This column by the Regina Leader-Post‘s Bruce Johnstone is one of the best arguments in favour of free markets and individual rights recently made in this country. However, you have to read it ironically, which I suspect wasn’t Johnstone’s intent:
Rights relative in Harper’s world
Wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world where we only had to obey the laws we liked and disregard or flagrantly flout those we didn’t? And wouldn’t it be nice if, having broken those laws, someone came along afterward and wiped away our criminal record?
Yes, it would be nice, especially if the laws broken were unjust.
Welcome to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s world.
Harper was in Kindersley this week exercising the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to pardon 13 Alberta farmers who defied the Canadian Wheat Board and illegally transported grain across the Canada-U.S. border in the 1990s and early 2000s. “These people were not criminals, they were our fellow citizens, citizens who protested injustice.”
By praising and pardoning scofflaws as “marketing freedom fighters,” Harper is essentially condoning and counselling Canadians to disobey the laws of the land. In Harper’s world, marketing freedom is like any other human right, like freedom of speech and expression, freedom of assembly and association. But is it?
I would argue that marketing freedom – the economic right to market your own grain the way you see fit – is a lower order of human right and freedom.
So Johnstone is arguing that rights are relative to one another, which works well with the title of this piece.
Why shouldn’t farmers or anyone else have the right to sell their own property or produce? The answer is: When it is deemed to be in the public interest to do so, and legislation is duly passed by Parliament to restrict that economic right.
So rights are only rights when the government “deems” them to be in the public interest and if they don’t pass legislation otherwise? Nope. Human rights and freedoms supersede legislation and government decree. This includes property rights, which were conveniently left out of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but still remain inherent and inalienable. Furthermore, one can persuasively argue that the public interest does not supersede the individual interest unless there exists a compelling reasonable argument to do so, which Johnstone wants to provide for us.
Without recounting the history of the Canadian Wheat Board, suffice to say that the CWB’s monopoly on export sales of western grain for human consumption was legislated in 1943 because previous attempts to voluntarily pool grain through the CWB and other pools failed miserably or ended in bankruptcy.
The CWB monopoly was legislated because a statist, protectionist government sought to control western Canadian farmers under the guise of insulating them from market forces. However, ignoring the market doesn’t mean the market doesn’t exist. Until recently, Canada was alone among Western liberal democracies in recognizing this.
By the way, that restriction on the economic freedom of western farmers continued to be reviewed by Parliament every five years and was never opposed by a majority of MPs – until Bill C-18, which removed the CWB’s monopoly on Aug. 1, was passed last December.
Irrelevant. Unjust legislation remains unjust, no matter how often parliament endorses it. Furthermore, even if a million parliaments reviewed and never opposed changes to the monopoly, past parliaments cannot constraint future parliaments.
Did some farmers disagree with their economic rights being restrained? Absolutely. Did a majority of farmers disagree with the CWB’s monopoly powers? We’ll never know the exact answer to that question, but the CWB’s own plebiscite of nearly 70,000 producers last year indicated that a majority supported the monopoly for both wheat and barley. And since 1998, producers have elected single-desk supporters to the CWB’s board of directors at a ratio of fourto-one over its opponents.
Might does not equal right.
Of course, Harper and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz would argue it doesn’t matter whether the majority of farmers support the CWB’s single desk or not. It’s a question of economic rights. Either you have them or you don’t.
That’s why the Harper government blithely ignored Section 47.1 of the CWB Act, which calls for a plebiscite of producers before making major changes to the single desk.
Didn’t Johnstone just tell us that there was a plebiscite? True, it didn’t go in favour of the free market-supporting farmers, but neither is a plebiscite binding; it’s not a referendum.
If duly passed legislation and the views of the majority don’t matter to this government, what does? Well, economic rights, in this case, the freedom to market your own grain.
If that’s the case, what’s to stop the federal government from giving Canadians the economic freedom to choose their own health care insurance provider (instead of the government, under our single-payer health care system)?
What about our economic right to buy basic auto insurance coverage from whatever company we want (rather than SGI, under our single-payer public auto insurance system)?
Yes! Yes! (Even though Harper has nothing to do with SGI or provinvial auto insurance, but he’s on a roll here.)
Some will say that you can’t compare universal health care or public auto insurance with a monopoly imposed upon a minority (producers) by the majority (government).
I wouldn’t say that.
If that’s the case, why do we have marketing boards for poultry, egg and dairy products, which are provided for by a legislated monopoly given to dairy and chicken farmers?
For obvious political reasons, the Harper government seems less committed to giving farmers in vote-rich Ontario and Quebec marketing freedom.
He’s absolutely right. Down with poultry and dairy monopolies!
Similarly, will Harper adopt the same enlightened attitude to civil disobedience when it comes to environmentalists protesting pipeline projects or chaining themselves to trees in old-growth forests?
Indeed, and thus Harper is applying this attitude with the Northern Gateway project. He’s dismissing the ridiculous interventions by thousands of people, many of whom are not Canadians, from the environmental assessment process so that more care and attention will be given to those with an economic stake in the project as well as to those whose constitutional rights may be impacted.
Somehow I can’t see Harper using the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to pardon members of Greenpeace or other “environmental terrorists” for their crimes against the state or private property.
Nor should Harper pardon members for criminal acts of “civil disobedience”, particularly if these acts threaten the health and well-being of people or property. Who was hurt by a few farmers hauling a few bushels of grain over an arbitrary border?
After all, rights are a relative thing, aren’t they, Mr. Harper.
You said it, Johnstone.