|Montreal, March 2, 2002 / No 99|
by Pierre Lemieux
Recent examples of the advancing steamroller of the state include the forced municipal amalgamations in Québec, gun-owner control in Canada, and the ban on smoking in private places called restaurants and bars in Ottawa. Every reader will have his own list. Whether the crushed liberties are those of a minority or a majority, we need to understand why no efficient resistance can be opposed to the steamrolling state.
One reason is that democratic majorities are elastic: it depends over which
territory the state defines them. It's often possible to invoke a wider
majority to subdue a local one – the majority of Quebecers against municipal
majorities, for example. The larger the arbitrarily defined territory,
the more reason an individual has to remain "rationally ignorant" of politics,
as his personal influence vanishes into insignificance.
A related strand of explanation is provided by the theory of collective action, developed by economists over the last four decades. An individual will participate in a collective action only if the benefits he gets from his own participation are greater than the costs it imposes on him. A value like individual liberty is called a "public good," in the sense that many people can take advantage of it once it is provided. If an individual's part in promoting liberty is costly and makes no practical difference to the outcome anyway, he won't bother to act, and will hope to free ride on his neighbour's participation. Thus, nobody (or few) will act.
Fewer benefits, more costs
Over the last decades, individual benefits from defending liberty have not increased, while the costs have.
On the other hand, the costs to an individual of defending liberty have quite certainly increased, as the state has become present everywhere. Consider the tenured university professor, for whom it is probably the least risky to oppose the state. To get tenure, he probably had to fit in the mould, which means to be the right kind of dissenter: criticize the government, but glorify the state. Once he has tenure, he still needs research funds which, in Canada, basically all come from the state. Better not burn your bridges to the Ministry.
As for the average businessman, he needs direct lines to the government for his subsidies, and to protect himself against mounting regulation. In general, don't expect business executives to cross the sword with the state over individual liberty – or they will do it so softly as not to constitute a real threat.
Young people soon learn that, if they are not nice with the statocrats, they reduce their chances of getting support, subsidies, and privileges. And like in Orwell's Newspeak, words to question the state's omnipresence become incomprehensible (like "individual choice") or acquire altogether different meanings (like "dignity").
Why are there so few political entrepreneurs to defend those individuals who feel their liberties are crushed? It is not mainly because the oppressed may be in a minority, but because political entrepreneurs can be more successful by catering to politically correct minorities. If the opponents to the Montréal amalgamation believe that Jean Charest will just rescind the law, they are in for a rude awakening. Moreover, the political system has protected itself well against competition from outsiders, with controls on political party creation and financing, and election gag laws.
Little time left
Liberty, then, has so few defenders, because it is individually very costly to participate in its defence.
If there is a solution within the actual political system, it is to increase the benefits of defending liberty. Now, financing defenders of liberty is itself a public good, and especially difficult to produce in a country like Canada where there are few sources of independent, non-state support, and few large personal fortunes. These two reasons probably explain why there is so little lively libertarian activity here, compared to the many active, trend-setting think tanks and other organizations in the United States.
We may hope that the growing number of disconnected, politically-incorrect minorities who have their lifestyles crushed by political choices, will nurture resistance entrepreneurs in the intellectual and the business world. But considering how our liberties have fallen like dominoes over the last decades, there might be little time left.
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