural roots. But one of the key historical differences between the two nations is the relative emphasis they placed on group -- rather than individual -- rights. The two institutions of government have evolved in accordance with these differences. Yet, today, their approaches to group rights seem to be converging.
With two founding nations in its heritage, Canada was born to group rights. France and Britain both staked competing claims to the fur-rich area, a competition that was finally resolved in 1759 through a British military victory. Yet, in the spirit of compromise, the Quebec Act of 1774 guaranteed French Canadians the right to exercise their own unique customs, law, and religion.
The European immigrants who founded the 13 colonies had no similar conflict. Although African slaves formed a culturally and politically distinct subgroup, they had no power. When the American Revolution erupted, the loyalists -- who constituted nearly 1/3rd of the colonial population -- fled, leaving behind a largely homogeneous political base.
The ideology of the American revolution was classical liberalism, transmitted through such voices as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. Institutionally, the U.S. embraced the classical liberal model: limited government and the explicit protection of individual rights. This approach is embodied in the Constitution, especially in the Bill of Rights.
Nearly a century later, in 1867, the British North America Act (the BNA) passed through the British Parliament and created a nation called Canada out of Upper Canada (Ontario), Lower Canada (Quebec), and the Maritime regions of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
Institutionally, Canada began by embracing a model of political compromise, which was aimed at protecting the 'rights' of ethnic groups and of special interests. Significantly, the BNA Act contained no bill of rights to protect individual freedoms. However, the Canadian provinces retained a greater level of autonomy than did the American states. For example, the BNA allowed provincial legislatures to set up intraprovincial tariffs, a practice specially prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.
The greater provincial autonomy was part of the bribery process that lured the four separate regions into forming a nation. For example, to bribe the Maritimes into union, the BNA Act included the promise of an Intercolonial Railway, which would open up trade. Quebec was seduced by the prospect of protection for its French culture against the domination by the more powerful English Ontario. An aggressive Ontario figured it could enrich itself at the expense of the weaker provinces.
Even with such incentives, however, conflicting group interests might well have blocked union had it not been for one common concern: a fear of invasion from the United States.
Thus, from inception, Canada and the United States institutionalized different attitudes toward individual and group rights. Canada catered to group interests without providing protection for individual rights. The U.S. did not widely recognize special interests -- with the exception of slavery in the South -- but it explicitly protected individual rights through the Bill of Rights.
From such beginnings, both nations increasingly emphasized group rights over individual ones. The growth of this trend is, perhaps, best attributed to two general factors: war which is the 'health of the state'; and, the institutional tendencies of government which surge during wartime. The anti-individualist trend of war is, perhaps, best traced through the conflicts in which both nations have been embroiled. World War I was a political watershed for both Canada and the U.S., whose governments intervened extensively into the private sector for 'war-time purposes'. World War II saw state power expand hungrily. President Roosevelt created so many government agencies with three-word-names that -- in abbreviated form -- they were called the 'alphabet agencies'. In Canada, the federal government usurped the most important provincial prerogatives, including direct taxation.
In postwar years, some freedoms were returned to the private sector, some were retained. But the precedent of political intervention into the economy to allocate resources was well entrenched.
The anti-individualist tendencies of political institutions made the drift toward group rights inevitable. The drive to redistribute wealth is embedded deeply within political institutions, which generate their own internal incentives that shape the behavior of people who function within them. This is a principal insight of public choice theory. Well constructed institutions, not necessarily well-intentioned people, are the prerequisites for the preservation of rights.
The political allocation of wealth creates niches for political entrepreneurs. These are people who see the potential for profit in the political realm, whether profit is defined in material terms like money or less tangible ones like power. Just as in the private sector, the political entrepreneur seizes an opportunity for profit by manipulating circumstances to maximize his return. In other words, politicians have an incentive to manipulate group conflicts in order to use the demands as a mandate for their own power.
This is true even of well-intentioned politicians, who do not seem to exercise genuine control over the laws and, therefore, wish to escape blame for their content. In his book Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society, Ralf Dahrendorf observes that those who choose to become politicians must take responsibility for government, even if their chosen role is a minor one:
"Nobody in particular seems to exercise 'the authority' and yet authority is exercised, and we can identify people who do not participate in its exercise. Thus the superficial impression of subordination in any minor bureaucratic roles are defined with reference to the total process of the exercise of authority to which they contribute to whatever small extent."
Government is the institutionalized redistribution of wealth by force, and well-meaning politicians will play the role that is determined by the institution's design. They are passengers in a vehicle which has a pre-programmed destination. Such politicians are further undermined by the fact that politics constantly offers incentives to behave in an unscrupulous manner.
America's founding fathers realized the importance of institutions and incentives in guiding human behavior. They saw government as a potential engine of plunder and they assumed that people would act primarily for their personal interests, not for the public good. To counteract the ambitions of men, the founders made government transfers an awkward, uncertain, and expensive process. Explicit constitutional rights, restraints on government, and separation of powers all limited the profits for political entrepreneurs. Or, they were meant to. But the official limits on the opportunistic use of the U.S. government began to erode with the Slaughterhouse Cases (1872) and Munn v. Illinois (1877).
Canada and the United States began differently. The fathers of Canadian Confederation spoke of 'peace, order, and good government.' The founding fathers of the United States spoke of 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness'. But the natural tendencies of politics, which blossom during times of war, have brought the two nations almost to the same place in stressing group rights and interests over those of individuals.
"A contributing editor to Liberty magazine, Wendy McElroy has published widely in feminism beginning in 1983 with Freedom, Feminism and the State (CATO) and most recently in 1995 with XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography (St. Martin's Press). Her articles have appeared in such diverse publications as National Review and Penthouse. Her 'day' job is writing and editing documentaries, some of which have been recorded by Walter Cronkite, George C. Scott and Harry Reasoner."
Next to advance to the next article, or Previous to return to the previous article, or Index to return to The Libertarian Enterprise, Number 14, September 15, 1996.