The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Friday, August 17, 2012

Senate Reform

The Dominion of Canada was established as a country in 1867. We refer to this event as Confederation because, like the American republic and like the short-lived Confederate States of America founded by the seceding Southern states in 1861, Canada was founded as a federal country, a union of smaller regions with their own governments, under a central government. The founding fathers of the United States had been divided over the question of whether their new country was to be a federal alliance of sovereign states under a weak central government or as a unitary nation under a strong federal government. This division persisted and led to the division of the country almost a century later and to the war fought between the North and the South. The Confederation of the North American provinces of the British Empire into the Dominion of Canada took place in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War and the Fathers of Confederation were determined to learn from the example of our American neighbors. The federal government established by the British North America Act was a strong central government. It was a Parliament modeled after the Parliament in London, consisting of the monarch, represented by a vice-roy, and an upper and lower house. The lower house, like its equivalent in London, is called the House of Commons, and is composed of representatives who are each elected to represent a constituency. The leader of the party with the largest number of seats in the House of Commons is ordinarily named Prime Minister and asked by the vice-roy to select a cabinet of ministers and to form an executive government for Her Majesty. The upper house of the Canadian Parliament is called the Senate.

Do not let the name fool you. The Canadian Senate is not modeled after the upper house of the American republic, although, as we shall see, there are those who think that it ought to be. It is modeled after the British senate, the House of Lords, but adapted to fit the Canadian situation. Canadian senators are appointed by the monarch or her representative , upon the recommendation of the government, to what is essentially a life peerage minus the title. Or at least it used to be. Since 1965 senators have been forced to retire their seats when they reach the age of 75, but otherwise, the Senate remains a House of Lord, minus the titles, minus the seats for bishops, and minus hereditary peers.

Of the three parts of our Parliament, the Senate is probably that which is least respected and least understood. The lack of respect for this institution comes from the fact that appointment to the Senate is perceived to be largely a matter of political patronage and cronyism, a reward for service to the political party in power rather than to the country. There is, unfortunately, a great deal of truth in this perception. When the Liberal Party is in power vacant seats in the Senate tend to be filled by Liberal Party supporters and when the Conservative Party is in power it is their adherents who are sent to the Red Chamber. The lack of respect for the Senate generated by this perception, however true or false it may be, in turn contributes to the lack of understanding of the role and significance of the Senate. Why do we have a Senate? What good does the Senate do? Is it good for anything except providing large salaries from the public treasury for friends of the Prime Minister? These are all questions that are commonly asked by those who call for the Senate to be abolished or reformed.

For reform of any sort to be salutary, however, it must start with understanding rather than ignorance. The reforms proposed by those who ask the kind of questions mentioned above usually display ignorance. The reforms are typically in the direction of a more democratic Senate, one whose members are elected rather than appointed. Even those who believe Senate reform to be a waste of time and call instead for its abolition do so with the goal of making Parliament more democratic, for if the upper house were abolished that would leave only the democratically elected lower house. Yet the problem of appointments being awarded for support of a party rather than service to the country is largely caused by the appointment process being under the control of the Prime Minister and this in turn is the result of the popular modern idea that all real government power must be in the hands of officials elected by the people. While governors of all sorts have a tendency to bestow public honours, appointments, and funds upon their friends rather than those who might deserve them more this tendency is exacerbated among democratic politicians.

To understand the role our Senate is supposed to play we must understand the principle it is supposed to represent and the ideal that is supposed to inspire it. To understand these things we need an appreciation of how our Parliament embodies the ancient concept of a mixed government. This concept goes back to the philosophers of ancient Athens. Plato and Aristotle recognized three simple forms of government – the rule of the one, the rule of the few and the rule of the many. These simple forms could be either good or bad depending upon whether the ruler(s) governed for his/their own sake or for the good of the whole society. If government was in the hands of one person, the philosophers called him a king if he ruled for the public good and a tyrant if he ruled for his own sake. When government is in the hands of the few, it can be either aristocracy, the rule of the best, or oligarchy, the rule of a selfish clique. Government of the many, is, at its best, democracy, and at its worst, ochlocracy or mob rule. Each of these forms, Aristotle argued, was unstable and there is a historical cycle in which states move from one form to another. A better and more stable constitution, he theorized, would be one which combined two or more of the good forms. (1)

This is exactly what the parliamentary government, evolved in Britain, and inherited by Canada, is. It combines all three simple constitutions. It includes a sovereign monarch, an aristocratic upper house, and a democratic lower house. The advantages of a mixed government are many. One, is that the strengths of a king are not identical to those of an aristocracy or a democracy, nor are those of the latter identical to each other. A constitution that includes all three, however, combines the strengths of each. These strengths augment each other, while tending to counteract the weaknesses of each form. A mixed constitution also tends to be much more stable than any of the simple constitutions because if one of its elements starts to be perverted into its bad form, there are two others to provide a check. For a similar reason, the framers of the American republic separated the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of their government.

The Senate, therefore, exists to be the aristocratic part of our government. There are two objections to this assertion which might immediately come to mind.

The first is that while the Fathers of Confederation used the British House of Lords as the model for our Senate they left out all the aristocratic elements – hereditary seats, titles of nobility, etc. This is true, but it misses the point. All of these things are the external trappings of a particular form of aristocracy, that developed in agrarian Europe under feudalism. They are not the defining, essential, characteristics of an aristocracy.

The second objection is that if we think of aristocracy, not in terms of landed estates, hereditary privileges and lofty titles, but in terms of the ideal expressed in the term, “the rule of the best”, then does this not seem an absurd label to apply to our Senate?

The answer to the second objection is that while it would be absurd in the extreme to describe the current Canadian Senate as being literally an aristocracy, it is not so absurd to say that the Senate occupies the aristocratic position in our constitution and that its purpose, however well or poorly it may actually fulfill that purpose, is to embody the aristocratic ideal.

Before elaborating on that there is a point I would like to make about realism and idealism. Realism and idealism are not rival belief systems but are rather different ways of approaching ethics, politics, history, and the world. The realist prefers to think about and discuss things as they are. The idealist prefers to think about and discuss things as they ought to be. Like Aristotle’s basic constitutions, realism and idealism each come with a good and a bad form. Realism at its best is a willingness to take reality as it is, a mixture of the good and the bad, and to work with it. The worst form of idealism is the polar opposite of this, an instance that reality be forced to conform to one’s vision of how things ought to be. There is a better form of idealism, however, in which we look to ideals, not as a blueprint for the reconstruction of reality, but as a source of inspiration as we strive to excel. Just as the worst form of idealism is the polar opposite of the best form of realism, so the worst form of realism is the opposite of the better kind of idealism. Realism at its worst, is the drive to debunk, a refusal to allow to oneself or to the others, the comfort and inspiration that can be derived from ideals. The “ideals” of the worst kind of idealists are not true ideals because they are inevitably a flawed vision of what ought to be which, when put into practice, do not improve reality but make it worse. The “reality” of the worst kind of realists is not true reality because it fails to recognize or respect the need for ideals and inspiration that is a basic component of human nature.

The constitution of parliamentary monarchy which we inherited from Great Britain and which the Fathers of Confederation adapted to our own country’s needs is a double blessing to Canada, in that it is both a mixed constitution and one that is backed by the prescriptive authority of a tradition much older than our country. The presence of an institution in the aristocratic position in our constitution is an important part of that blessing. It would be better if that institution more closely resembled the aristocratic ideal but by filling the position the Senate still performs one of the most important roles of an aristocracy in a mixed constitution, i.e., that of providing a check and balance to democracy.

William Gairdner illustrated this aspect of the mixed constitution by referring to the inner struggle between the emotions and reason in the human soul. The passions war against each other, “with the cool head of reason making the best choice after the heat of emotion has passed.” Therefore:

Putting these two concepts together in a single parliament was meant to provide us with something better than mere democratic impulsivity: the warring factions of “the People.” In other words, the whole purpose of having an upper house is that it is intentionally not controlled by the same partisan emotional politicking that stirs the people below: the commoners. And there is no doubt the metaphor of the human being does suggest that raw emotions are more animal, more common, grip us with passion and deceive us, and therefore are lower in value than calm deliberation and reason. That is why under this theory, the Senate most definitely ought not to be an elected body. The democratic voice of the people should still be heard, of course, but it should be a voice filtered, checked, and disciplined by cooler heads above the fray. (2)

This concept, of an upper house that injects calmness and reason into the political process, as opposed to the emotions and appetites released in democracy, points to the lexical meaning of the word “senate”. The first institution to be called by this name was, of course, the Roman Senate. The Roman Senate, which developed into the legislative body of the Roman Republic, began as a council of advisors to the Roman kings consisting of the patriarchs of the Roman gentes (large extended kinship units). The idea of such a council was not original with Rome but was derived from an older tradition, one probably as old as human society itself. That tradition, as well as the age of many of the patriarchs who made up the Senate, was suggested by that body’s title. The word “senate” is derived from the Latin word for “old man”. That a community should be either led by its elders, or by leaders who act on the advice of the community’s elders, is an ancient tradition. The reason for the tradition is that wisdom, which is the ability to consistently make right decisions and the habit of governing one’s emotions with one’s reason, is learned from experience and therefore associated with age. The traits of being rash, impetuous, and easily swayed by emotion, are more often associated with youth.

The very word “senate”, then, would seem to contain an ideal – the ideal of government by wisdom, or at least government advised by wisdom. This ideal happens to correspond very nicely with the ideal attached to the aristocratic position in a mixed constitution, the ideal of emotion and will governed by reason. This correspondence would seem to be itself ideal because this is the position our Senate happens to fill.

The problem, as many of you are no doubt itching to point out, is that a strong case can be made that neither ideal is well reflected in the Senate as it actually is. Now, as was pointed out above, having a senate to fill the aristocratic position in our constitution is in itself beneficial even if the upper house does not display its ideals very well. It stands to reason, however, that it would be even more beneficial if the Senate did live up to the ideals it is supposed to represent. This would seem to suggest that Senate reform of some sort might be appropriate and it also provides us with insight into what such reform, if it is to be salubrious to the nation’s health, ought to accomplish. The right kind of Senate reform will be reform which helps the Senate to better reflect the ideals it embodies.

We also see, in this, a major problem with existing proposals for Senate reform. The same problem exists with many of the reforms proposed, and in some cases actually enacted, for the House of Lords in the United Kingdom over the last century, especially those of the bill most recently proposed. The problem is that these proposals consist of reforms that would actually move the Senate further away from the ideals it represents and make it more democratic.

In Canada, the most discussed proposal for reforming the Senate, has been the Triple-E model. The three e’s stand for Equal, Elected, and Effective. Those who wish to see this reform accomplished believe that the provinces should each be equally represented in the Senate, that the Senators should be chosen by popular election, and that the powers of the upper house should be enhanced to make it more effective as a legislating body. What all of this amounts to is a proposal that we replace our Senate with one which is modeled after the American Senate.

There are many problems with that proposal. It is not that the American Senate is a bad institution. It is an institution, however, which is designed to function within the context of the American republican constitution, a constitution which in turn was designed to fit the United States of America. Just as the Canadian Senate would not suit the American constitution so the American Senate would not function near as well were it to be transplanted into the Canadian parliamentary constitution. The constitution of the American republic was designed to incorporate the need for local representation, state representation, and representation of the people as a whole. The House of Representatives consists of Congressman whose job it is to represent their local district, the Senate consists of Senators who represent the state which elected them, and the President, who is elected by a general vote that is mediated by the College of Electors, has the job of representing the people as a whole. The role of the American Senator as the federal representative of his state arises out of the fact that the American federal republic was conceived of as a union of states which each possessed sovereignty prior to their entry into the union. This fact is reflected in the very name of the American republic – the United States of America. A state is a sovereign political unit.

The relationship of the provinces to the federal government in the Dominion of Canada is completely different and always has been. A province is not a sovereign state, and the provinces of Canada were never conceived of as having possessed, prior to Confederation, the sovereignty which the American states hypothetically possessed (3) prior to their union into the American republic. The role of a Canadian Senator, therefore, does not and cannot include the role, of representing in the federal government, a political unit that was sovereign prior to the establishment of the federal government.

Now so far in our discussion, we have addressed the proposal for an American-style Senate and given reasons why this kind of a Senate would not suit Canada. We have not yet addressed the issues that led to the proposal. A constitutional argument against a Triple-E Senate is not an argument that these issues should be ignored or dismissed, although it is an argument that a different solution ought to be sought.

The call for a Triple-E Senate began in the western provinces, particularly the province of Alberta. These provinces believed that they were being treated unfairly by the federal government. Far too often this belief was correct. This was especially true when the Liberal Party was in power and particularly during the premiership of Pierre Eliot Trudeau who combined his mistreatment of the western provinces with insufferable arrogance and a heavy-handed manner. His National Energy Program was the catalyst for the western populist demand for a Triple-E Senate.

There is a great deal of irony in the fact that the resentment of and opposition to the N.E. P. that gave birth to the demand for a Triple-E Senate was combined with populist rhetoric borrowed from American civil mythology, contempt for Canada and her constitution, and a desire to make Canada more closely resemble the United States. The N.E.P. was not constitutional by the terms of the British North America Act (4), the Trudeau government which was responsible for the N.E.P. was completely disrespectful of Canada’s traditions and did a tremendous amount of violence to our constitution, and the idea of making Canada more “American” has historically been part of the agenda of the Liberal Party. Furthermore, the rightly despised Trudeau was a huge believer in Rousseau’s concept of the sovereign volonté générale of the nation, a foundational concept of modern absolute democracy, (5) and an elected Senate would be a step in the direction of that very kind of democracy. The irony reaches its peak, however, in the fact that the demand for a Triple-E Senate in Canada has come largely from groups considered to be on the right (6), despite the fact that contempt for the traditions and constitution of one’s country and a desire for more democracy are fundamentally anti-conservative ideas. In the United Kingdom, the calls for reforming the House of Lords to conform to modern democratic ideals usually have come from the Labour Party on the left, although the most recent proposal was put forward by a Conservative Party that seems to have lost its way.(7)

Clearly the issue of fair representation for all regions and provinces in the federal government is an important one. The solution, however, must be consistent with a respect for Canada’s traditions and her constitution. The Triple-E Senate is not that, and is therefore not the proper solution to this problem.

Nor is it the answer to the question of how the Senate could be reformed in such a way as to help it better embody the ideals it represents. It is not the answer to this question both because it would inject a foreign element that is better suited to another constitution, i.e., the American republican constitution, and because it would turn one of the elements of our constitution that is supposed to balance and check democracy into a democratic element. Not only would this undermine the whole point of having a mixed constitution it could potentially undermine the democratic element in that constitution. William Gairdner explains:

Now let’s suppose that this impetuous democratic thrust is successful in Canada. What could the result be? One result, I fear, is what might be called a “conflict of legitimacy,” under which, if both houses are elected, each can make a justifiable case that it is thereby the only true (the truest?) representative of the people’s will. For if we do end up voting for both, which one could we say was, after all, indeed the truest? For make no mistake, in a struggle over a piece of legislation crucial to this nation’s future, we could very well end up with just such a conflict of legitimacy, expressed or implied. That is the very structure of such an arrangement in which both houses claim to represent the people directly. (8)

If this hasn’t been a huge problem in the United States, where both houses and the president are elected, it is because of the fact, already mentioned, that it is well understood in the American republican constitution, that the representatives, senators, and president are not elected to represent the same people in the same way.

If the purpose of Senate reform is to help the Senate better reflect its ideals and serve its purpose in our constitution, then the place to look for inspiration for that reform, would be to the institution our Senate was modeled after – the British House of Lords.

Before making any specific proposals I should point out what I do not mean by saying this. I do not mean that we should make seats in the Senate hereditary or that we should attach a graded scale of honorifics such as Duke, Marquess or Earl to those positions. I do not say so because I think there is anything wrong with either hereditary seats, ranks, or titles. I am glad that our Head of State is someone who has inherited her position and that she possesses several titles. The hereditary principle, which reflects a basic truth about human nature and society, i.e., that the family is prior to the individual, is not very well appreciated in our modern liberal era, nor is the hierarchical principle much appreciated in the age of equality, which is a pity because these principles are at least as valuable as those few still honoured in the day and age in which we live. All that notwithstanding, hereditary seats, ranks, and titles, were left out of our Senate, even though it was modeled on the House of Lords, by the Fathers of Confederation for a reason. To understand that reason we need to understand the reason these things were present in the House of Lords in the first place.

Britain’s constitution was not something that was drawn up by a committee in accordance with their best understanding of political science. The House of Lords was not placed in the British Parliament because someone had read Aristotle, Polybius and Cicero and concluded that Britain needed an aristocratic element to balance a mixed constitution. The British parliament gradually evolved over a long period of history and the established House of Lords within that parliament developed out of the historical power exercised by Britain’s feudal aristocracy. In other words the political institution – the House of Lords – was built upon the foundation of a social class – the feudal aristocracy. A country’s established political structure is not the same thing as its social structure but the two do not and ought not to exist in isolation from each other either. Since Britain’s senate was historically drawn from its feudal aristocracy it is natural that the outward trappings of the political institution would correspond with those of the social class.

Canada is not a country with a feudal history – at least not in the same way that Great Britain is. Our history enabled us to inherit and benefit from the political institutions of British parliamentary monarchy but our social structure developed in a different way from Britain’s. When it came time to establish our country and its Parliament, our social structure was not topped by the same kind of titled feudal aristocracy that had originally formed the House of Lords in Britain. We would have had to have created such a class overnight in order to draw upon it to fill our upper house with titled, hereditary, lords. Such a class, however, is not something that you can artificially engineer, especially in an industrial era.

I do not mean, of course, that we did not have a ruling class, in which our upper social and economic classes overlapped with our political leadership. That such a class will exist is inevitable in all societies. As Gaetano Mosca put it:

In all societies—from societies that are very meagerly developed and have barely attained the dawnings of civilization, down to the most advanced and powerful societies—two classes of people appear—a class that rules and a class that is ruled. The first class, always the less numerous, performs all political functions, monopolizes power and enjoys the advantages that power brings, whereas the second, the more numerous class, is directed and controlled by the first, in a manner that is now more or less legal, now more or less arbitrary and violent, and supplies the first, in appearance at least, with material means of subsistence and with the instrumentalities that are essential to the vitality of the political organism. (9)

The nature of Mosca’s “political class” or “ruling class”, however, will vary from country to country depending upon the nature of its social and political structures. The ruling class that developed here was different from that which developed in Britain and so the Fathers of Confederation, when adapting the House of Lords to the Canadian situation, left out those elements which arose naturally from the kind of ruling class Britain had, a class which could not be artificially replicated here.

So if I am not suggesting that we make Mike Duffy into a Duke, what kind of reforms do I think might be reasonable based upon the example of the House of Lords?

The first two suggestions need to be considered together because they are interrelated. The first would be to eliminate the salaries of Senators, and the second would be to update and increase the property requirements for Senators. Such reforms look for inspiration to the body our Senate was modeled after – members of the House of Lords are of independent means and do not receive salaries, although they have expensive accounts. They would also serve the same practical purpose of elevating the character and increasing the public-mindedness of the Senators. One of the most widely recognized problems with our Senate is that appointment to it is treated as a cushy reward for the Prime Minister’s friends. If we really wish to do something about this, in a way that is consistent with the tradition our constitution is derived from, the way to go about it is to eliminate pecuniary reward for the job of Senator. For this to be practical it would require that the Senators have sufficient alternative means of living.

The Fathers of Confederation had this in mind when they designed our Senate. It is for this reason that they set property requirements for Senators. The fourth requirement under Section 23 of the British North America Act was that “His Real and Personal Property shall be together worth Four thousand Dollars over and above his Debts and Liabilities.” That requirement has not been amended out of the constitution and still stands as originally written. (10) The base salary of a Senator, however, is now thirty three times that amount, $132, 300. (11) This combination, of a property qualification from the nineteenth century that has not been updated to reflect inflation and a salary that is much higher than most people make, accomplishes the exact opposite of the goal of finding statesmen who will govern with the long term interest of the public in mind rather than the lining of their own pocketbooks. It would be far more conducive to that goal to eliminate the salary or at the very least reduce it to a pittance and to increase the property qualification so that prospective Senators must own enough income-generating property to live off of comfortably while serving in the Senate.

Now there is a number of related objections that many people have to this kind of proposal or at least to the second part of it. Property requirements, they say, are elitist and exclusionary. They discriminate against the poor and to increase those requirements would be to increase that discrimination. To require that Senators have enough income-generating property to live off of without a salary would reserve the entire upper house for the rich, creating a plutocracy.

Those who raise such objections make an awful lot of assumptions in doing so. For these objections to have any sort of validity, for example, we would have to accept that there is something wrong with elitism, exclusion, and discrimination. Perhaps there is, but that is a moral position that is more often asserted than argued. Arguments could be made to the contrary, but even if we were to concede the point and agree that these assumptions are valid, we are left with the question of whether the negatives identified in these objections outweigh the positives of the proposals. Is it more important that positions of power be distributed “fairly” between the rich and the poor or that those positions be filled with people who will consider the position a responsibility to be undertaken for the good of the res publica rather than a cushy reward for past service to a party or an opportunity to enrich oneself at the public expense?

Surely the sane answer is that the latter is more important than the former. Plutocracy, in which wealth and power are joined, is as inevitable as the rule of the elite. These things have always been present, are present in all societies, and always will be present. Human societies cannot be organized so as to eliminate these things and those that have attempted to eliminate these things have only made them more pronounced. Think of the example of Communism. Communism was committed to establishing a classless society in which all men were equal, held all things in common, contributed to the best of their ability, and received according to their need. What it ended up establishing was a police state, governed by the Communist Party elite, while the masses lived in slavery and utter poverty.

That plutocracy and the rule of elites cannot be eliminated from human society is a truth formally recognized in modern times by Machiavellian realists and informally recognized throughout the history of Western civilization in traditions which sought to instill a sense of public responsibility in rich and powerful elites. This is one of many areas where ancient tradition displays a greater wisdom than modern rationalism. Rather than try to eliminate that which cannot be eliminated in the pursuit of an unreachable utopian dream, ancient tradition took reality, in which wealth and power go together like a hand in a glove, and sought to make the best of it by tying both wealth and power to service and responsibility. Ancient tradition has lost most of its influence as modern rationalism has reshaped the Western world and one of the casualties has been the association of service and responsibility with wealth and power. The twentieth century saw a struggle between two modern ideologies, that of liberalism which sought to place wealth and power on the foundation of the merit of the individual and that of socialism which defined wealth and power as social evils to be eliminated. Needless to say, such an ideological climate was not a healthy one for instilling a sense of noblesse oblige among the wealthy and powerful, all the more so seeing as both liberalism and socialism are hostile to the family and to the church, especially a strong and stable ecclesiastical establishment, the very institutions which served to instill a sense of duty in the old elites.

The proposal, to eliminate salaries for Senators and increase the constitutional property requirements so that only those with an independent living can serve in the Senate, would contribute significantly towards lessening one of the largest complaints against the Senate and towards the goal of filling the Senate with public-minded statesmen, and this outweighs the objection that such a proposal would be discriminatory. There is a practical objection, however, that if such a reform were accomplished we might not be able to find anybody to fill the seats in the Senate! This would suggest that if the proposal is to succeed it would need to be accompanied with a cultural revival of the ancient tradition of diluting plutocracy with a sense of civic duty and obligation.

A third suggestion for Senate reform would be to remove the appointment process from the control of the Prime Minister’s office. Senators are appointed by the Queen through her representative the Governor General. The choice of who is appointed, however, belongs to the Prime Minister. This should not be. Not only does this contribute to the problem of Prime Minister’s treating Senate seats as gifts to their friends and rewards for service to their party it is fundamentally at odds with the role the Senate is supposed to play in the Parliament. How can the Senate be an effective balance to the democratic House of Commons, an effective check against abuses in that House, if the government elected in the House controls who goes into the Senate?

Clearly the Crown needs to get advice as to who to appoint to the Senate from a different source than the Prime Minister and his cabinet, or the House of Commons in general. Where then, should this advice come from? Who should the advisors be?

The model of the House of Lords will not provide us much help here, I’m sorry to say. It was originally filled with people who had inherited their titles and seats, or whom the monarch had newly raised to the nobility by giving a hereditary title and seat as a reward for public service, usually of a military nature. Due to meddling by liberal and socialist governments, the House of Lords is now filled more with life peers than hereditary peers and the life peers are appointed through pretty much the same process as our Senators. None of this, I might add, has improved the quality of the House of Lords. (12)

For this proposal to work, the Governor General will require an advisory committee for the selecting of Senators. It is easier to say who should not be on that committee than to say who should be on it. The committee itself must not contain anyone from the Prime Minister’s Office, the cabinet, or the House of Commons, or anyone chosen by any of those bodies. This leaves a number of options available. It might be considered a conflict of interest to have the Senate itself contribute anyone to the selection committee but it would not be as big of a conflict as already exists in having the government in the lower house do the choosing. The reasons I gave earlier for why the direct election of Senators to represent the provinces would not work in our constitution the way the direct election of senators to represent the states works in the American constitution would not rule out having the provincial governments contribute or choose members for the selection committee. If each province were asked to contribute two members to the committee, with the stipulation that one must be from the party in power in the province and the second from the provincial opposition, this might even minimize partisan bias in the choice of Senators.

It is not so important how the selection committee be filled as it is that the Prime Minister and his government should have no say over the process.

These reforms – elimination of salary, increase of the property requirement, and removal of the Prime Minister’s control over the appointment process – would go a long way towards minimizing the current problems with the Senate while remaining within our own constitutional tradition. There are other reforms that are worth considering. We might want to consider getting rid of the mandatory retirement at age 75 which Lester Pearson introduced. Pearson’s ideas were generally bad ones and this is no exception. Wisdom comes with age, and if a Senator is still in control of his faculties and willing to serve past the age of 75, we are fools to deprive ourselves of the benefit of his accumulated experience. Obviously if his mind starts to go and he starts introducing declarations of war against countries we’ve never heard of, there will need to be a procedure in place whereby he can be easily, quickly, and forcibly removed. Otherwise it would make more sense to increase the minimum age of Senators, which is currently set at thirty, than to have a maximum age. The Senate is, in the words of Sir John A. MacDonald, supposed to give a “sober, second thought” to legislation arising out of the democratic chamber, and this requires the wisdom of age.

The proposal to increase the property requirements for Senators would require an amendment of section 23, parts 3 and 4, of the Constitution Act. Perhaps while we are at it we should also consider amending section 23 to increase the number of qualifications. How about a requirement that a Senator be someone who has served Her Majesty and his country in the Canadian Armed Forces? Or, rather than have that as an absolute requirement, perhaps it would be better to include it in a list of ways in which someone may have served the public in the past, and make it a requirement that a Senator meet at least two or three of the requirements on this list. This would narrow the field of potential Senators, make it more difficult for those doing the appointing to just pick their friends, and would tie the appointment to past service to the country.

We will never have a perfect Senate. It might be possible for us to have a better Senate, however, one which better reflects the ideals it embodies. If we are to improve our Senate, it must be in a way that is consistent with our constitution and tradition, otherwise it is not worth doing.

(1) This is a simplification, of course. Plato, in The Republic, has Socrates describe five basic forms of government, the one he recommends which is constitutional or republican government by “philosopher kings” and which could fit either aristocracy or royalty in Aristotle’s classification, and four lesser or in some cases bad forms of government – timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. In The Statesman, however, the character of the Stranger from Eleas identifies the basic regimes as the rule of the one, the few, and the many, and says that each can be better or worse depending upon whether they recognize the rule of law over themselves. He, however, contrasts all six of these with an ideal regime, which is essentially that of a benevolent dictatorship. Aristotle picks up this six-fold classification in both his Nicomachean Ethics and his Politics. His terminology varies – in the Ethics he uses democracy for both the good and the bad form of the rule of the many, but in Politics he uses democracy for the bad form and calls the good form “politeia”, needlessly confusing things by do so, as this is also the generic term for constitution. After Aristotle this terminology was revised so that “democracy” referred to the good form of rule of the many and “ochlocracy” – “rule of the mob or the crowd” – referred to the bad form. In the Ethics, Aristotle identified the rule of a king as the best of the basic good forms of government and democracy as the worst. In Politics he identified politeia as the best of the basic constitutions. The reason for the difference in ranking in the two works is that he applied different criteria – in Ethics he ranked the constitutions based upon how closely the good form resembled the bad form, in Politics he ranked the constitutions according to their stability. It was in Politics that he introduced the suggestion of a mixed constitution as a better alternative to the six basic constitutions, a rather different alternative than that suggested by Plato’s Eleatic Stranger, although there are hints of the idea of the mixed constitution in Plato’s dialogues, particularly in his concept of the city in The Republic. Out of all of this, the concept of the six-fold division of simple constitutions and the ideal of the mixed constitution, have been the most persistent. Polybius, the second century BC Greek historian, incorporated Aristotle’s cyclical view of the history of constitutions and his ideal of the mixed constitution into his Histories, which are often published in English under the title The Rise of the Roman Empire. Polybius believed that the Roman Republic, as he knew it at the time he wrote, embodied the mixed constitution, a view shared by first century BC Roman conservative senator, Marcus Tullius Cicero. The mixed constitution was an ideal that a number of Christian thinkers, including St. Thomas Aquinas, believed in, and it strongly influenced the early modern political theories of Niccolò Machiavelli and Charles de Montesquieu.

(2) William D. Gairdner, Oh, Oh, Canada! A Voice from the Conservative Resistance (BPS Books: Toronto, 2008), pp. 112-113. This book is a collection of topical essays. The one from which the quotations is taken is entitled “An Elected Senate? Be Careful”.

(3) I say “hypothetically possessed” because the period in which they were supposed to have possessed this sovereignty is historically murky. The states were colonies of the British Empire who declared their independence in rebellion against Britain. While they each signed their own declaration of independence, their secession is generally dated to their collective Declaration of Independence. The pre-union sovereignty of the states is rather akin to the pre-social “state of nature” in Lockean liberal social contract theory or the order of the decrees of God in Calvinistic theology, i.e., a logical antecedence that is required to make the theory work rather than an actual temporal antecedence.

(4) It might be considered constitutional under part 2 of Section 92A of the Constitution Act as it currently stands, but Section 92A was added by Section 50 of the Constitution Act of 1982, two years after the Trudeau government introduced the National Energy Program.

(5) As opposed to either classical Athenian democracy or constitutional democracy in which democracy is diluted by other principles.

(6) The right-wing Alberta Report magazine, founded and edited by the Byfields, championed the cause of the Triple-E Senate, which became part of the platform of the Reform Party of Canada. The Reform Party of Canada was founded in the late 1980’s as a western populist (“the West wants in”) and small-c conservative (which in this case meant a combination of economic liberalism and social conservatism) party. The need for such a party arose out of the fact that the actual Conservative Party at the time seemed to be doing nothing to challenge the leftward drift of the nation and was merely echoing the policies of the Liberal Party of Canada. The Reform Party merged with much of the Progressive Conservative Party in 2000 to form the Canadian Alliance, which formally merged with what was left of the Progressive Conservative Party in Canada in 2003 to form the current Conservative Party. I have been a traditional Canadian conservative for as long as I can remember, but I joined the Reform Party in college because I believed in its small-c conservative principles. I remained a member after it became the Canadian Alliance but let my membership drop shortly before the final merger into the present Conservative Party. I suspected that the merger would combine the worst of the two parties (the anti-patriotic tendencies of the Reform Party and the nanny state tendencies of the Progressive Conservatives) rather than the best of the two parties (traditional royalist and patriotic Toryism and the social conservatism and classical liberalism of the Reform Party). Whether or not that judgement was correct is a subject that would probably require a whole other essay.

(7) In The Socialist Myth (Cassell & Company Ltd.: London, 1971) Peregrine Worsthorne, then deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph, subsequently promoted to full editor, since knighted and retired, argued that the Labour Party victory in 1964 was no threat to the established order because of the inherent flaws in socialist ideology, namely that in order to achieve power the Labour Party would have to become that which socialist ideology professes to oppose, i.e., the establishment, Her Majesty’s legitimate government, and that to run the kind of state the Labour Party wished to run, would require the cooperation of the ruling class. In Democracy Needs Aristocracy, (Harper Perennial: London, 2005), first published in 2004 under the title In Defence of Aristocracy, Worsthorne, who since his first book had been promoted to full editor, retired, and knighted, tells the interesting story of how the Labour Party, placed in the position the Conservative Party was placed in by the Attlee government after World War II, basically accepted the reforms of the Thatcher years and conceded defeat. New Labour, under Tony Blair, became “a pro-capitalist party, and therefore unable to continue beating the economic equality drum, interested only in equalizing social status (abolishing the monarchy, the House of Lords, hereditary privilege, Oxford elitism, fox-hunting, etc.) and no longer committed to equalizing wealth” (p. 105). This, however, “altered the balance of power in British politics” because the removal of the threat of socialism undermined the alliance between the bourgeois capitalists and the Old Tories in the Conservative Party, so that “we now have a modernizing, classless political consensus consisting of a non-socialist New Labour Party and a pro-capitalist New Conservative Party, neither of which is much concerned to conserve the historic institutions.” (p. 105-106) Worsthorne wrote this at a time when the Labour Party was trying to eliminate the last hereditary peerages from the British senate. Since then the Conservatives have returned to power and this year proposed a bill which would have made the British senate a primarily elected body. The bill has subsequently been defeated due to opposition within the Conservative Party. The fact that this bill originated within the Conservative Party leadership, despite it being antithetical to Tory values, is probably due to the history Worsthorne has summarized, although David Cameron is not often thought to belong to the Thatcherite wing of the party. Interestingly, Worsthorne’s book was not written in opposition to the proposed reforms to the House of Lords, as its title might suggest. The aristocracy that Worsthorne defends is not a political establishment but a social class and the ideal of wedding wealth and power to public service that is associated with that class.

(8) Gairdner, op. cit., p. 114.

(9) Gaetano Mosca, The Ruling Class, (McGraw-Hill Book Company: New York, 1939), p. 50. This is a translation, by Hannah D. Kahn, edited by Arthur Livingston, of Mosca’s Elementi di Scienza Politics originally published in 1896 (the official date, a footnote on page xxxvi of Livingston’s introduction says that it actually came out in late 1895).



(12) Peter Hitchens recently remarked that “A House of Lords that is appointed, or one that is ‘elected’ via our corrupt and intolerant party machines, will be just another chamber of backstairs-crawlers.”

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Noblesse Oblige

On July 13, 2012, Barack Obama, the forty-fourth President of the United States, in the midst of his campaign for re-election, appears to have decided to take a break from trying to win the votes of the American people and to persuade them to vote for his Republican opponent instead. Since that was essentially what John McCain had done for him in 2008 perhaps he felt that he needed to return the favour. In a speech in Roanake, Virginia he addressed successful American businessmen and said the following:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. (1)

Now, what Obama said was, in the strictest sense, absolutely correct. Nobody who achieves success does so entirely upon their own. The problem is the way Obama said it. The message that comes across is “the credit for all you have accomplished belongs to the government, everything you have belongs to the government.” This is not an unfair interpretation of his words. Obama comes from a school of thought which asserts that government, acting on behalf of society, must take the blame for those who fail and the credit for those who succeed, and must tax the latter to pay for the former.

In the words of that most leporine of authorities, Bugs Bunny, “what a maroon!” To reward failure while punishing success will only result in more of the former and less of the latter. This is not only insane but a perverse inversion of traditional values. This is why those who believe in such foolishness prefer to cloak it in the language of compassion, to appeal to the heart rather than to the head.

Instead of “you didn’t build that”, Obama should have said “you built that, but it would have been harder, probably impossible, for you to do so, apart from the society you live in, including its laws and infrastructure”. That would have expressed the truth he was trying to get across without insulting American businessmen. His ideology got in the way, however, which is unfortunate because it is an important truth.

There is no such thing as a self-made man. You would not have survived your infancy if your parents or guardians had not provided you with your basic needs. You would never have learned how to provide your basic needs for yourself if you had not been taught how to do so. Even if you built up a business from scratch, you could not have done so without the cooperation of others. You would at the very least have needed customers who were willing to do business with you. Very few, if any, are the businessmen who did not require help above and beyond that. Each person also benefits in countless ways from the society to which he belongs – its culture, customs, language, manners, religion, and other shared traditions which provide the cultural environment in which he lives and thrives.

It is important that we remember and think about these things. It does no one any good to think that he owes all he is and all he has to himself and to his innate qualities alone. Indeed, it does him a great deal of harm to think this way. It generates ill feeling between himself and others and it kills such positive traits as gratitude in his heart. This hurts both him and his society. The realization of how much we owe to others and to our society as a whole provides necessary perspective and balance to the credit we properly take for our own achievements.

Perspective and balance are also needed for the liberal ideas of individualism, meritocracy and capitalism that permeate our modern culture. It is these ideas which generate the myth of the self-made man and the idea of “I got where I am on my own and don’t owe anything to anybody.”

Liberalism, with its ideas of individualism, meritocracy, and capitalism, is a form of thought which has come to have tremendous sway over what used to be Christendom, especially the English-speaking part of it. Criticism of liberalism needs to be qualified with an expression of thankfulness that it, rather than its primary modern rival, has tended to dominate our part of the world. The primary ideological rival of liberalism in the modern world is the set of related concepts that consists of collectivism, egalitarianism, and socialism. In a direct comparison between the two, liberalism will always come out ahead.

Under collectivism the needs, rights, and liberties of the individual are always sacrificed to the needs of the group. Egalitarianism is intolerant of quality, merit, and any other positive distinguishing characteristic that is not shared equally by all. In practice egalitarianism inevitably translates into tearing down and leveling rather than raising up and building. Socialism makes all capital the property of the community and declares that each member of the community will “work according to his ability” and “receive according to his need. “ By divorcing labour from reward, in this way, socialism eliminates the motivation for labour, and must replace that motivation with compulsion. Taken together, this set of concepts adds up to universal slavery.

Liberalism is much to be preferred to all of that. Under liberal individualism the rights and freedoms of each person are protected. Equality is not the ideal in a meritocracy, which values instead the freedom of each person to rise or fall in accordance with his innate qualities as reflected in his personal decisions and actions. A meritocracy prefers to encourage and reward the exceptional rather than promote envy, resentment and suspicion against them. Capitalism is based upon the reasonable assumption that under ordinary circumstances each man knows and is able to manage his own affairs better than the government rather than the unreasonable belief that government is somehow able to manage every man’s affairs better than each is able to manage his own. Under capitalism the rights of property owners are legally protected rather than politically attacked.

There are three conclusions that are relevant to our discussion which are to be drawn from this comparison. The first is that of the two modern systems, liberalism is vastly superior to its alternative. The second is that because of this vast superiority we will not be able to find the perspective and balance which we are looking for in liberalism’s collectivist rival. The third conclusion is that we must therefore search for that balance in ideas from the older tradition that predates modernity.

This is a reasonable conclusion. Most, if not all, of that which is good in the liberalism of John Locke, Adam Smith, and J. S. Mills has pre-modern roots, for liberalism is essentially an abridgement of the pre-modern English tradition (2). It includes the constitutional and legal protections of the rights and liberties of the individual person that developed as the English tradition evolved. It leaves out, however, much of the classical and Christian content of that tradition which provided the necessary framework for those protections. Removed from that framework, the rights and liberties of the individual were wedded in liberalism to modern rationalism and faith in human progress. The result was a distorted view of human nature and the relationship between the individual and society.

This distorted view is the idea that human beings are individuals by nature and that all forms of social organization are artificial constructions created by individuals for the benefit of individuals qua individuals. This idea contradicts both observable reality and some of the most foundational concepts of the Western tradition of thought within which the English constitution evolved.

It contradicts observable reality because human beings do not enter this world as isolated individuals who only later join social groups. They are born already members of families which they did not choose to join. Human beings are not born as isolated individuals who later join social groups but as members of families which they did not choose to join. The liberal view of the individual also contradicts the idea that a society is an organic whole, that the purpose of the political organization of society is the good of the whole, and that to be truly good the good of the parts must be in harmony with the good of the whole. This was one of the most basic concepts of traditional Western political thought, apart from which the protections of the rights and liberties of the individual, which liberalism inherited from the English tradition, could not have developed. (3)

Without these ideas from the older tradition, the only concept of a good greater than the good of the individual that liberalism was capable of was that of the good of the largest aggregate of individuals. “The greatest happiness of the greatest number” is how this was expressed in the liberal ethical system of utilitarianism, which made an action’s utility, i.e., its efficiency and usefulness, the test of whether it is right or wrong. Liberalism, with its individualism and utilitarianism, became fertile soil for the concept of the self-made man to grow in.

Now the attitude of “I’m my own man, I got where I am all on my own and I don’t owe anything to anybody” is not an attitude which should be encouraged in anyone. Nor should the attitude of “Society and the world owe me everything I desire.” If liberalism has a tendency to encourage the first attitude, collectivism has a tendency to encourage the latter attitude which is far worse, because the first attitude is merely a rejection of one’s own obligations whereas the latter imposes obligations upon the entire society. Neither attitude should be encouraged in any person but the first attitude is particularly undesirable on the part of those who possess wealth and power. This is so because the consequences, when the rich and powerful refuse to recognize their duties to their community and society, tend to be more far reaching than those of a similar attitude on the part of an ordinary person.

If pre-modern classical and Christian concepts of the Good and of society as an organic whole provide the necessary balance to the individualism of liberalism, and if a simple recognition that no-one could have survived infancy, let alone become successful in life, entirely on his own, provides the needed perspective to prevent a justified pride in one’s accomplishments from becoming an arrogant, anti-social, insularity, is there an idea that provides that perspective where it is most needed, among the wealthy, powerful, and people in high places?

There is as a matter of fact. The idea is called noblesse oblige. Although that French expression may be of relatively recent origin (4) the idea behind it is an ancient one. The literal English translation is “nobility obliges” and what it basically means is that great wealth, power, and social standing come with an equally great responsibility, the duty to behave honourably and morally, and to use these privileges in the service of the greater good of the whole society. The ideal of noblesse oblige is contained within the very concept of nobility itself. The word nobility sometimes refers to a social class consisting of long-established families who possess great wealth, influence, and status, and which usually have been formally honoured for their past service to their country. Other times the word nobility refers to excellence in moral character, particularly a sense of honour, a generous and altruistic spirit, and a habit of consistently living up to high principles. A person can be noble in the one sense without being noble in the other, and more often than not this is probably the case. The standard of noblesse oblige combines the two by saying that those who are noble in the first sense ought also to be noble in the second sense. (5) It is not a description of the wealthy and powerful but an ideal, it is always in the optative mood, never the indicative. Sir Peregrine Worsthorne defines it as “the tradition of linking power and wealth to the ideal of selflessness”.(6)

The concept of noblesse oblige was not completely obliterated by liberalism. Indeed, an argument could be made that it thrived like never before in the capitalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The great American industrialists like steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, oil baron John D. Rockefeller, and automobile czar Henry Ford, devoted much of their vast fortunes to building universities, museums, libraries and hospitals, to medical and scientific research, and to other such causes.

Carnegie based his philanthropy upon his belief that wealth comes with responsibility. In a famous article for North American Review, Carnegie wrote that “The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship” and went on to explain the benefits of capitalism “To-day the world obtains commodities of excellent quality at prices which even the generation preceding this would have deemed incredible…The poor enjoy what the rich could not before afford” as well as some of its shortcomings:

We assemble thousands of operatives in the factory, in the mine, and in the counting-house, of whom the employer can know little or nothing, and to whom the employer is little better than a myth. All intercourse between them is at an end. Rigid Castes are formed, and, as usual, mutual ignorance breeds mutual distrust. Each Caste is without sympathy for the other, and ready to credit anything disparaging in regard to it. Under the law of competition, the employer of thousands is forced into the strictest economies, among which the rates paid to labor figure prominently, and often there is friction between the employer and the employed, between capital and labor, between rich and poor. (7)

Socialism is not the solution to these problems, Carnegie, explained, for socialism attacks “the foundation upon which civilization itself rests…the sacredness of property”. It is not, therefore, a question of changing the system that allows such large fortunes to be built up, it is a question of how they are to be administered. The best solution to that problem, he argued, is for those who have amassed wealth, to administer it for the public good, during their own lifetime:

This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of Wealth: First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community--the man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves. (8)

It is not a matter of just giving money away – that, by itself, would do more harm than good, he argued. Rather, it is applying the same skills of administration whereby a large fortune is built in the first place, to using that money in a way that best serves the public good and benefits others. Carnegie pointed to certain wealthy men as examples of what he meant but he also practiced what he preached and his own example is better remembered today than any of those he talked about.

This, basically, is the concept of noblesse oblige. It is stripped of its feudal trappings and its aristocratic associations, and adapted to American liberal capitalism, but it is still recognizable as noblesse oblige. At the time of Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford, American capitalism was in its infancy stage. How has this concept fared as American capitalism grew up?

Not well, I am afraid. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Henry Ford displayed a sense of noblesse oblige in the running of his company by offering high wages to his employees so that they could afford to buy and drive the automobiles he was making. Needless to say this attitude does not seem to have survived into the present where corporate executives ask for government bailout money, layoff employees by the thousands, and vote themselves large bonuses and raises all in the same year. The tycoons of a century ago were all proud patriots of the countries to which they belonged. Today, capitalism has gone global, and as corporations have become multinational and now transnational their executives seem to have abandoned all attachment to their communities, societies, and countries. They support the erosion of national sovereignty and the erasing of borders, the importation of cheap foreign labour to depress the wages of domestic workers, and the exportation of factories and jobs. Successful entrepreneurs and other wealthy people still donate fortunes to what they consider to be good causes, and in many cases the causes are worthy ones, but much of today’s philanthropy serves the cause of the one-world agenda.

Men like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford represented American liberalism at its best. They believed in liberalism and saw socialism for the evil it is, but they were still influenced, whether they recognized it or not, by ideas and values from the older tradition, such as patriotism and noblesse oblige. What we are seeing today is what happens when liberalism has run its course and is no longer balanced by these older concepts.

What liberalism has created is a world in which the ideals and values of the older, pre-modern tradition, ideals (9) such as noblesse oblige are more needed than ever before.


(2) Michael Oakeshott, “Rationalism in Politics”, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays ((Metheun & Co LTD: London, 1962), p. 27.

(3) This concept can be traced from Plato’s Republic, the fountainhead of Western political thought, through St. Augustine’s City of God which text, depicting God’s Kingdom as a city that has as its end a spiritual Good higher than that for which human states are organized, was foundational to the Western branch of Christianity, down to Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, the eight books of which, written in support of the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, represent the English tradition as it stood just prior to the advent of Lockean liberalism.

(4) According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first known use of this phrase in English was in 1837. Balzac, in the novel Le Lys dans la vallée which was published the year before, called it “un vieux mot” – “an old word” - indicating that the phrase has been around in the French language for much longer.

(5) The reason the same word is used for such vastly different ideas is that the basic meaning of “noble” which is shared by both definitions is that of being “distinguished”, i.e., “set apart from the ordinary”. The act of distinguishing or setting something apart from the ordinary makes that thing recognizable and the word “noble” is ultimately derived from the Latin verb nosco which means “I know” or “I recognize”. Those who are “noble” by virtue of class, are distinguished by their wealth, power, and status, those who are morally “noble” are distinguished by their character.

(6) Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, Democracy Needs Aristocracy (Harper Perennial: London, 2004,2005), p. 211.

(7) Andrew Carnegie, “Wealth”, North American Review, No. CCCXCI, June 1889.

(8) Ibid.

(9) I am using the word “ideal” here in the non-rationalist sense of an idea that inspires the best in people, not in the sense of an idea that one sits down and thinks up of how things can be better than they actually are.