Montreal, January 15, 2005 • No 150




Jean-Luc Migué is a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute. Réjean Breton is a Professor at the Law Faculty of the Université Laval.




by Jean-Luc Migué & Réjean Breton


          It is widely acknowledged that North American academia regularly lapses into anti capitalism and naïve faith in government intervention. It should therefore come as no surprise that the education lobby in Quebec has since the 1960s been sharing this core philosophy of politicizing everything. While doing so, the Quebec intellectual and political establishment has driven out most other intellectual impulses. No cracks are yet visible in the "liberal" edifice. For that the culture keepers feel morally and intellectually superior.


          What is less expected is that explicit censorship should be openly practised in a university department. As professors in the Law Faculty of Université Laval, the two of us have recently been the victims of such ostracism. As consigned on paper in the minutes of a meeting of the Law Faculty professors, our offence has consisted in writing on and encouraging such "subversive" ideas as "state non-interventionism" and "free markets." Being a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute did not help one of us. Indignant faculty members pressed the department to show more caution in hiring lecturers. What disturbed us most was that teaching unconventional ideas should be less than taken for granted in a university, that it should be viewed as dangerous and extremist by the bien pensants in place, that it should not even be part of "minority rights" so fashionable in those circles. Diversity in race, ethnicity and sexual preference is extolled but not in thought. From our angle, this only serves to show that the dominant leftist doctrine is what is extremist in our society.

          The principle of freedom of thought was evoked by one member of the assembly and the danger of promoting a faculty ideology was raised by another. On the other hand, this witch hunt went on in a formal meeting of the Law Faculty. While not officially endorsing this form of censorship, neither the Law Faculty nor the University deemed it appropriate to officially dissociate from this shameful position, even though the case was widely reported in a Quebec City daily (Michel Hébert, "Parfum de censure à l'Université Laval," Le Journal de Québec, November 13, 2004) as well as discussed in radio talk shows.

          Note that the pseudo trial instituted against two of us did not question our scientific credentials, nor did it produce any incriminating evidence from the actual content of our course. The indictment solely relied on assumed moral and ideological persuasion. Because of the political implications of the case, more objective readers may be curious to learn what so deeply divides us from our accusers.

          While based on accepted methodological rules, our teaching subject and content are in a real sense not conventional in Quebec human sciences departments. They are arguably controversial in the society at large. One explicit assumption of the intellectual debate states that, once unleashed, the electoral process automatically seeks and realizes the common good. In holding this naïve concept of the state, Quebec academics do not fundamentally differ from social philosophers around the world. Most modern moralisers adhere to a view of the state as the embodiment of some common will, as the instrument of altruistic endeavours, as the promoter of the noblest causes, as the guarantor of virtue in the citizenry.

"Our line of analysis argues that inequality of results is an expression of freedom and the necessary concomitant of wealth creation. In a word, the welfare state has been a failure and it has done substantial damage to society and economy."

          We argue differently. To believe that the political apparatus can serve as the premier and ultimate expression of the popular will constitutes the "fatal conceit" of 20th Century social thinking. As amply shown by economists in the public choice tradition, our analysis argues that even if it actively sought the common good, a government could not define a social welfare function even in theory. To pursue such a lofty goal, the state should possess a full knowledge of each and every individual subjective preference in society. In a valid concept of social welfare, there is no special value attached to a majority opinion, or to the interests of any particular social grouping, be it composed of farmers, members of the middle class, part of large families or unattached individuals. In contrast with the rest of us, politicians and bureaucrats should be immune to self-interest and greed and predisposed to adopt strictly altruistic behaviour. In fact, under present less than encompassing political rules, politicians respond to the preferences of successive majorities or to the interests of narrow factions. Because they receive their mandate for a few short years, immediate popular gratification is the preferred political option. Consumption at the expense of saving and investment prevails.

          Another dogma in the social democratic religion holds that "free goods" at the point of consumption is the unquestionable symbol of social justice, the purest expression of our compassion, in clear contrast with the rugged individualism of materialist Americans. As the indictment pronounced by the socialist tradition against the capitalist system has it, the wealth-creating virtues of free markets solely rest on unfettered selfish and materialistic instincts. Even organized churches hit upon this straw man.

          Our counter attack to this superficial analysis goes broadly as follows. Far from embodying the noble ideal of sharing, the apparent predilection for the state monopoly in education and health care expresses the concern of a majority to access services with other people's money. In a similar vein, law students are reminded that confiscating other people's wealth in the private sphere is called stealing. When carried out collectively by state coercion, it becomes income redistribution or social justice. Charity is the product of an honourable instinct; stealing, legally or illegally, remains morally despicable, a necessary evil in a free society.

          We also reflect before our law student audience on how in little more than a generation, the concept of social justice and collective rights have driven out individual rights as the organizing principle of society. The notion of collective rights implemented by state action have now supplanted property rights for the benefit of all sorts of minorities, including racial or ethnic groups, women in the labour force, homosexuals and cultural communities. Forced equality of results, not their quality or diversity, is the defining concern of egalitarians.

          We argue by contrast that opposing collective rights to individual rights is repellent to free minds. In direct contrast with collective rights, a right is the freedom to escape from state power. Suggesting a trade-off between social justice and simple justice is to legitimise state action without the consent of one contracting party; it is to subscribe to the violation of property rights. History teaches that this perversion feeds antagonisms and hampers wealth creation.

          This contrast between the two protagonist schools in the culture war brings out the century-old opposing views on the place of government in society and its relation with individuals. As was the case throughout the history of industrial countries, the defining distinction between these two philosophies is the primacy accorded to equality on the one hand as opposed to liberty on the other. Collectivists of all stripes prescribe coercive redistribution in the service of egalitarianism. Their idealized outcome? A population relying on the state to alleviate life fears: old age, illness, unemployment and reversals of fortune. Equal dependence of all on socialized risk protection has undermined self-reliance and self-esteem while encouraging dependency, poverty and relative decline.

          Our line of analysis argues that inequality of results is an expression of freedom and the necessary concomitant of wealth creation. In a word, the welfare state has been a failure and it has done substantial damage to society and economy. Institutionally, political calculus determines the options of these two doctrinal schools. Groups who live by the state tend to support its growth and to vehemently oppose arrangements favourable to freedom of choice and private initiatives: school vouchers, health and retirement accounts and tax cuts. Winning this battle of ideas would be ample reward for us. However, simply being able to exercise our right to openly discuss the issues in a university environment without being the subject of institutionally-condoned hostility remains, for the time being, a battle that we are still fighting.