Senate Sallies

Harkening back to his roots in the Reform Party, Stephen Harper has tabled a plan to reform the Senate. The opposition NDP has responded by reiterating its position that the Senate should just be abolished. Neither side, unfortunately, has an adequate appreciation of the part that is supposed to be played by a senatorial legislative body in a democratic system.

Though the belief that democracy is the best regime is part of the modern Western political creed, that regime is not without its defects. One of them is that it puts ultimate political authority in the hands of individuals who often lack adequate knowledge of public affairs. Since the chances of a person’s vote deciding an election are so infinitesmal, there is very little incentive for individuals to invest the time and effort necessary to acquire competency in  public policy issues. A number of studies confirm this so-called “rational ignorance” among voters. Bryan Caplan has written an excellent book demonstrating this thesis, in the process showing how the public systematically errs in its choices of economic policies.  Another flaw with democracy is that it enables 50% + 1 of the population to exploit the rest of the population.

This majority voting rule  poses a significant threat — one which has certainly been realized over the last century — to property rights. The wealthy, after all, are usually a minority in society. And, human nature being what it is, people are apt to favor those who promise them benefits for which they do not have to pay. Given these two facts, a politician does not have to be a genius to deduce that a promising strategy to get elected is to shower goods on the not-so-rich majority by exacting resources from the rich minority.

Eventually, as we have seen with the development of the social-democratic welfare state, politicians institute an extensive menu of public goods and services far beyond what can plausibly be financed from the wealthy. So the not-so-rich end up paying for part of the scheme, though politicians soon figure out that they can avoid the wrath of the voters by running deficits. But this simply passes on the costs to another, relatively disempowered class in a democracy: future generations. 

Preventing this is among the main original rationales for the inclusion of a Senate within a democratic legislature.  The idea was the Senate would be made up of members of the well-to-do classes who would have a stake in maintaining property rights.  It was also supposed to be made up of thoughtful individuals who understood the place of those rights in a healthy society as well as the dangers to these, and other individual rights, of untrammeled democracy. Socialists and social-democrats are well aware of this history, which is ultimately why the NDP wants to do away with the Senate.  

Sadly, Harper’s plan does little to get us closer to the original vision of the Senate.  The proposal to allow provinces to elect senators, and impose a nine year term on their tenure, would actually serve to make the Senate more democratic. The point of the Senate, however, is to constrain the excesses of democracy — in other words, to make things less democratic.

2 Responses to “Senate Sallies”

  1. @OrganicTory says:

    An excellent essay, Professor Bragues. Though the ‘restraining’ purpose of upper houses in the Westminster parliamentary tradition is (or should be!) a staple of political science texts — pitting utilitarianism against classical natural rights, if you will — there are also implications for political economy. Hayek refers to them in Economic Freedom and Representative Government.

    You may be interested in two postings I wrote on this issue, one from a specifically libertarian perspective and another in relation to public choice theory for the Institute of Economic Affairs.

    Suffice it to say, unless one is an anarcho-capitalist and wishes no State at all, then an appointed Red Chamber for Canada may still be our best option if we wish to promote limited government and personal freedom.

  2. mstob says:

    Mr. Bragues,

    I suspect that it would be difficult to bring about a system where the poor majority was succesful at draining the rich majority. Also, I don't think such a system would last very long. Given that the wealthy are more influential and powerful, for obvious reasons, they would gain control of this system for their own benefit.

    We often hear about the "rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer" and I think this partly explains that logic. The wealthy do not care how large the welfare state is as long as it is paid for through deficits. Deficits mean inflation, regressive taxation, and silent sucking of wealth from the unwashed masses. Compared to a progressive tax on the wealthy to pay for every single social welfare scheme, it certainly comes out on top, I think.

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