The Will of the People


As a socialist libertarian who believes both in democracy and the rule of law, it might not surprise you that I take issue with almost all political parties and all governments. Some are better than others but none deserve unquestioning obedience and respect. Fortunately, the various ideological forces at play in my febrile mind can often find compromise positions – even acceptable ones. I am also, after all, nothing if not a pragmatist.

Still, nothing drives me crazier that the current government’s predilection to pass laws that they know – in advance and with malice aforethought – will be struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. One might see this as a simple appeal to their populist base and take Stephen Harper at his word when he says that people need not worry about his agenda because the civil service, the Senate and the courts would act as a check to his ambitions. Well, he’s crippled the civil service, replacing those who would speak truth to power with those who acknowledge power has all the truth. We all know what his 58 appointments to the Senate have done.

So that leaves the courts. One of the tactics used by populist parties – of both the right and the left (I’m looking at you Greece) – is to appeal to the ‘will of the people.’ It is a convenient thing to appeal to since it can never truly be measured or contradicted. The Internet was supposed to solve all that allowing for popular opinion to be surveyed on all things though it actually seems to do a better job at driving people apart than bringing them together.

Trouble is most people don’t have opinions on many of the matters a government faces; those that do often have uninformed opinions. Of course people can have different values and world views – that is all part of the democratic process designed to lead to workable compromises. But rank emotion-based opinions? Well, most mass-murderers have those in full measure.

Why would a government bring forward unconstitutional laws? Precisely so they can say that the ‘will of the people’ that is, the will of the governing party and its leader, is being thwarted. Eventually, if you say it long enough, people will start to believe it and will insist on strengthening the elected body over all other institutions of civil society.

The trouble is: parties come and parties go. Governments fall or are delivered stinging rebukes. Countries, on the other hand, need a continuity to ensure that hard-won minority rights (or sometimes even majority rights) are not swept away in the fury of a populist tempest.

On a temporary basis, a charismatic leader and powerful party can persuade the people of almost anything. But if they are then allowed to demolish the institutions of society, that temporary state can easily be made, if not permanent, damned hard to get rid of.

Which I guess is why, despite all those other philosophies, I am a gradualist – preferring evolution to revolution. Having worked in both demolition and construction I know it is a lot easier to tear things down than build them up. Renovations – painful as they can be – are probably the best choice.

And that’s ten minutes.


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