The current pandemic has reignited a time honoured argument about government overreach. Given the commonality of this argument, I wanted to share a few thoughts about perceiving government overreach as a Canadian and from the perspective of Americans.
You should ignore this article if politics are not your thing or if you feel very passionate one way or the other the question. These thoughts are meant to be light, easy thoughts, not an article for argument.
I am more-or-less working out how Canadians and Americans perceive government overreach.
To begin with, the idea of government overreach has a general use everywhere.
Yet claims of government overreach particularly arises within pockets of the USA because the US has its basic foundation in the idea of liberty/freedom as someone’s essence. Even their declaration of freedom— life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—matches the Lockean (and so arch-liberal) slogan: life, liberty, and estate (or property).
Thomas Paine’s (d. 1809) writings contrast society with the state, and the effect his argument is, to follow Ron Dart’s reading of him, to make society good and state bad (2016: 5). Hence, during the American Revolution, suspicion against Britain and her intentions played a role (not an exclusive role, mind you).
Note that in the USA, many people emphasize personal freedom, property rights, and the right to bear arms because such things counter a bad government. It seems inevitable to Americans that the government will turn bad, and so they have prepared. This liberal spirit weaves its way through the fabric of American society. And I am not here criticizing it but naming its presence to contrast it with Canada’s different view of state and society.
Canada’s government aims to protect political liberty, yes, but centers on peace, order, and good governance (see the 1867 Act, §91). Part of what that means is that Canadian politics allows for the limiting of the individual’s freedom for the common good. It’s expected and part of our political settlement. (see the Charter of 1982, which allows for such limitation).
In the Canadian government’s guide to the Charter, we hear: “The rights and freedoms in the Charter are not absolute. They can be limited to protect other rights or important national values.” Limited rights and freedoms are part of what makes Canadian unique in comparison to the liberal state to the South.
The limitation of freedom for the common good is baked into Canadian political life and conservative thinking here. Instead of a contrast between society and state, have tended to see an organic unity between each. Parliament and our system of checks and balances generally prevents an antagonistic relationship between state and society; and even so, this organic view explains, I think, in part why political entities in Canada tend to see themselves as part of society
In the South, we tend to hear much more about personal freedoms, rights, defense, and more. As liberal republicans, that makes sense. It just differs from our more traditionally Tory or conservative view in Canada.
For us in Canada, we have (at least traditionally) valued voluntary obligation to one another for the common good—sometimes in suspension to our personal freedoms. In any case, where there is mutual obligation, there is freedom. So these things are not opposed. Any good conservative wants to conserve the best of the liberal tradition: individual liberty. We might just disagree on how and when such liberty might be limited for the sake of the common good.
We are Canadian. They are American. And That’s Okay.
Here in Canada, we have become increasingly American, continental. The internet has accelerated that process. But we are also stubbornly different, and I hope we continue to avoid the pitfalls of expressive individualism that can claim “my body my choice” and abort a fetus on the liberal left or “my body my choice” on the liberal right to avoid vaccination.
Both arguments fall flat since they privilege individual rights at the expense of mutual obligation to one another. (By the way, I am not advocating mandatory vaccines or the like; I am merely criticizing the argument as stated in the above).
I think we should also reject any individualism that privileges our individual satisfaction to the harm of others or even in ignoring others; we need to voluntary obligate ourselves to our neighbours to create a society in which freedom can truly flourish—else we will become selfish individuals, a bane of the modern liberterian movement and the liberal republicans to the South.
In the end, I think we probably need to address the question about government overreach as Canadians by thinking through our categories. Yes, we have the same faith and similar political assumptions as our friends to the South. We can agree on much. I married an American. The point is not to argue that one is better than the other. The point is that we are Canadian. They are American. We are different, and those differences matter.
Canadian and American Overreach
The notion of overreach does not have the same meaning here in Canada, given our Tory heritage here.
Just to cite some examples, Tories or Conservatives in Canada created the CBC, CNR, the Bank of Canada, a pastor helped create Provincial health care, etc. In the USA, those ideas would be rejected by republicans (usually) since they restrict free enterprise, the rugged individual, and the basic idea that freedom is basic to the individual—including freedom from government intervention.
We simply did not have the same revolutionary and liberal foundation that the USA did. We agree on the basic liberties of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But we do not front load those into primary categories. We prefer in Canada to argue for peace, order, and good governance. Such governance vouchsafes liberty and property in its proper place.
We simply have a more organic way of viewing things. Our friends to the South do not—or do not in the same way we do. And that’s okay. We should take pride in our way of being Canadian; and they should take pride in their way of being American. We are two nations, founded in different but overlapping principles.
My final appeal, however, would be this: please remain Canadian. Love our friends to the South. But we found a Canadian way to gain independence, to ensure good governance, and run society. We should not flip this on its head for the liberal spirit of the USA, despite its good presence in many ways. We are Canadian, and I hope we can once again reclaim a vision for who we are as Canadians that does not look to Britain or the USA.
We are a nation of aboriginal, French, and European peoples who now embrace a whole world of new Canadians across the continents. This vision of organic unity, around our Parliamentary system, might lead us to be a multi-ethnic nation that names our sins (e.g.. Residential schools) and our successes (an organic inclusion of many peoples). We can take pride in ourselves as only a Canadian could. And that is just right.