Pierre Poilievre’s Mistaken View of Democracy

Late to the party here (but I did sign the letter). I don’t have much to add to the excellent public commentary about this misguided act, but there is one point that hasn’t received enough scrutiny, and I think it’s important.

In his public attempt to defend a frankly poor piece of legislation, Pierre Poilievre, Minister for Democratic Reform, asserts the following:

“There are two things that drive people to vote: motivation and information. Motivation results from parties or candidates inspiring people to vote. Information (the “where, when and how”) is the responsibility of Elections Canada. … The Fair Elections Act will require Elections Canada to communicate this basic information, while parties do their job of voter motivation.”

This strikes me as interestingly wrong, betraying a misguided moral vision of what democracy is, and what it could be. Continue reading

Citizen motivation to take part in their democracy shouldn’t be left to partisan forces. Sincere and informed civic participation is a public good, and there is no inconsistency (indeed, there is considerable virtue) in having Elections Canada involved in both informing voters and encouraging them to take part in public life, especially voting.

We shouldn’t drive a partisan wedge between motivation and information in the way Poilievre so breezily suggests. To do so is to accept a cynical and, frankly, antidemocratic view of Canadian politics.

Think about voting. It is, most of the time and for most people, apparently inconsequential: as political scientists have (in)famously noted, it cannot be justified merely by expected gains associated with the very real costs of becoming informed and showing up at the ballot box. And yet it is a vitally important act, one that citizens routinely undertake regardless of the apparent waste of time and resources.

Whatever voting is, then, it isn’t merely a rational act, or a result of partisan haranguing. It is something far more valuable.

In a thoughtful recent commentary, Peter Loewen gets this point exactly right:

“If the decision to vote is really important, it is because it is a small act that tells us something about individuals’ values. It is like so many other democratic and civic acts: small in isolation, grand in aggregation. Seemingly trivial, but in fact deeply revealing of what an individual values and wants. Good societies are made up of these small acts.”

That profoundly important act is not something we should trust to partisan voices. It is the sine qua non of a healthy democracy, and as such, it deserves better than the partisan fate that Harper and Poilievre have in mind.


Hayek and School Closures

In a recent post, Loren provides an excellent analysis of the silly decision making process that is being used to decide school closures in Hamilton.  Among many cool tidbits, he writes:

“What is troubling, however, is the uniform obsession with closures. There are a range of creative and cost-effective ways we might reconfigure and reimagine existing facilities: partial decommisions, mixed uses, or a range of potential public-private partnerships. Most boards take none of these seriously.”

To me, this is a Hayekian story about expert information, its location (either dispersed throughout or concentrated within a particular segment of society), and how some politicians and policymakers sometimes make bad decisions because they assume they have a monopoly on expert information. Continue reading

According to Loren’s post, these politicians and civil servants seem to believe they have a monopoly on expert information regarding how to assess and solve issues relating to school building use and maintenance.  They made their decisions based on their own knowledge and then took those decisions to the public for “consultations.”’ In the case of Loren’s neighbourhood, which is a location filled with university professors and professionals, they encountered a variety of citizens who had access to their own expert (and local) knowledge that was relevant to the school closure decisions. Rather than consider and incorporate this new expert knowledge, the policymakers and civil servants ignored them, probably because they were in positions of authority and as such assumed that they had a monopoly over the expert knowledge on these issues. The result was bad public policy.

Hayek may have been wrong about a number of things but it’s examples like these that show his continued relevance.  If policymakers and civil servants simply realize that it is possible that expert knowledge is (at least sometimes) dispersed throughout society, then perhaps we’d have better policy outcomes.