The following is a summary of an address delivered by William Brooks to the first public symposium of the St. Lawrence Institute held at the McGill University Faculty Club on Wednesday, January 28, 1981.
The history of democracy is the history of the limitation of absolute power. In the heydays of modern democracy peopled believed “that government is best which governs least.”
Liberal democracy was based on a belief in the inherent worth of individuals, a trust in people and a distrust of intrusive government. Democracy aimed to limit the coercive power of government through the “rule of law.” Adam Smith’s favorite metaphor for a good government in a liberal democratic state was that of a “night watchman.”
Political democracy grew hand in hand with free-market capitalism which in turn was developed alongside the economic principle of “laissez faire.” Leave markets alone. Political democracy combined with economic and individual freedoms became the bedrock of the classical liberal faith. By the mid-nineteenth century nations that had replaced authoritarian government and mercantilist economics with liberal principles were on their way to unprecedented productivity and prosperity.
Unfortunately, classical liberal principles have increasingly fallen out of favor in twentieth century Quebec society. The lexicon of the “new liberalism” has been emptied of its former meaning. The most alarming example is a fundamental change in the meaning of the “rule of law.”
To our liberal forefathers the term law had a very precise and narrow meaning. Law was intended to forbid anti-social behaviour in general terms. Government confined itself to making large proscriptions rather than specific prescription for society. Law was essentially negative as opposed to positive. The law of the land was more likely to say what “thou shalt not do” rather than what “thou shalt do.” Religious persons, of whom there is considerably less in our times, would say it was no accident that God cast the Ten Commandments in negative terms.
Individual justice under the law used to mean preserving a society in which the rules applied equally to all. This foundational morality was based on consistently asking oneself the question: “What if everyone does what I propose to do?” It was not based on “libertinism” or the idea that everyone could always “do their own thing.”
Lately, our provincial government in Quebec has de-emphasized the principle of responsible individual liberty in favour of something it calls “social” or “collective” justice. The implication is that our government is in possession of the blueprint for a “just society” and restrictions must be imposed on individuals in order for the design to be realized. Quebec society will have to be reconfigured in order to fit the government’s new paradigm.
As a result of this new purpose our provincial legislature has undergone a fundamental transformation. It has consistently confused the power to make general laws with its compulsion to regulate the behaviour of society.
As the eminent economist and political philosopher, F.A. Hayek has suggested our legislators have confused “nomos” and “thesis.” In plain language “nomos” means law, custom, tradition and usage. “Thesis” is an affirmative proposition, a rational postulate or an intellectual position. Our legislators are no longer making a distinction between law and administrative fiats which increasingly restrain freedom and regulate our lives.
For example, since when and on what authority has government become responsible for deciding what language or languages can be spoken in local communities, institutions and private businesses? Who granted the government jurisdiction of our culture? If government can assume power over language and culture why can’t it claim jurisdiction over religion?
Where did this present acceptance of government regulation come from? Where did it start? In the United States and Canada it probably dates back to the Great Depression which gave rise to the perception that our democratic-capitalist system was seriously flawed and required corrective measures. In Quebec this disposition became even more prevalent in the post-Duplessis era.
Such corrective measures were a figment of what C. Wright Mills called the “sociological imagination” and its yearning for socialism. The sociological imagination was, and is, based on a distrust of people, an exaggerated sense of the imperfections of society, the conviction that there is no moral basis for capitalism and an unquestioning trust in government.
During our so-called “Quiet Revolution” Quebeckers confidence in government and its ability to solve almost any human problem grew to new heights. Many became convinced “that government is best which governs most.” The motives for government action were always regarded as selfless and “progressive.” Government programs were regarded as necessary to bring a “backward” Quebec into the 20th century.
People were to be made more equal in Quebec. The initial acceptance of corrective legislation to eliminate perceived historical advantages was not regarded as discrimination. It was a form of “affirmative action.”
By the time our present P.Q. government was elected it was assumed that in order to make people more equal it would be necessary to treat them unequally. But, by ignoring the principle of equal treatment under the law, we inevitably opened the door to arbitrary and unbounded government regulation. By 1976 the P.Q. believed the “supremacy of Parliament” meant the “absolute power of parliament” over the rights of individual Quebeckers. The referendum on “sovereignty-association” totally unsupported by our law, custom, usage and tradition was a classic example of this.
On the pretext that it alone possessed the right formula or “thesis” for “social justice” in Quebec, the P.Q. government claimed to be acting in the interest of all Quebeckers. Since “social justice” is difficult to precisely define, it serves as a convenient rationale for all varieties of regulation from the nationalization of industries to the expropriation of language and cultural institutions.
The concept of egalitarian “social Justice” is a high-minded but elusive ideal. It has never been fully realized and is probably least close to becoming a reality in the socialist regimes that have been created in its name. To allow a government to pursue and act in the name of such unattainable goals is a dangerous course of action. It means giving the state carte blanche to meddle in and direct our lives in ever increasing measure. The history of the twentieth century has taught us that the only methods government have to pursue such romantic goals as absolute “equality of condition” or “social justice” is manipulation, expropriation, coercion and ultimate tyranny.
Around the world; in regimes dedicated to “social justice,” the prejudices of parliaments, the conceits of cabinets and the caprice of ministers are all part of what is often described as the” inevitable” course of history. Government programs take on the status of “God given rights.” Supporters are regarded as vanguards of progress. Skeptics are derided as backward reactionaries.
In short, the regulating state may usher in a kind of “velvet totalitarianism” that will mean the end of authentic Canadian liberty.