Come See the Logic Inherent in the System, Help, Help, It’s Being Expressed

This is the story of how I, a young aspiring Libertarian, made peace with the prevailing order, and evolved into a Tory squish, wrapped up in a defense of the broad outlines of Liberal democracy.  More importantly it is the story of my disillusionment with Monism, and embrace of Value Pluralism, which I will develop as we go on.  Let me set the stage with a quote from Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, Bt, in whose honour I have adopted my nom de blog.

Continue reading “Come See the Logic Inherent in the System, Help, Help, It’s Being Expressed”

The Englishness of Ice Hockey

An Enquiry

Everyone knows that hockey is Canada’s sport. Not everyone knows that hockey was invented by the English. There are some peculiarities to the play of the game that seem quaintly English, but I don’t know quite how to put my finger on it. Particularly in the penalty phases of the game there are Englishnesses, but from what philosophical tradition do they come? To wit:

  • Penalties in general: result in the offending player being sent off the ice for a designated period of time, during which his team must play with fewer players than their opponents.
  • Minor penalties: for minor infractions of game play, mostly involving “bad form,” as it were, putting the stick in the wrong place, clutching with the hands, crashing into an opposing player while he is in a vulnerable position, and the like, there is a two-minute penalty.
  • Double Minor penalties: for the same infractions as “bad form”, except involving an added carelessness, there is a four-minute penalty.

Okay, one can perceive some sort of sensibility at work here. However, another class of penalties highlights the peculiarities of the culture of ice hockey. I’m curious: do they illustrate a relationship to the culture which flourished on Great Britain until the middle of the Victorian Era? As follows:

  • Major penalties: for crimes of passion and premeditation, such as outright fighting with the fists, the offending players are sent off the ice for five minutes, but the offending players’ teams are not further penalized by having to play with fewer players; instead, play continues normally.
  • Misconduct penalties: for particularly egregious crimes of passion and premeditation, where, in the judgment of the game officials the player is out-of-control, there is a ten minute penalty. But, again, the offending player’s team continues to play normally.
  • Game Misconduct penalties: most oddly, for completely uncivilized game play, such as using the hockey stick as a weapon, a player will not only be sent off the ice, but out of the immediate playing area, being exiled, as it were, from the environs of hockey. What’s particularly odd about this penalty is that, like exile, the player may return to the ice after an extended period of time!
  • Match penalties: the player is deemed unfit for civil society and is ejected, never to return, also without further penalty to his team. What provokes such a penalty? Premeditated intent to injure or harm his opponent.

So (the layperson may reason) why is fighting not considered a premeditated intent to injure or harm? Well, I don’t rightly know, but I understand. If you will: a hockey fight is, in general, a gentleman’s agreement that the parties involved have some bad blood between them, stemming from some ancestry or another, perhaps not even of immediate provenance, but of ancient yore (e.g., an incident by completely different players from several games ago), and a fist fight will leech some of that bad blood. A match penalty, on the other hand, is a judgment made by the game officials that there is no gentleman’s agreement, that the barbarian has been unleashed. And that, my friends, will never do.

Mark Fraser, Cody McCormick

Aside from boxing, no other sport even tolerates fighting, much less develops a complex arrangement of unspoken agreements and concomitant delineated penalties.

Where does this come from?

Of Course The U.S. Can Do Better

But do we want to? And why would we want to? Why should efficiency and progress be a goal of a federal government?

It was sweet of Sam Hammond to respond to my gigantic troll piece the way he did: normally, trolling Sam is like poking a hornet’s nest after chaining yourself to the tree; I expected to be obliterated (I would have deserved it), but he showed the kind of restraint that makes Sweet Talk Conversation the Azores of the internet.

As I mentioned, I spend half my working life in Canada, and I also travel infrequently overseas and to Central America to do leadership training among charitable organizations, so I hear and experience quite a bit of the States as an outsider looking in, fielding all sorts of questions, responding to myths and misconceptions, and also taking no small amount of grief for our many sins. As an example, on Tuesday, a Canadian gentleman I work with was astonished that Obama should not be the most popular person in America because he gave poor people free health care. It was all I could do to maintain decorum enough to explain that, no, that’s not quite the issue. In short, I’ve had to explain America to non-Americans and even non-Anglophones (a special challenge by itself) an awful lot.

There’s a similar thing going on with Sam, who has a tenacious grip on facts and concepts, along with the many relationships and moving parts, and I hope I can remain one of his students–at least until the time comes when his intellect flies to a place where mine can no longer fathom. Nevertheless, he glossed over one part of the Spirit of ’76, treating a feature of our founding as more of a design quirk. He said, “The US federal government was not designed to be good at stuff.”

I will quibble here, with all due respect to Sam, whom I must have irritated to the point of distraction. I think it is better to say that the US federal government was, in fact, designed to not be good at stuff.

Abraham Lincoln, of mixed fame, reminded the world of this feature of our founding at Gettysburg, when he intoned, “Four score and seven years ago…” which refers to the year 1776. Nowadays we take it for granted that the American Declaration of Independence is the loading of the gun that fired the shot heard ’round the world. But that perspective was not de facto until after Lincoln was enshrined in the American Virtues Hall of Fame. Until that moment at Gettysburg, the American Civil War was being fought over the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, i.e., whether states had the right to determine this or that, with “this or that” including something as heinous as slavery–and not just human slavery, but the slavery of a race of men.


In other words, pro-Constitutionalists who took the side of states’ rights were arguing in favor of tyranny. They were using the Constitution to exercise tyranny.

In the land of freedom? Shall tyranny be encoded in the Constitution of the land which declared independence from a tyrant?

The American spirit, from that day in Gettysburg forward, has always reached beyond the actual founding of the country according to the ratification of the Constitution in 1787–beyond that to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. What Lincoln did was revolutionary, highlighting the actual intent of the crafters of the Constitution, namely that it shall be so messy that no tyrant shall seize free people.

An efficient and progressive federal government is too tempting a prize for an ambitious person, and, on balance, I think that Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin would look at the drooling, unwieldy behemoth that is presently the United States Government, and they would rejoice. What tyrant would seize control of this?

It is not without great irony that Abraham Lincoln would hear shouted as he was perishing, “Sic semper tyrannis!” He had just made it virtually impossible for a tyrant to arise. See subsequent American history, current events included.

The US Can Do Better

My favourite country in the world is the United States of America, and it’s not just because of the cheap liquor and whores. It’s because the USofA creates uncompensated benefits for the rest of the world. And on top of that, she is always trying to do better, inspite of her best efforts.

So while reading David’s latest tour de force at my expense, I couldn’t help but feel he was dead right. Right that the US political landscape is a knot of non-cognitivism. Right that education, poverty and basic infrastructure could probably use some attention. Right that corruption and rent seeking at the highest levels is tolerated as if it were an intrinsic bug in democracy. But David is quick to remind me of the private sector. Yes, the US has an inadequate collective action mechanism, but don’t sweat it. It controls a mere 35% of a $17.5 trillion economy. And there’s a whole other 65!

The irony is that despite all that failure to collectively act, the US is one of the world’s greatest providers of the most basic public good of all: innovation. Innovation makes the world permanently richer through breakthroughs that all countries are free to copy. And there, Canada cannot compete. We may stand on guard for our affordable and high quality health insurance, but we’re also a small, exporting country with dismal R&D rates. Contrast this to the private capital and survival instinct that torrents through US medical institutions, and you’ll be left with the impression that Canada and the world at large enjoy a free-ride.

Yet the resilience of the US private sector is no reason to neglect the sorry shape of its public sector. On the contrary, it’s all the more reason to be dissatisfied. Everytime $4 billion gets spent on a handful of competitive senate races it’s a Human Genome Project that wasn’t. Every time a social program is sabotaged while a free market solution is outlawed, another cohort slips into the limbo of a safety net designed by taking the average of two incompatible philosophies. And as the world’s most productive economy, the US is not only shooting itself in the foot — it’s using the world’s most expensive bullets.

As David alludes to, the US federal government was not designed to be good at stuff. This leads some to conclude that the path of least resistance is a libertopia fait accompli to minimize loses. But times have changed. Wagner’s Law means a wealthy public demands its goods, which in turn means that so as long as the US is democratic it endogenizes a role for good governance. The Founders never anticipated the New Deal, much less the Affordable Care Act. We can only thank the grace of God that they checked the Bill of Rights for typos.

I also recognize that the US is not going to hold a constitutional convention anytime soon, much less apologize for sedition and crawl back to the crown. It’s just not in the dominoes. But it doesn’t need to be. The issue isn’t the vital need for a rationally constructed privy council. The issue is that the micromotives and macrobehavior of the US political economy are out of whack.

Social criticism is based on the premise that we can and should do better. And to that end, comparative institutional analysis is indispensable.

In Praise of Parliament

I have had the great pleasure of working in Canada for eleven years now, commuting from my home in idyllic Tonawanda, New York, which lies between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, to St. Catharines, which is just west of Niagara Falls, Ontario. I work for an international charitable organization (which prudence forbids I name for their sake), so I have the opportunity to see some of the social welfare infrastructure on both sides. I commute by way of the Rainbow Bridge, which takes me past the sublime Niagara Falls.

When I pass over the border into Canada late on Friday mornings, I marvel at the sight of thousands of residents of Toronto making their way into the USA. For the longest time, I thought they must be coming for tourist reasons, to enjoy some of the natural wonders of Western New York, which are many and various, and are not developed at all, like Niagara Falls, Ontario, which has become, essentially, a miles-long gigantic menagerie of gentlemen’s clubs and hotels attached to the gaudy casino overlooking the Falls. But I was wrong, and I feel pity.

My good friend Sam Hammond is a Canadian, of The True North, strong and free, and the Canada he purports to live in is a nearly perfect Parliamentary System, where society is laid out according to a nearly strict Rationalist order, with restrictions on free speech to limit pesky questions from the fringe right or left, with restrictions on religion to limit any obstacles to the advance of benign technological progressivism, with restrictions on the press to limit knowledge of the machinations of government, which are almost perfectly pure, where society is forcibly compassionate, with a generous welfare system which distributes vast wealth to the underprivileged, to the losers of life’s lottery, with a system of free healthcare, accessible to all–it must be infuriating to have to line up at the border to enter the USA, waiting ninety minutes, every Friday during a ten-hour window, not including the drive time from Toronto, to dine affordably, to shop for groceries, to buy cheap booze, to acquire household amenities, and to get basic medical attention at our innumerable private health facilities, which vary between religious and for-profit (the horror!). The return trip is just as frustrating, finding that comfortable gray place between outright lying to the good people of your own Canadian Border Patrol about how much you’ve acquired, and merely understating the declared goods wrapped in blankets and towels beneath your feet and in the trunk. You’re just trying to have what’s best for your family, eh?

If I were in that queue, I’d be infuriated: I mean, America is the Forrest Gump of the nations, right? And to be quite frank, Niagara Falls, USA is a sphincter of Western New York. It literally smells bad, the result of some manufacturing process that exploits the Niagara River as a source for energy; the roads are worse, after a century of mafia-controlled graft; the routes are inscrutable, thanks to New York City’s own Robert Moses (Western New York’s Haman). Buffalo is revitalizing, but it fell a long way since its heyday, struggling against New York State’s suffocating politics. And Canadians know it; they know that Niagara Falls, USA is our Leah to America’s Rachel, and they love her. They’ve also seen the pictures of San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Charlotte, Nashville, Jacksonville, Disneyland, and other growing cities of Texas and the Southeast. They know about the great medical institutions of St. Louis, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Boston, the cultural innovations of San Francisco, Madison, and Los Angeles.

And New York City: would those of you dwellers of Manhattan please start wearing colors so that Torontoans can stop wearing black?

Seriously, how did such stupid people–lookit: all those religious people in the Midwest and the Southeast–how? Just how? How did such stupid, superstitious, unthinking, uneducated, illiterate, gun-toting, Puritanical, and (miraculously) boorish people luck into such prosperity? Such advancement? Why do they persist in this quaint idea of their Founding Fathers, who, for some mysterious reason, eschewed the greatness of a Parliamentary System? The messiness of their elections, their intolerable populist shrieking, their government shut-downs without the friendly crafty plots of a Governor General, their tradition-less 300-year old culture (except murder; they’re good at murder), and their lack of stolen jewels for the monarch–how is it that they are the wealthiest, happiest people on the planet, so much so that droves of people pour in through their borders, enough to create an immigration crisis? Luck, or theft, or something, I dunno.

The Presidential System sucks.