Montreal, June 15, 2005 • No 155




Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.




by Bradley Doucet


          With neither the federal nor the provincial Liberals polling very well in the province of Quebec, the simple and unavoidable fact is that things are looking up for the two separatist parties. The federal Bloc Qu้b้cois stands to increase its seat total, unless the tone-deaf Conservatives or the loopy New Democrats can jump-start their appeal in this part of the country. More impressively (or more ominously, depending on whom you ask), the provincial Parti Qu้b้cois seems poised to return to power in the next provincial election.


          The majority of anglophones living in Quebec are dead set against separatism. For my part, although I do come down on the side of remaining within Canada, it is not with any great enthusiasm. I am an anglophone by chance, but I am a libertarian by choice, and as a libertarian, I have no great love for the bloated Canadian government as it is now constituted. If I thought a separate Quebec would be any better, I might actually support a peaceful secession. As I outline below, however, I rather think a separate Quebec would be even less respectful of individual liberty than it is now. As an alternative to separation, I borrow a page from the environmentalists' book (whether they like it or not) and briefly sketch a proposal for what I'd like to call "sustainable government."

Should We Stay or Should We Go?

          I can think of several good theoretical reasons for libertarians to support separatist movements, all other things being equal. For one thing, if the people living under the heel of the communists in the former Soviet Union had the right to secede, why shouldn't others have the same right? Of course, things are not quite as bad in Canada as they were in the former USSR – yet – but is that a good argument? If "things" have to reach a certain threshold of "bad" before a group of people can decide to separate, who gets to stipulate what that threshold is? As ambivalent as I am about democracy, I believe the only safe repository for this right to decide is the people themselves – though if someone can think of a safer repository, by all means, let's use that!

          Justifying separation based on how bad things actually are, of course, is only one strategy. Another is simply to argue that if we separate, things would become significantly better than they are right now. It might be that the more countries there are, the more those countries would have to compete amongst themselves to attract the most productive members of society. If those members value and demand liberty, then the more numerous states would be under increased pressure to supply that demand. Indeed, I have heard it argued that this is precisely what happened in Europe following the Enlightenment, and that had there been fewer states in existence at the time, there would have been less of an increase in liberty.

          Now, it is true, states can compete in less beneficial ways. Open warfare comes to mind. War is extremely costly for all participants, both in terms of lives lost and in terms of wealth either destroyed or diverted from more productive uses. More insidiously, states can compete with barriers to trade, which is also costly for all participants. Despite mountains of evidence demonstrating the harmful effects of these kinds of competition, though, states around the world continue to engage in warfare and protectionism. It would seem the demand for liberty is not yet widespread enough, or loud enough, to drown out the hawks and the isolationists.

          Neither Quebec nor Canada is very hawkish (what with our two battleships and five fighter jets), so the concern in our case is more about protectionism, and interference with the economy more generally. There is good reason to suspect that a separate Quebec would be even more interventionist than Canada is. With the notable recent exception of health care (in which Quebec has adhered to the statist model somewhat less rigidly than the rest of the country), Quebec usually errs more on the side of interventionism. Compared to the rest of Canada, we in la Belle Province pay higher taxes, give more coercive power to our unions, and interfere more in education, and we also led the pack in moving to "nationalize" childcare. In short, I do not foresee myself enjoying more individual freedom under a separate Quebec than I enjoy now. For the significant cost in terms of upheaval of people's lives, we would not in fact derive much benefit, if any, by separating from the rest of Canada.

A Better Option: The 3 'R's

          Ultimately, separatism is a question of who shall hold the power to rule, and as such, it can only be a secondary concern. The primary concern is not who shall hold the power, but rather how much power those people shall be allowed to hold. A libertarian is someone who answers: as little as possible.

          It may be that the separatist desire for self-rule has quite a bit in common with the libertarian desire for individual freedom, at least for some separatists. At the very least, both groups feel that the Canadian government has too much power. If separatism is not the answer, then what is? The environmentalists have had the answer all along: sustainability.

"I do not foresee myself enjoying more individual freedom under a separate Quebec than I enjoy now. For the significant cost in terms of upheaval of people's lives, we would not in fact derive much benefit, if any, by separating from the rest of Canada."

          The size of the Canadian government has reached an unsustainable level. Taxes and tariffs are consuming our limited resources at an ever-increasing rate, despite some recent, moderate cuts. The halls of the nation's capital are overpopulated with politicians and bureaucrats with seemingly insatiable appetites. An endless profusion of laws is choking the body politic. In this age of environmental consciousness, I propose that the Canadian government jump on the green bandwagon by adopting the three 'R's: reduce, reuse, and recycle.

          Reduce. Our elected representatives and their unelected bureaucratic helpers do not seem to understand that there are limits to growth when it comes to government. If they strip-mine the bank accounts of taxpayers of all their gold and silver, there will be none left for our children. If they clear-cut the landscape of people's lives and pave it over with a parking lot of laws, they will destroy the various habitats of free people, eliminating diversity as nonconformists become an endangered species and finally go extinct. When it comes to taxes and laws, our government officials need to learn to live simply, that the rest of us may simply live.

          Reuse. Instead of piling new law upon new law, developing every last corner of our formerly private lives in a never-ending quest for the latest legal gadget, our lawmakers should acquaint themselves with existing laws that were perfectly sufficient for prior generations. They might just find that some of the old laws are better built, that they embody a craftsmanship and a commitment to quality over quantity that have been forgotten in this age of churned-out factory-made laws. For instance, "Thou shalt not steal" has been a law for quite some time, if I'm not mistaken, and it's a great law. It is to the point, it embodies a profound principle, and for those with feeble memories, it can be written on the palm of the hand for easy reference. A few more old gems like this one will far outshine the costume jewelry favoured by modern-day legislators. Government officials, like all children, want the latest new bauble, but this kind of me-too, keeping up with the Joneses is clearly just another aspect of the wasteful consumerism that is rampant in government today.

          Recycle. Of course, not all old laws are good. This month's Reason magazine mentions an old American law that mandated the stockpiling of helium, for all of those helium filled warships the Americans once thought they might need. For some reason, slow, bulky helium warships never took off, but the Helium Reserve Program was only nixed in 1996, after over seventy years of refining and storing helium! In the unlikely event that a new law really is necessary, it should be written on the recycled paper of this kind of old law – better yet, since recycling is an inefficient process, and since new laws tend to be ever-longer, it might just require the paper of two or three old laws to fashion one new law. If we are to preserve any of our natural freedom, it is absolutely necessary that we clean up our act, and one place to start is with our legal landfills, those mountains of old laws that lie rotting and forgotten, seeping poison into the groundwater of our private lives at the whim of some power-lusting bureaucrat. These piles of trash are smelly, toxic eyesores, and while I don't want to be an alarmist, I think the level of legal trash is rising. It is literally eating away at the coastline, and we on the peripheries will soon be drowning in a rising sea of taxes and regulations.

          In summary, I urge all of you who love liberty – whether you call yourselves libertarians, separatists, liberals, conservatives, or even new democrats – to demand environmentally responsible governance by calling upon your representatives to reduce, reuse, and recycle. We must let politicians know that if they are committed to cleaning up the waste of high taxes, bloated government payrolls, and onerous laws, they can also clean up at the polls. We must raise our voices and be heard. After all, we have not simply inherited liberty from our ancestors – we are also borrowing it from our children.