that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."
~ Edmund Burke
There is a
growing subgroup of libertarians in the True North, Strong and Free
that practice rigid apathy. They rarely so much as place a phone
call, write a letter, or donate a dollar in the name of liberty.
Their inertia is premised on their belief that the fight for liberty
is hopeless. u2018No matter what any freedom fighter does,' they argue,
u2018the state continues to expand, so why bother doing anything.' That
is, activism has no effect, so why waste your life agitating for
something that will never come about. Instead, they devote their
energies wholly to non-political pursuits: career, hobbies, families,
etc. I'll grant them that the fight for liberty is steep, but it
is not hopeless. In what follows, I examine two aspects of Canada's
apathetic libertarians: their development and their version of "activism."
I argue that their thought is flawed and they should terminate their
self-righteous indolence and fight for their freedom.
of this anti-movement is rooted in the history of Canadian politics,
especially the growth of free-market policies in three conservative
political parties in the 1990s: 1) the Reform Party of Canada, a
Western Canadian populist party that brought together populists,
religious conservatives (what Canadians euphemistically term "social
conservatives"), and libertarians, 2) the first two terms of
Ralph Klein's Progressive Conservatives in Alberta (APC), and 3)
the two terms of Mike Harris' Progressive Conservatives in Ontario
joined these three parties in the early 1990s. To understand why
they did so, some Canadian political history must be considered.
Canadian politics have taken a different course than either American
or British politics. In American politics, the welfare state was
born in the 1930s and it essentially went unchallenged until Ronald
Reagan became President in the 1980s. Britain was similar: the welfare
started somewhat earlier and went unquestioned until Margaret Thatcher's
election in 1979.
contrast, was slower to develop its welfare state. During the Great
Depression, Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett attempted a
Canadian version of Roosevelt's New Deal, including a minimum wage,
a maximum number of working hours per week, unemployment insurance,
health insurance, an expanded pension programme, and grants to farmers.
The provinces fought him legally on his changes arguing that welfare
is a matter of property and civil rights and hence as per section
92 of the British North America Act — Canada's constitution — provincial
jurisdiction. The case made it to the Judicial Committee of the
Privy Council in England, at the time Canada's highest court. The
court agreed with the province's argument and struck down most of
Bennett's welfare programs. This is not to say that Canada did not
have a welfare state, it did. There were a few welfare benefits,
a monopoly wheat board, and several crown corporations (government-owned
businesses). This welfare state was expanded upon in the 1940s and
change came in the 1960s when the then struggling Liberal Party
of Canada decided to trade its (by then watered-down) classical
liberal platform for a welfare statist agenda in hopes of gaining
more votes. The change proved profitable. Further, in cases where
their new, larger vote total was not enough to obtain a majority
(i.e. control of Parliament), the social democratic New Democratic
Party (NDP) was all too happy to use their balance of power — i.e.
deciding number of votes — to push the Liberals further down the
socialist road. This led to two decades — the 1960s and 1970s —
of radical state expansion. Government developed unemployment insurance,
student loans, government health insurance (including government-operated
hospitals), significant gun controls that were heretofore non-existent
(e.g. licensing of owners, a ban on automatic weapons, removal of
self-defence as a legitimate reason for purchasing a weapon (all
in the late 1970s)), a government-owned oil company, a minimum wage,
a 40-hour workweek, a pension plan, and other socialist programs,
businesses, and controls. In effect, Canada very quickly went from
being perhaps the freest country in the English-speaking world to
arguably taking the lead in the race to the bottom.
When the 1980s
rolled around and Britain and the United States were voting to throw
off 50 or more years of welfare statism, Canada only partly followed.
With socialism being newer and its negative effects likely not as
strongly felt, Canadians elected Brian Mulroney, a Progressive Conservative
whose ideological opposition to the welfare state was significantly
less potent. Though he privatised some crown corporations (e.g.
Air Canada and Canada Post outlets), signed a "free-trade"
agreement with the U.S., and ended cumbersome foreign investment
restrictions, his knife never made Thatcher-esqe incisions into
In the late
80s and early 90s, the economic scat started to hit the fan, so
to speak. Provincial governments and their federal counterpart struggled
to pay for the costs of Canada's opulent welfare state. In the provinces
of Alberta and Ontario, Canada's two foremost economic engines,
voters elected two premiers, Ralph Klein (APC) and Mike Harris (OPC),
that started privatising/closing, or reducing the funding of, a
sizeable number of government programs. They also balanced budgets
and began paying off provincial debts. Concurrently, Western alienation
(i.e. discontent based on perceived indifference to Western Canada)
and general unpopularity lead to the literal collapse of the Mulroney's
Progressive Conservatives. In response, the Reform Party was set
up. It promised to sell off a great deal of government enterprises
and reduce government involvement in the lives of Canadians. Mulroney's
Progressive Conservatives were replaced by a Liberal government,
which, though still welfare liberal in ideology, began balancing
their budgets, paying off the federal debt, and reducing government
funding to various state departments.
Enter the libertarians.
This petit free-market revolution was a pleasant surprise for them.
Here the country seemed to be awaking from its welfare statist comma.
Libertarians moved in large numbers to join all three parties (depending
on their province of residence). In fact, the move to Reform, in
particular, was so great that the federal Libertarian party collapsed
after the 1993 federal election. Follow this
link and scroll down.
But the lustre
soon wore off. Alberta and Ontario's Progressive Conservatives cutting
created economic prosperity, which those provincial governments
began spending (instead of further cutting taxes and returning the
money to taxpayers). Concomitantly, the Reform Party wanted to break
out of its Western electoral base so it began to moderate its platform.
(The party eventually merged with what was left of Mulroney's Progressive
Conservatives to become the Conservative Party of Canada, which
though more free-market and pro-gun than Mulroney's party is still
a far cry from the more radical Reform Party.) Finally, the political
effects of September 11th seemed like a final nail in
the coffin for many libertarians' association with Canada's political
right. The Reform/Conservative party began to turn their attention
to growing security/military state, leaving many of their free-market
ideas behind. As a result, libertarians were left disheartened and
feeling dejected. Sizeable numbers swore off politics entirely.
The federal Libertarian party, now alive again, is a far cry from
its pre-1993 levels.
effects on activism
But of course
party politics are not the only measure of political involvement,
nor does a libertarian have to join a political party to effect
political change. A person can write letters to the local paper,
compose academic papers, hold conferences or speaking events, or
participate in political rallies.
eclipse of Canada's petit free-market revolution has seemed to affect
participation in these activities as well. In Alberta, libertarian
groups made up of mostly former federal Reformers and/or provincial
Conservatives, used to hold first-rate libertarian speaking events.
These well-attended speaking events would bring together famous
libertarian activists, academics, and journalists to discuss a freedom-related
topic for an evening. (Full disclosure: I attended many of them.
And they were, in quality, on par with events one would attend at
the Mises Institute or the Cato Institute. (Further full disclosure:
I've interned at Cato and I have twice been a fellow at the Mises
Institute.)) The most famous of these events was an annual 4th
of July speaking event that celebrated not America, but the idea
that inspired its founding: individual liberty. It usually brought
together one high-profile American libertarian together with a well-known
Canadian Austrian school journalist. People I knew used to mark
if off on the event off on their calendars, then it disappeared.
in the Maritimes seem to have been affected by a similar activist
apathy. But because the movement there is smaller, it is difficult
for me to address the lack of activities without outing people.
I'll just say that some great political analysis and activist action
has been lost.
There are strong
exceptions to this lack of non-partisan activism, especially in
British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec, that I will touch on later
in not the next section, but the one following.
activism do apathetic libertarians (especially in Alberta and the
Maritimes) engage in if they are not holding events, writing letters,
or attending rallies? In short, they do nothing. But like any group
with strong ethical convictions, they have a defence of their chosen
course. It is made up of two arguments: one reason concerns partisan
political involvement, the other activism.
for the Libertarian Party: by participating in elections, one
sanctions the state's rights violations by participating in the
process that legitimises its power. (Reply: the state receives its
legitimacy from the vote totals of the major parties that support
it, not the process per se. If the Libertarians received 30% of
the vote, the legitimacy of the welfare-warfare state would be in
question. But I'll concede, with one caveat, that one does not have
to vote or run for office to make a difference: if Ron Paul or another
strong libertarian candidate is running for office, one should vote
letters and organising speaking events: they affect no real
change so why bother? (Reply: these activities may not produce large
numbers of libertarians, but they do incline their audiences toward
freedom and, further, they strengthen the stand of those who are
pro-freedom on particular issues. In short, they do produce change,
just not radical change. Don't expect revolutionary change from
As an alternative
to activism, the positive programme of apathetic Canucks is to "live
free." This entails living according to libertarian ethics
until some imagined fateful day when the state comes to take them
away. Murray Rothbard has addressed this type of pompous defeatism,
which he labels "retreatism," in his essay "On
Resisting Evil." He writes,
for retreatism always comes couched in High Moral as well as pseudo-psychological
terms. These “purists,” for example, claim that they, in
contrast to us benighted fighters… are “living liberty” and living
a “pure libertarian life,” whereas we grubby souls are still living
in the corrupt and contaminated real world. For years, I have
been replying to these sets of retreatists that the real world,
after all, is good; that we libertarians may be anti-State, but
that we are emphatically not anti-society or opposed to
the real world, however contaminated it might be. We propose to
continue to fight to save the values and the principles and the
people we hold dear, even though the battlefield may get muddy.
of libertarianism assume that humans are by nature social animals
and that their life as members of society is beneficial to them
by their own estimation. Libertarianism is after all a theory of
rules for society. If you care about liberty, your actions have
to be directed towards improving social relations. If you wish to
exist by ignoring society, you are defending something other than
types propose moving to a U.S. state that is more pro-freedom than
any of the Canadian provinces. They propose a state that is without
seat-belt laws (and other petty restrictions), that has low taxes,
and few gun controls. But this, of course, is playing into the state's
divide-and-conquer strategy. Freedom causes are divided along left
and right lines for a reason. When in power, the left destroys the
freedoms praised by the right, while mildly increasing left freedoms.
Vice versa when the right is in power. This enables government to
grow while pitting those who most care about freedom into competing
camps that care little for their particular cause.
the right gains power more, while in Canada, the left. Sure freedom-friendly
states are better on the issues of import to those who propose moving
to them, but all of America, including those states, is worse in
ways that Canada is not. The U.S. justice system, should one ever
cross it, is far more right-usurping, cruel, and contemptuous of
the rule of law than is Canada's. The U.S. surveillance state is
far more active. And then there is America's drug war, likely the
most anti-freedom domestic public policy in the Western world. Sure,
given their lifestyle, these particular apathetic libertarians would
have little to fear in America, but remember we must band together
to protect all freedoms. If we pick and choose, we lose.
libertarians in Canada
Based on what
I've written, don't get a dark picture of Canada as a land of indolent
libertarians. There are many noble exceptions in Canada. In Quebec,
there is Le Quebecois Libre,
a weekly webzine in French and English that is the main libertarian
publication of the French-speaking world. Le Quebecois Libre group
also holds an annual liberty-oriented university similar to Mises
University, but admittedly smaller. They also host regular speaking
and that of other Quebec libertarians, has paid off. Recently, a
Quebec doctor successfully argued in front of the Supreme Court
of Canada that his province's ban on private healthcare should be
overturned — a decision that applies to the entire country. The
doctor is sympathetic to libertarians and is no doubt influenced
by Quebec's amis de liberté.
my friend Peter Jaworski hosts one of the best libertarian events
I have had the pleasure of attending: the Liberty
Summer Seminar. It takes place on his estate outside of Toronto.
Every year, he invites Canada's top libertarian and pro-freedom
academics, journalists, and activists to give talks during the day,
while a pro-freedom band (and his mom!) rocks out in the evening.
The event is annual and will be held next at the end of this month.
Columbia, the West Coast Libertarian
Foundation regularly holds libertarian supper speaking events
in Greater Vancouver. There is also libertarian cannabis activist
Marc Emery who publishes Cannabis
Culture magazine. He is still agitating for liberty even
now as he fights
his extradition to the United States.
has one of the world's most active libertarian communities. The
political events of the 1990s and early 2000s seem to have deadened
the movement's enthusiasm, especially in Alberta and the Maritimes.
However, the movement can regain its strength by renewing activism
in these apathetic regions. By once again organising libertarian
speaking-events, by writing letters, by producing academic papers,
by attending the Liberty Summer Seminar in Ontario and Quebecois
Libre University, and by realising that "living-free"
is anti-social and ultimately useless, liberty can be defended with
our best efforts once again. It is when history is not going our
way that liberty is in greatest need of our defence. Let's get on
Cust [send him mail]
is an M.A. student in political science at the University of Waterloo
in Waterloo, Ontario and a summer fellow at the Mises Institute.