Category Archives: United States

Johnson v Obama on Brexit

A nice piece in today’s Daily Telegraph advocating Brexit and criticizing Barack Obama’s intervention in the debate (on which I commented recently), by London mayor and long-time columnist Boris Johnson. He says that “to stay in the EU” is to consent “to the slow and insidious erosion of democracy in this country”. He’s exactly right. And if the pro-EU campaigners aren’t exactly aware of it, they certainly hold a worldview that categorizes genuine self-government as an irritating obstacle to progress rather than vital to preserving a decent society.

There is no European Magna Carta and it matters. And if we want to maintain the foundations of individual dignity and enterprise that have made Canada what it is, we need to recapture our own sense of the enduring importance of self government and an awareness that, to the extent that “progress” and liberty are antithetical, we should choose liberty.

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So close, and yet so far

A curious intervention by Barack Obama in Britain’s debate over leaving the EU. It’s not odd that he supports them staying in. He would. But it’s odd that for once he got the premise so right though as usual he got the conclusion so wrong.

After a ritual nod to Britons’ right to decide their destiny for themselves, the American president launched into a rightly derided and probably counterproductive attempt to cajole and bully them into submerging their sovereignty in the European Union, including threatening their access to American markets with a claim that a genuinely independent Britain would go to “the back of the queue” for a trade deal, well behind the EU. So much for the special relationship, I guess.

I find Obama’s performance more than usually curious because his effort to flatter the British drew on the shared values that underlie that special relationship: “As citizens of the United Kingdom take stock of their relationship with the EU, you should be proud that the EU has helped spread British values and practices – democracy, the rule of law, open markets – across the continent and to its periphery.”

He’s quite right about the first part. Those are British and subsequently American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand values. Government in the Anglosphere, as we argued in our Magna Carta documentary and will in the “True North and Free” project currently under way, is dramatically different even from government in the more politically pleasant parts of Europe, let alone the rest of the world. And Obama isn’t normally sensitive to such matters, to put it mildly. But he went on to say “The European Union doesn’t moderate British influence – it magnifies it.” And that’s completely wrong.

The EU isn’t democratic. It’s not tyrannical. But it is bureaucratic, centralized and unaccountable. It stands more for rule by law than of law, in the vital sense of fair, stable rules that arise from the people and protect their right to make their own choices. And it stands for government meddling not open markets. I do think the British example has made Europe better over time; even France, let alone Germany, has to some extent been embarrassed into creating more responsive and less repressive governments. But both also made impressive efforts to crush British liberty by force. And neither have embraced the common law system under which governments emanate from the people organically rather than standing majestically, or stodgily, above them.

Obama then claimed that “A strong Europe is not a threat to Britain’s global leadership; it enhances Britain’s global leadership. The United States sees how your powerful voice in Europe ensures that Europe takes a strong stance in the world, and keeps the EU open, outward looking, and closely linked to its allies on the other side of the Atlantic. So the US and the world need your outsized influence to continue – including within Europe.” Which is utter bosh.

Britain’s influence in the world has dwindled dramatically since it joined the European Economic Community, forerunner to the EU, back in 1973. Not only because it joined. But it was part and parcel of turning away from the glorious heritage of liberty that had made this damp, chilly foggy group of islands a hyperpower economically, culturally and militarily and also the “Mother of the Free” described in Land of Hope and Glory. Worse, Britain’s influence in Britain has dwindled, as law, regulation, and even jurisprudence come increasingly from the alien continental system.

For over a thousand years Britons decided their destiny for themselves, via a Parliament that controlled the executive in a way not even Europeans managed and nobody else really even tried. That is the system that spread to the United States as well as Australia, New Zealand and Canada. And precisely because democracy in the desirable sense, rule of law in the desirable sense and open markets in the genuine sense are British values, they should leave the EU.

Europe is so close to Britain. And yet it is so far away. And so is Barack Obama.

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A stunning ruling

The United States Supreme Court just made a singularly sensible ruling that stun guns are weapons.

Duh, what else would they be? Perhaps. But here’s the thing. As UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh explains (and by the way I heartily recommend his multi-author blog for the Washington Post, “The Volokh Conspiracy“), what was at issue was a bizarre ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution only protects weapons in wide use in 1789.

Now as Stephen P. Halbrook pointed out more than three decades ago in That Every Man Be Armed, people would be outraged if an American court tried to impose this sort of narrow construction on any other key right. Imagine the outcry, including from Canadians, if an American judge suggested that free speech was limited to the government, as some have claimed the right to arms is limited to state militias, or restricted its application to 18th-century-style hand-cranked printing presses.

By the same token, there’s no justification for taking such a view with respect to modern firearms or to “stun guns”, often casually referred to by the name of one particular brand, the Taser, which incidentally is an acronym from “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle” from the 10th instalment in the once very popular children’s adventure series whose excessive fondness for adverbs accompanying speech acts gave us the “Tom Swifty”, of the form “‘I’m thirsty,’ he said dryly.”

There’s another point to consider, and one that speaks directly to Canada’s incredibly tight restrictions on weapons. The Massachusetts decision in question, COMMONWEALTH v. JAIME CAETANO, involved a woman who was found, in the course of an investigation into shoplifting, to be carrying a stun gun for protection against a violent ex-boyfriend.

Is that so wrong? There is no suggestion that the weapon was used, displayed or mentioned in the alleged shoplifting incident, and if it had been, there are criminal sanctions against armed robbery that would apply. But she did say she’d had to display it to scare off her ex-boyfriend at least once, which sure sounds to me like a socially desirable outcome as well as an action clearly protected by the American Second Amendment.

Now consider that in Canada such devices are prohibited. You just can’t have one. Not in your car, not in your purse, not in your house. Only the government can have them.

Why? Does anyone fear a mass tasering leaving dozens dead? Even if you grant the legitimacy of restrictions on certain types of firearms, which I don’t, what possible justification exists for forbidding a woman to carry a stun gun for protection against a stalker? To have one in case she is swarmed by hostile men in a public place? Or at least to have one beside her bed in case she wakes up to find an intruder looming over her?

If you can’t answer those questions either, stay tuned for our documentary A Right to Arms, where we argue that Canadians’ unquestioned historic right to self-defence was sound on utilitarian grounds as well as those of natural law, and should be restored.

Meanwhile, good for the U.S. Supreme Court. They’ve given the Massachusetts court orders to try again, but with a pretty clear warning that it better come back with a more sensible ruling.

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With respect

Conrad Black does me the honour of responding to my column on Donald Trump with a splendid example of polemics done right. His piece pulls no punches but throws them all above the waist. As Chesterton says “People generally quarrel because they cannot argue” and Conrad Black can certainly argue.

I still respectfully disagree. When he says “Foreigners like Robson should remember that Americans, unlike most nationalities, are not accustomed to their government being incompetent and embarrassing” I respond that “People with Ph.Ds in American history like Robson remember that Americans are thoroughly accustomed to their government being incompetent and embarrassing, under presidents from John Tyler to Andrew Johnson to Warren Harding.” Remember Henry Adams’s quip in The Education of Henry Adams that “The progress of Evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.” What distinguishes Americans is their commendable determination to keep government small because they understand that it is usually incompetent and often sinister.

Regrettably Donald Trump does not share this understanding. Indeed, he himself would be both incompetent and sinister in office. That is why I continue to maintain that while he taps into legitimate anger, he does so in ways that are profoundly illegitimate.

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Where left is right

Here’s an intriguing opening for common sense to invade politics. Billionaire Charles Koch, a major bogeyman of the left, has just written a thoughtful Washington Post piece on how he agrees with Bernie Sanders, fast-rising bogeyman of the right, that tax loopholes for the rich are bad.

Can I just say I’ve been making the same point for years? In this country the political left and right seem equally devoted to these backdoor handouts and it’s time they both got smart like Koch and Sanders.

It might seem odd to hear this major financier of right-wing Republicans endorse the criticism of that socialist about “a political and economic system that is often rigged to help the privileged few at the expense of everyone else, particularly the least advantaged” and agree with Sanders that “we have a two-tiered society that increasingly dooms millions of our fellow citizens to lives of poverty and hopelessness” in which “many corporations seek and benefit from corporate welfare while ordinary citizens are denied opportunities and a level playing field.”

But Koch goes further.

“Democrats and Republicans have too often favored policies and regulations that pick winners and losers,” he writes. “This helps perpetuate a cycle of control, dependency, cronyism and poverty in the United States.” And furthermore, “it’s not enough to say that government alone is to blame. Large portions of the business community have actively pushed for these policies.”

Exactly. If you build it they will come. A state in the business of handing out sums of money that boggle the mind, including by Koch’s reckoning “$1.5 trillion in exemptions and special-interest carve-outs” in the tax code alone, may mantle itself in rhetoric about compassion and the less fortunate. But it’s the well-connected, confidently alert to opportunities and accustomed to privileged treatment, who will know how to cash in, including quietly persuading lawmakers to create new handouts for them and their buddies.

I strongly urge you to read this eyebrow-raising piece, in which Koch even says that his own businesses do not ask prospective employees about prior criminal convictions because of the unfair way drug laws burden the poor and marginalized. Because as he says, Koch is no socialist. Rather, he firmly opposes Sanders’ desire for more government, saying “This is what built so many barriers to opportunity in the first place.” But he’s not looking for a fight.

Instead he’s hoping that if left and right can see eye to eye on the loophole issue, perhaps it’s one area where a major injustice can be corrected in a genuinely constructive way.

I know, it’s a long shot. But it’s worth a try. Even here in Canada, where not a sparrow flutters by without someone offering it a subsidy.

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