Thursday, August 28, 2014

Of Markets and Mores

Note: This post is adapted from an essay I wrote in the summer of 2011 that won honorable mention in the Institute for Liberal Studies' "Morality of Capitalism" Essay Contest.
I have not always believed in free enterprise. On the contrary, as a teenager, I looked at the capitalist system with a deep-seated suspicion. From my current libertarian vantage point, I remember wistfully the loathing and contempt with which I viewed the notion that a system of self-interested individuals making free choices could ever benefit the common good. I saw competition between individuals for scarce resources, goods and services as just so much lubricant on the slippery slope to a cutthroat, social Darwinist dystopia. The whole scheme, I reasoned, was immorality at its worst. Greed, selfishness, chaos, mutual sabotage instead of mutual assistance, taking advantage of labor instead of providing for workers’ needs altruistically—all these were strands of a web of vice and perfidy. I sincerely believed that capitalism was simply a sublimation of some of the worst impulses in the human character.
Who would imagine that an illustrated storybook, of all things, would have shown me the error of my ways?
Yet so the story goes. During a visit to a friend’s dorm room in university, I happened upon a copy of cartoonist Gary Larson’s book There’s aHair in my Dirt! In it, a family of earthworms—mother, father and son—sits down to supper. The little worm, discovering a stray hair in his routine dinner of topsoil, explodes into a tirade about the boredom and drudgery of his life as a lowly annelid. A stern Father Worm, seeking to teach his naïve son about his true place in the ecosystem, launches into a fable about a young human girl named Harriet who goes for a walk in the forest near her home.
During her promenade, Harriet is awestruck by the beauty of the natural landscape she observes. She is bedazzled by the kaleidoscope of color in a field of blossoming flowers, exclaiming, “I’m gazing at a painting! Oh, Mother Nature! What an artist you are!” She thrills to the sound of songbirds chirping as they wing through the air, interpreting their sweet strains as expressions of good cheer. She coos over two cute young fawns playing in a meadow. She marvels at the “graceful acrobatics” of dragonflies circling over a nearby pond, and gushes over the lights of fireflies dotting the night sky, calling them “the fairies of the night, enchanting the forest with their magical little lights!”
Father Worm, of course, wastes no time bursting the young maiden’s bubble. The blooming flora Harriet witnessed were actually waging war on a “reproductive battlefield”—using their bright colors to compete for the attention of insects, which, of course, bear the pollen those plants need to breed. Those birds belted out their avian aria not to delight human ears, but to communicate with each other—relaying “an array of insults, warnings, and come-ons to members of their own species.” The fawns frolicking in the field instinctively did so not to engage in carefree horseplay, but to form added neurons in their brains, improving their intelligence and thereby increasing their chances for survival in a life in which predators were constant threats. Meanwhile, the dragonflies were engaging in predatory maneuvers, and Harriet’s beloved fireflies were really beetles whose displays of light were the products of biochemical processes used to attract potential mates.
Underpinning all of the sensory delights Mother Nature has to offer is a rough-and-tumble reality: fierce—and often lethal—competition. Moreover, although that never-ending struggle coexists with extensive cooperation between organisms, such cooperation is not altruistically driven. Rather, when living beings assist one another, they receive some sort of benefit in return. As naturalist and author Edward O. Wilson wrote in his foreword to There’s a Hair in My Dirt!, “Nature really is red in tooth and claw. While it is true that organisms are dependent on others, the ecological web they create is built entirely from mutual exploitation. Life is tough! There is no free lunch, and what one creature consumes, another must provide. I know of no instance in which a species of plant or animal gives willing support to another without extracting some advantage in return.”
I remember feeling awed when I first absorbed the wisdom in this simple yet profound parable. I already knew, of course, that in scientific terms, human beings are but the smartest subjects in the animal kingdom. Most, if not all, of our behavior has its roots in our less evolved ancestors’ primal struggle for survival. If the natural world could have spontaneously evolved into this arrangement—this system that was at once based on competition and cooperation, albeit a decidedly self-interested cooperation—without leading to utter chaos and collapse, then maybe, just maybe…
Yet I thought that perhaps the most striking insight in this tale was one left unspoken by the author—indeed, one that may not even have occurred to Mr. Larson himself. Out of the ferocity of competition in the state of nature comes beauty—awe-inspiring, breathtaking beauty of the kind that genuinely enhances our existence and helps make life worth living. The ruthlessness of the battles waged by blooming flowers, prancing deer, chirping birds and luminous beetles should not distract us—and does not detract—from the fact that what they produce is nonetheless wondrous, and our lives would be severely diminished without it. The thing to remember is that without the competition, the beauty would not exist.
Competition, then, leads to beauty—if it is done correctly.
The accordance of human existence with this principle soon dawned on me. Virtually every one of the products and services that we take for granted in our daily lives reaches us through a pipeline laid through a foundation of competition. No architectural marvel would exist without a butting of heads between architectural firms, contractors, engineering companies, and any number of other businesses involved in its construction. Every musical masterpiece is composed by an artist or group of artists who knows how many other such artists are champing at the bit to obtain one of a finite number of available record deals. Every garment is designed by an artisan who comes up with an outfit and a look that enough customers are likely to want to make it a worthwhile investment. In a true capitalist system, every winning competitor gets to the top of the heap by offering consumers an arguably better deal for their money than their rivals do. Competition spurs businesses to pursue true excellence, in the quality and utility of the products and services they offer.
Even when this basic paradigm is violated by misguided, meddlesome politicians and bureaucrats, the reality of competition does not go away. Thanks to the universal reality of unlimited wants and limited resources, that economic clash is inescapable and cannot be banished by government. All such intervention accomplishes is to push that competition into a context in which it is less likely to serve a socially beneficial purpose. Firms that lobby governments to give them no-bid contracts, or subsidies, or tariff hikes to shield them from foreign imports, still have to compete for those cronyistic favors. Unfortunately, instead of competing to give paying customers the best bang for their bucks, they are jockeying for political patronage—the kind that corrupts the political process, swindles their customers by artificially inflating prices, squanders taxpayers’ money and distorts the market beyond all recognition.
No matter what system of political economy a society adopts, competition will always exist, as will any avarice that accompanies it. In countless societies that sought to stifle competition throughout history—from the former Soviet Union to North Korea and Cuba today—one finds that the elites in the uppermost echelons of government power have always claimed material perks and privileges that were unavailable to ordinary people. Moreover, to a large extent, the proof of capitalism’s moral superiority to other economic systems is in the pudding. Fifty years ago, the Soviet Union felt the need to construct a wall through the city of Berlin to trap the people under its jurisdiction and prevent them from getting out. More recently, the US government contemplated building a fence along its southern border to keep out people who were desperate to get in. The voluntary flow of people between capitalist and anti-capitalist societies has always been almost entirely one-way. That stark reality speaks volumes as nothing else can.
The genius of authentic free market capitalism, then, is that it encourages capitalists to engage in the right kind of competition—to bend their energies toward benefiting society instead of plundering and pillaging it. In short, true free enterprise harnesses two unavoidable facts of life—competition and self-interest—for the greater good. There can be no system more moral.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Trial and Error: The Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman Controversy and the Pitfalls of Politicizing Criminal Cases


     When George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin one year ago, I took to Facebook to point out the weakness of the evidence of Zimmerman’s guilt and to marvel at laypeople’s rush to judge the case with little or no knowledge of the facts. I further admonished my Facebook friends to “Stop pretending that you know exactly what happened that night, folks. You don’t.” One relative of mine chided me for pooh-poohing the emotionally charged popular reactions to the verdict: “Just let people have their emotional reactions and don’t fall into that trap of lecturing people on not having all the information nor understanding the legal workings of this and similar cases.” I thoroughly disagreed; the time to debunk widespread misconceptions is ASAP, before those attitudes harden. Nonetheless, I knew well the ad hominem bile to which I would have exposed myself by commenting on the case publicly at that time. So I mostly kept my overall views on the subject to myself until the paroxysm of outrage over the case’s outcome subsided. Now, the verdict’s first anniversary, seems as fitting a time for me to emerge from the bunker as any.

In a nutshell: due to the weakness of the evidence that George Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin was not justified by self-defense, Zimmerman’s acquittal was more warranted than a conviction would have been. Unfortunately, America clearly still has not learned the main lesson of racially charged criminal cases past: the folly of judging any criminal defendant in the court of public opinion without—or in spite of—credible evidence.

A year after the verdict, only the book-ends of the Zimmerman-Martin confrontation are clear. The critical middle part of the story—between Zimmerman’s tailing of Trayvon and his shooting of the youth—was never clear enough to dispel all reasonable doubt about Zimmerman’s guilt. According to Zimmerman, at some point during the alteration, Trayvon punched him in the face, knocking him to the ground, and then repeatedly banged his head into the sidewalk. Zimmerman claimed that his gun became exposed and Trayvon began reaching for it, whereupon Zimmerman grabbed the gun and shot Trayvon in the chest. If this version of the confrontation is true, then it arguably was objectively reasonable for Zimmerman to think that he was in imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm. It is this legal standard that governs the lawful use of deadly force in self-defense.

The prosecution never did manage to rebut this account of the altercation convincingly. Even if Zimmerman did follow Trayvon because of his race as the prosecution sought to prove, Trayvon may still have physically attacked Zimmerman, and thus the latter may still have fired in self-defense. Trayvon’s mother identified the voice of a person screaming for help in the background of a 911 call as her son’s, but of course the defense was able to produce several friends and relatives of Zimmerman’s to testify that the voice was his. An FBI voice-analysis expert, Hirotaka Nakasone, testified that he could not determine who was calling for help on the tape, and that such recordings tend to be highly unreliable in any case.

Other witnesses didn’t get a clear view of the incident through the rain or the darkness and thus couldn’t conclusively identify Trayvon as the person pinned to the ground during any part of the scuffle. Expert witness Dr. Vincent Dimaio, a forensic pathologist, testified that Trayvon’s gunshot wound supported the claim that he was on top of Zimmerman when he was shot. Apparently Trayvon’s top was hanging away from his chest when the shot was fired, which suggests that he probably was bent over Zimmerman at that moment. Moreover, arguably the case’s most controversial witness, medical examiner Dr. Shiping Bao, testified that the knees of Trayvon’s pants were stained, and a police officer testified that Zimmerman’s back was wet and had pieces of grass on it. These claims, too, were consistent with Trayvon’s having knocked Zimmerman down and kneeled over him to pummel him.

Dr. Dimaio also testified that Zimmerman’s injuries were consistent with his having been struck from above and having had the back of his head banged into concrete. Dimaio stated further that such an attack can cause serious head trauma, even without leaving visible superficial wounds. Although medical examiner Dr. Valerie Rao testified—based on footage and photographs of Zimmerman’s injuries—that she thought the wounds were “insignificant” and “non-life threatening,” the jury was left to wonder which expert was more to be trusted. One thing is certain: heads wounds from simple fistfights can be fatal, as some recent incidents show.

According to Anthony Gorgone, a crime lab analyst with the Florida government, the investigation failed to turn up any of Zimmerman’s blood or DNA on Trayvon’s hands or under his fingernails. Yet the prosecution left it unclear whether it was possible for Trayvon to attack Zimmerman without getting the latter’s blood or DNA on his hands. Without in-depth analysis of this issue and others, the jurors, lacking expertise in such matters, couldn’t conclude definitively that Trayvon didn’t attack Zimmerman. The cuts and bruises on Zimmerman’s face and head were real, whereas Trayvon appeared to have suffered no injuries other than the fatal gunshot wound to his chest—and broken skin on his knuckles, which also suggests that Trayvon did indeed inflict some “whoop ass” on Zimmerman. (Those are the words of Trayvon’s irrepressible friend Rachel Jeantel, who was on the phone with him shortly before the shooting and who publicly conceded after the trial that she thought Trayvon might have thrown the first punch.) The available evidence, though hazy, weighed more heavily in favor of Zimmerman’s self-defense argument than in favor of the prosecution’s case.

For these reasons, the jury was not to be faulted for coming back with “not guilty” verdicts on both charges in this case. Florida law required the jury to convict Zimmerman only if the prosecution proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he shot Trayvon with a “depraved mind” and if the defense failed to prove that it was objectively reasonable for Zimmerman to believe that he had to use deadly force in order to protect himself from death or great bodily harm. The evidence presented at trial arguably raised that reasonable doubt and supported Zimmerman’s affirmative defense; accordingly, the acquittal was a fair judgment for the jury to render.

Nothing that I’ve written here amounts to a personal defense of George Zimmerman. The man always struck me as somewhat slow-witted, and rather creepy at that—a man who likely suffers from delusions of crimefighting grandeur and possibly harbors racist prejudices as well. (This assessment of his character is borne out by a list of his run-ins with the law, both before and after his shooting of Trayvon.) I have no doubt about the folly of his decision to follow Trayvon in the first place, and I agree that he thus bears the lion’s share of the moral responsibility for this tragedy. It is quite plausible that Trayvon’s race played some (perhaps subconscious) role in Zimmerman’s decision to tail him.

None of the above factors, however, made Zimmerman legally guilty. Following a “suspicious” individual around one’s neighborhood—however unwise it may be, and whatever bigoted motives one may have for doing so—is not a crime. The police dispatcher advised Zimmerman not to shadow Trayvon because it was foolhardy and imprudent, not because it was illegal—and he actually did not forbid him to tail the boy, but only told him, “We don’t need you to do that.” Nor did the evidence presented at trial prove that Zimmerman initiated physical violence against Trayvon; if anything, it suggested the opposite. We cannot rule out the possibility that Trayvon attacked Zimmerman in a way that made it reasonable for the latter to think he was in imminent danger of death or severe bodily harm. For those reasons, acquittal was probably the appropriate verdict.

This conclusion in no way denies that the justice system frequently treats minorities unjustly, or that the self-defense laws of Florida and many other states may cry out for reform. Yet on this last matter, too, misconceptions abound. The Sunshine State’s much-maligned “Stand Your Ground” law was widely blamed for either Trayvon’s death, or Zimmerman’s acquittal, or both. That blame was misdirected; the essence of a Stand Your Ground law is that a person under attack no longer has a legal duty to retreat before using deadly force in self-defense. Zimmerman’s story, however, had him pinned to the ground on his back and being battered by an irate Trayvon immediately before he fired the fatal shot. Even in non-Stand Your Ground states, a person under attack has a duty to retreat only where it can be done safely and practically, an option that was foreclosed to Zimmerman under these circumstances. Therefore, both the erstwhile duty to retreat and its nemesis, Stand Your Ground, were moot in this case—which would certainly explain why Zimmerman’s lawyers didn’t cite Florida’s Stand Your Ground law in his defense.

What is not moot in the sad story of Martin and Zimmerman is the public reaction to it. Too many observers posited from the beginning—with little or no firm evidentiary basis—that Trayvon was totally blameless and that George Zimmerman was as guilty as sin. Too many people reacted to the verdict by fulminating that the justice system had failed; that the verdict was the product of institutionalized racism; that American law regards black lives as cheap; that racists now have a veritable license to kill young black men. Such sentiments made this case the latest in a long, loathsome line of racial confrontations in which many African-Americans reflexively took the side of the Black disputants, only for the evidence to reveal in the end that things weren’t so simple.

In 1987, an African-American teenager from upstate New York, Tawana Brawley, claimed that a group of white men, including a police officer and a local prosecutor, had kidnapped, assaulted and raped her. The Reverend Al Sharpton made his bones as America’s racial-rabble-rouser-in-chief while “representing” Brawley by hurling a string of libelous charges against the men she accused. In the end, a grand jury investigation concluded that the entire affair had been a hoax—concocted, according to Brawley’s ex-boyfriend, to protect her from punishment by her stepfather for running away from home.

A generation later, in 2006, an African-American exotic dancer, Crystal Mangum, accused three members of Duke University’s lacrosse team of racially slurring, beating and gang-raping her at a team party. In response, the prosecuting D.A., Mike Nifong, committed a slew of ethical violations for which he ultimately had to be disbarred. The media predictably sensationalized the case, students protested at Duke and on college campuses nationwide, and academics excoriated the athletes without ever laying eyes on a shred of evidence. Even the Duke administration abandoned its own students to have their reputations dragged through the mud. Eventually, however, it emerged that Ms. Mangum—a deeply troubled and mentally ill woman who has a history of making false rape accusations and who was recently convicted of murdering her boyfriend—had fabricated the story wholesale.

Of course, racially motivated white-on-black violence is not purely a thing of the past; indeed, a slew of similar cases garnered attention in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin in July 2013, a 76-year-old Caucasian man, John Spooner, was found guilty of first-degree intentional homicide for shooting and killing a 13-year-old African-American boy, Darius Simmons, whom he suspected of breaking into his house and stealing his shotgun. (The trial court ultimately rejected Spooner’s plea of innocence by reason of mental disease or defect.) In November 2013 in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, homeowner Theodore Wafer shotgunned 19-year-old Renisha McBride to death on the porch of his home after she crashed her car on the outskirts of Detroit. (The case is currently in the pre-trial phase.) In Florida in December 2012, a 46-year-old Caucasian man, Michael Dunn, shot and killed Jordan Davis, another 17-year-old African-American, at a gas station after demanding that the youth and his friends turn down their “thug music”. Dunn’s lawyer—unlike George Zimmerman’s—actually cited Florida’s Stand Your Ground law in his client’s defense. That case, however, had a more unexpected outcome: The jury convicted Dunn on three counts of attempted second-degree murder but was inexplicably hung on the charge of first-degree murder. (Fortunately, the D.A.’s office announced that they would seek a retrial of Dunn on the murder charge, and it now appears that said retrial will take place in September.)

If all the facts alleged by the prosecution in those cases are true, these men would be far better candidates for public flagellation than George Zimmerman ever was. For reasons made obvious by video footage of the shooting of Darius Simmons, self-defense was not even an issue in John Spooner’s trial. Renisha McBride’s killer claims that he was afraid someone was breaking into his house, but it is hard to see how he reasonably feared death or great bodily harm given that he had to open his front door to blast her. While Michael Dunn argued self-defense, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law was of little help to him, and with good reason. With or without a duty to retreat, self-defense law requires that a person reasonably believe that his/her life or bodily safety is in imminent danger before using deadly force. Given the reported facts in Dunn’s case, his belief was anything but reasonable. He claimed that the youths threatened him and brandished a shotgun, but no weapon was found in or near their car, and whatever verbal threats they may have leveled at him didn’t endanger his life. The evidence in Michael Dunn’s trial militated heavily against his self-defense claim—unlike the facts in the Zimmerman case.

I fully understand why the Zimmerman verdict was so hard to swallow for African-Americans who have become bitterly accustomed to being railroaded by their country’s justice system. President Obama was absolutely right when he remarked, “[W]hen you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that…doesn’t go away.” There is precisely nothing wrong with acknowledging those feelings and experiences, and there was plenty that is wrong with ignoring or dismissing them.

Nonetheless, lambasting a justice system that actually functioned just as it is meant to function never was an appropriate response to the outcome of Florida v. Zimmerman. The right reaction in this and other such cases is to reserve judgment until courts of law vet the evidence. That approach does not mean cavalierly dismissing every allegation of criminal bigotry. If juries acquit defendants in the face of compelling evidence of guilt, then it is legitimate for informed observers to point out those jurors’ error. In other cases, however, the evidence is either highly exculpatory or simply too unclear or flimsy to establish guilt. Defendants in such cases should be acquitted, and the uninformed masses should admit that they are not qualified to judge what happened. I and many other observers stayed off of the outrage bandwagon in the Zimmerman case not because we are unwilling to hold homicidal bigots to account, but because legal guilt must be judged based on solid evidence. For all of their flaws, courts of law are far better equipped to evaluate that evidence than the court of public opinion is.

Injustice in the American justice system is a reality, and African-Americans disproportionately fall victim to it. That fact, however, does not mean that the system failed this time. Nor does it justify the rush to judgment in this case—one not entirely unlike the mass hysteria that followed the infamous beating and rape of the Central Park jogger in 1989. That sensational reaction ultimately sent four young Black men and one young Latino to jail for more than a decade for a crime they did not commit. It is fundamentally the same kind of injustice to which the people wrongly accused in the Tawana Brawley and Duke lacrosse cases fell victim: the public vilification of criminal defendants by uninformed mobs. The soberer heads among us must remain vigilant, on the lookout for these public-opinion stampedes and ready to resist them whenever they rear their heads. In the meantime, all we can do is keep an eye on the wastrel George Zimmerman, lest his delusional self-regard make him a continuing threat to public safety—and continue to pray for the soul of a young man who met his Maker too soon.

  






Friday, July 27, 2012

Let Chick-Fil-A Open Up Shop in Boston, Chicago


In outraged response to fast-food outlet Chick-fil-A’s opposition to same-sex marriage, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino has publicly urged the company not to open an outlet near the city’s Freedom Walk. More recently, Chicago alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno has announced plans  to try to prevent Chick-fil-A from opening its second restaurant in the Windy City. This comes hard on the heels of the Jim Henson Company’s decision to end its erstwhile business partnership with the chicken-joint chain. As wrong as Chick-fil-A’s stance on gay rights is, efforts like those of Menino and Moreno are misguided and wrong. Governments should not be able to block anyone from doing business in a given jurisdiction simply for espousing the wrong viewpoints.

I should begin by emphasizing that the efforts of private individuals and organizations to boycott Chick-fil-A are quite legitimate. As other have already pointed out, the company’s right to free speech in no way trumps the right of its detractors to express their ire with its statements. The rest of us have every right to make our displeasure with the restaurant chain known by protesting against it—and by voluntarily withholding our dollars from it.

The company’s treatment at the hands of government, however, is a different story. As an assemblage of private citizens doing business together, Chick-fil-A has a right to express whatever views it wants, no matter how noxious or foolish they may be. Government, with its unparalleled coercive power and its constitutional duty to respect the freedom of speech, has no business penalizing private actors for uttering the wrong opinions. Speech, by itself, very rarely causes anyone the kind of harm that government can legitimately punish. Moreover, there is no right not to be offended by the propagation of ideas that one deplores.

Still again, giving government the power to chastise citizens in this manner sets a dangerous precedent in favor of censorship. Those who don’t mind such censorship when it is directed against their political adversaries should beware, for many can play at that game. Sympathizers of Mayor Menino and Alderman Moreno should ask themselves how they would react if, for instance, a Bible Belt town banished a company whose president committed the “offense,” not of actually performing abortions, but of merely speaking out in favor of abortion rights. Menino’s and Moreno’s threats smack of the same hypocrisy Nat Hentoff so adroitly identified as “Free Speech for Me—But Not For Thee.”

Alderman Moreno has dismissed free-speech concerns in this case, sniffing, “You have the right to say what you want to say, but zoning is not a right.” This is beside the point. If Chicago stops Chick-fil-A from doing business there in retaliation for company president Dan Cathy’s pronouncements, it is using its zoning power to punish the chain for exercising its’ owners’ and managers’ right to speak freely. Whether they have a general right to be zoned into that particular location is irrelevant. The issue is that the denial of a permit would be used as a penalty for unpopular speech. The penalty need not be a denial of a right in and of itself in order for its use to violate the freedom of speech. 

Ultimately, those who advocate such draconian state responses to unpopular speech are guilty (however unwittingly) of intellectual cowardice. If the anti-same-sex marriage position is so wrong—and I wholeheartedly agree that it is—then its opponents should not fear taking it on in free and open debate. Frankly, they should welcome every opportunity to expose the weakness of the arguments for it. By using government power to suppress and intimidate it, however, they only leave a (false) impression that advocates of marriage equality have no convincing arguments to make for it. They also fuel opposition to same-sex marriage by reinforcing social conservatives’ paranoid belief that their faith is somehow persecuted in America today.

It is bad enough when government chooses winners and losers in commercial markets. Doing so in the marketplace of ideas is inexcusable. Menino, Moreno and their ilk would do well to heed the words of the English poet John Milton: “Let [truth] and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Kids Are Not All Right

I am fond of griping that Canadian politics always seem to become most interesting when I am out of the country. I was away at university in New Jersey when the wily Prime Minister of my childhood, Jean Chrétien, was supplanted by his restive deputy, Paul Martin; when the sponsorship scandal terminally weakened the Liberal Party’s grip on federal power; when Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won a minority government in 2006; and when the Tories finally won a majority, and the NDP supplanted the Liberals as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, last year. (I was here, mind you, to witness the Opposition coalition power play of December 2008, but of course that died pathetically on the vine.)

Now, briefly back from my second year of law school, I hear that Quebec student unions have organized ongoing street protests and a province-wide “strike” in opposition to the five-year increase in university tuition fees advocated by Jean Charest’s Liberal government. To be clear, I slip the word “strike” into quotation marks because the very notion of students “striking” is rank silliness. It is typical of the fatuous thinking that is so commonplace on the hard Left. Strikes are for people who temporarily abandon their work posts in the compensated labor force to protest unfair pay or working conditions. Such actions directly impact economies in the short term, by hampering productivity and so on. University students accomplish no such thing when they play hooky from school. A truant is a truant, however politically motivated.

The mounting demonstrations have seen vandalism, attacks on bystanders and police and the deliberate disruption and obstruction of classes by some protestors. The movement has staked its claim on the grounds that during the Quiet Revolution, Quebec’s youth were promised that higher education would one day be completely free, and that the tuition hike will risk making higher education unaffordable for many of them.

As a young, politically motivated Quebecer, I totally reject the movement’s agenda, primarily because the proposed reform is an entirely reasonable one. It would increase annual university tuition from a mere $2,168 to a mere $3,793—and incrementally at that, over five years. At the end of that period, Quebec students would continue to pay the lowest tuition fees in all of Canada, as they currently do. As a practical matter, I am deeply skeptical of the claim that most Quebec students and their families truly cannot afford to pay less than $4,000 a year for university. Many of my former high schoolmates—most of whom were not wealthy by any definition—earned almost that much in a single summer of near-minimum-wage work. The fee increase will be introduced in $325 annual increments that amount to less than an extra $6.25 a week—about the price of a single drink at most of the pubs the protesters frequent. 

As a matter of principle, I do not think it at all unjust to expect students—and, again, their families—to shoulder no more than 17% of the cost of providing them with higher education. University is both expensive and valuable, a proposition from which students stand to gain immensely in their careers. It is only fair to expect the cost of post-secondary schooling to be borne at least in part by its primary beneficiaries. If some students truly cannot afford to pay under $4,000 a year, then the government should aim more of its education funding at them specifically. Indeed, the Charest Government has already planned to do just that, funneling bursary money toward lower-income families. Let affluent Quebecers shoulder more of the burden of educating their children. If they can pay heavier taxes than the rest of us due to their greater wealth, surely they can pay more to put them through university. Such means-based education funding is no more unjust than progressive taxation is.

I harbor similar doubts about the protesting students’ claim that the tuition hike will make university less accessible to them and their schoolmates. Young Quebecers are 12% less likely to go to university than their counterparts elsewhere in Canada at present, before the fee increase and while already paying the lowest tuition in the country. It seems that keeping higher education dirt-cheap is no guaranteed way to maximize participation in it. According to Ross Finnie and Richard Mueller of the Educational Policy Research Initiative at the University of Ottawa, cultural and psychological factors—such as familial and community expectations and students’ own career ambitions—have a far greater impact on the likelihood that youth will attend and complete university.

Had Charest proposed to hike tuition up to, say, $10,000 a year at one fell swoop, my perspective would be quite different. It would arguably have been unfair to expect Quebecers to adjust to that drastic an increase in the financial cost of attending university, especially had it not been gradually phased in. Of course, no Quebec government would ever have dared implement such a jarring change to a cherished social-democratic entitlement in this fabled land of “solidarité.” Instead, Charest has brought in a measured, reasonable and gradual change that is probably too modest to make a meaningful difference in Quebec’s sorry public finances as it is…and even this has prompted Quebec students to take to the streets!

Then again, let me be careful with my use of the term “Quebec students,” which risks leaving entirely the wrong impression. It appears that this movement is far from representative of the majority of university students across the province. Last month, for example, I read on The Globe and Mail’s website that only about 165,000 of the province’s more than 400,000 post-secondary students had gone on “strike.” Moreover, university faculties and student unions do not require unanimous consent when voting to strike, further diminishing the proportion of Quebec’s overall student body that ascertainably belongs to this movement.

At any rate, even if a clear majority of Quebec students do sympathize with the protestors, that still does not vindicate their stance. When taxpayers pull most of the weight of students’ tuition, elected representatives are within their rights to cut back on that assistance where necessary, in the name of fiscal health. It is understandable that this would irk many students, but their ire is still misguided. Whoever has the gold makes the rules; whoever foots the bill for one’s education has the power to call the shots, at least to some extent. Going to school on the government’s dime necessarily means giving up some freedom to determine one’s educational destiny to the state.

Student union leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois is on record as commenting that “the Charest Government seems to have a complicated relationship with democracy.” This was nonsense. No facet of public policy is—or should be—decided in the streets, where only the noisiest slice of the population will be able to make itself heard. Ultimately, the political process is the only channel through which dissenters should be able to thwart the government’s agenda, for that is the only place where the whole society is systematically represented. It is anything but democratic for a minority faction to use strikes (real or imagined), violence, and other such tactics to intimidate a duly elected government into changing course.

“We are not only fighting for our own little interests…[or] not to pay more to go to school,” Mr. Nadeau-Dubois told the CBC’s Mark Kelley in late May. “We are fighting because we think this government is making bad decisions for the future.” He averred that the movement had expanded to oppose “all the austerity measures that were put by the Charest Government in its last budgets.” Even if this is true, the streets are still no place for the province’s population as a whole to influence public policy. That policy is written in the National Assembly, where the legislators who vote for or against them represent the ridings where these student protestors live. The students should have taken their fight there from the start, making those MNAs—and especially Liberal backbenchers—fear for their seats if they did not change course. That is how change should be made in a democracy.

(Of course, such change would be easier to bring about if Canadian politics did not suffer from such stifling party discipline. Then the student activists could have lobbied Liberal backbenchers to break with the party line and vote against the tuition increase. Perhaps then the protestors would have felt less need to demonstrate in the streets…but let me end this digression. I’ve spilled enough ink on the subject of executive power and party discipline already.)

This is one reason why I mostly disagree with those who offer mealy-mouthed praise for the students’ motivation to participate in politics. Montreal Gazette columnist and humorist Josh Freed, for example, told Mark Kelley: “I’m like a lot of Quebecers; I sort of have some sympathy for the kids, because they’re showing some social conscience. For years, we’ve said, you know, students don’t get involved in anything; they’re selfish, they’re greedy, they look after themselves, they’re not socially engaged. In the last year, we’ve seen Occupy, we’ve seen this student rebellion…a lot of these kids think they’re changing the world. They might be misguided, but their hearts are in the right place.” To me, this is faint praise indeed.

To begin, I challenge portrayals of the students as purely selfless, altruistic and idealistic. Pace Mr. Nadeau-Dubois, they are marching mainly to keep their own costs down—i.e. to keep more money in their own pockets. In other words, they are largely—and ironically—motivated by the same self-interest that underpins the capitalist system that so many of them purportedly despise. Secondly, the students’ misunderstanding of free-speech principles and their attempts to circumvent the democratic process cancel out whatever “attaboys” they may have earned by becoming politically active. Thirdly, the old complaints about young peoples’ political apathy were always overstated in the first place. The “nuclear freeze” and anti-apartheid movements of the 1980s and the “anti-globalization” movement at the turn of the century are cases in point. (For the record, those were much better reasons for youth to take to the streets than a $1,700 tuition increase over five years.) The real apathy problem concerned young people’s reluctance to engage with the organized political party process and their preference for extra-legislative methods such as street protests. Clearly, today’s young Quebec activists have not exactly broken that mold.

The students have the right to make their displeasure with the government known publicly, of course. Yet nothing is more aggravating about this controversy than the students’ habit of decrying any police effort to quell their more disruptive tactics as violations of their free speech rights. The right to express oneself is not a license to prevent other students from going to school, to stop professors from teaching, or to block workers from going to work. Sabotaging the orderly conduct of business—the very activity that finances the students’ matriculation, the hard work of others on which they depend for their educations—is not protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Nor does Canada’s Constitution grant students the right to demonstrate anywhere or at any time that they please. Municipal authorities have the legitimate power to circumscribe the geographic range of the protests so that they do not prevent law-abiding citizens from going about their daily business.

Recognizing this, the Charest Government has introduced special legislation to bring an end to the disturbances. Bill 78, which is set to expire in July 2013, reportedly prohibits all demonstrations of more than 50 people unless participants first notify police of their locations and routes. It also bans demonstrations within 50 metres of the grounds of universities and CEGEPs in the province, and forbids education employees to strike in ways that stop students from attending classes. The passage of this law has had the predictable effect of fueling the demonstrations with a renewed sense of outrage. It has only strengthened the movement’s hand by further enabling its leaders to claim that they are standing up for fundamental freedoms against a repressive government. Most importantly—unlike the government’s previous approach to the protests and quite unlike the proposed reform itself—Bill 78 has raised legitimate civil-liberties concerns. The restrictions on the freedom to march are the most odious and the vesting of added powers in the police is highly troubling. Police officers are only human, and after months of often violent confrontations with wrongheaded youths, they cannot always be trusted to exercise this degree of power impartially or responsibly.

What, then, is a beleaguered Premier to do?

Charest could try taking a page from Margaret Thatcher’s book. She faced down a year-long coal miners’ strike in the mid-1980s that could have brought down her government—as labor unrest in the 1970s had mortally wounded previous British governments—and emerged victorious. She did so by stockpiling enormous reserves of coal and oil in advance to keep Britain’s economy moving once the strikers left their posts. She ordered police to restrain union picketers who often used violent tactics to try to prevent dissident miners from going to work. She forcefully denounced the strikers’ efforts to blackmail the British public by bringing the nation to a standstill in order to achieve their agenda.

Thatcher also wisely refrained from using excessively draconian methods that would have alienated both the miners who stayed at work and the public at large. She refused to take civil action against the miners’ union—which had called the strike without a national ballot of its members—so as not to alienate the working miners and other unions on whose support she depended. She intervened to stop the National Coal Board from forcing safety personnel to work in coal mines that had been closed, thus avoiding a parallel strike that would have been fatal to the government’s reforms. Last but not least, Thatcher hung tough for a solid year, staying the course in the face of stiff opposition from both the nation’s strongest union and a vast swath of public opinion that sympathized with the miners.

 It can only be hoped that Jean Charest will prove to have the Iron Lady’s guts—and guile. Bill 78 is an example of government overreach that risks backfiring spectacularly. Public opinion has recently shifted in the government’s favor; the latest CROP poll has roughly two-thirds of Quebecers supporting the tuition hike and three-fifths backing the government’s general position. Charest cannot afford to alienate this “silent majority.” While the aforementioned poll also indicates that many Quebecers also favor Bill 78, this support could easily dwindle following the inevitable constitutional challenges to the law in court. The government needs to maintain the high ground, defending law and order and Quebecers’ freedom to teach, study and work; it cannot risk appearing to trample on civil liberties.

Charest should continue to support the majority of Quebec students who have opted to complete their studies as normal. The police should continue to protect professors and students who want to carry on throughout the summer semester and into the autumn if need be. Universities should be given whatever resources they need to maintain the academic calendars for the 2012-2013 school year in their originally scheduled form, even with sharply reduced attendance. Any students who remain on “strike” should simply be given failing grades that will go on their academic records. Let these youth deal with the natural consequences of the tactics they have chosen to employ. Then we will see how willing they truly are to make sacrifices for the common good.

Finally, Charest must continue making his case to the public in order to solidify their support for the reform. He should make a televised address to all Quebecers to explain the reasons for the tuition increase, the reasonableness of it and the obstinacy of the student activists who oppose it. He should draw the line at his agreement to slow down the tuition hike and to provide more generous subsidies to lower-income students—and retreat no further. Now is the time to give the student unions a Hobson’s choice: take it or leave it.

If this fails to quell the disorder, Charest can cut this Gordian knot by taking the advice of the National Post’s Tasha Kheiriddin and calling a snap election. This would, of course, entail great risks, especially given Charest’s personal unpopularity with Quebec’s electorate, the upcoming Charbonneau Commission to investigate corruption in Quebec’s construction industry, and the fact that he would be seeking an unprecedented fourth consecutive mandate. Nonetheless, this would at least force the student leaders to take their case to the political process, where it belongs. It would also enable them to distance themselves from the violent agents provocateurs in their midst—and to surmount the obstacle of Liberal party discipline in the National Assembly.

Let Mr. Nadeau-Dubois and the rest campaign for political candidates who represent their agenda—or better yet, let them run for elected office themselves. Let the Parti Québécois demonstrate the real extent and sincerity of its professed support for the student unions. “Can we have a dialogue?” Mr. Nadeau-Dubois plaintively asks. “Can we have a social debate about how we finance our universities?” Yes, indeed, we can and should have that debate—in the halls of political power, not in the concrete jungle.

There is a bigger-picture issue at play here. This showdown is another facet of a burgeoning crisis that all industrialized nations will face in the years and decades to come. As birthrates decline and populations age, ever greater financial strain will afflict the social safety nets that were built on high ratios of taxpaying workers to elderly retirees. As public budgets worldwide groan under the weight of these and other increasingly unsustainable entitlements, more and more governments will cut back on their social commitments. This retrenchment of the welfare state will inevitably lead to disturbances of the social peace. Spendthrift governments will eventually reach breaking points at which creditors both foreign and domestic will refuse to lend them the money to finance cherished social programs. The cutbacks will come one way or another, and they will meet with fierce resistance from populations accustomed to leaning on government crutches.

To weather these storms, we will need to devise more efficient ways for states to fulfill their basic duties to their people. We will need to reform the welfare state in order to preserve it in some form. Efforts to do so will inevitably engender determined opposition. To overcome that opposition for the greater good, national leaders will have to acquire and hone skills of statecraft and persuasion—and muster a modicum of political courage.