Friday, July 2, 2010

Wildrose AGM review Part 4 - Alberta Constitution, financial regulation, gun rights

One of the first policy planks to come up for a vote called for an Alberta Constitution. A lawyer (or law student?) helpfully pointed out this could well end up playing a similar role to that of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As such, it would serve to limit the discretion of the elected legislature. The membership ended up voting for this measure, but later on voted for a philosophically opposite measure by deleting a clause that called for a referendum before invoking section 33 of the Charter (the Notwithstanding Clause), thereby handing discretion for whether to "opt out" of applying a provision of the Charter within Alberta back to the legislature. A sponsor of the measure to delete the requirement for a referendum when using s. 33 claimed that there would otherwise have to be a referendum every 5 years, but in fact that is only true under an unreasonable interpretation of the Wildrose policy clause. There is nothing in Canadian law which would preclude a provincial legislature from holding a referendum once, and the legislature interpreting that as supporting, say, a 50 year mandate instead of 5, and accordingly renewing sans referendum the use of s. 33 ten times over that 50 year period (every 5 years as is required by Canadian law).

I supported the use of section 33 without holding a referendum and voted against bringing in an Alberta Constitution primarily because I am a conservative as opposed to a libertarian. At the heart of our current problems is not too little reference to rights but too little reference to responsibilities. An Alberta Constitution, like all forms of legislation that are intended to be superior to the legislation produced by a legislature, would restrict the power of the majority (presumably) in the name of protecting the minority. The net result of this is provide a means of legal redress against the coercive power of norms. If the norm is to not engage in a certain behaviour, by enshrining a constitutional right to engage in the behaviour, deviants can sue to preserve their right to deviate. That's all well and good in theory, but in practice norms are what hold society together and minimize the development of anomie. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms only works in a liberal / libertarian direction opposed to conservatism because of its fundamental nature: it is not a "Charter of Responsibilities". While I grant that an Alberta Constitution could include rights that conservatives would normally support as part of an alliance with libertarians, like property rights, having experienced life in 80-odd countries and studied law and society for several years I am convinced that what ultimately protects a "right" is a society's norms, not what is written in its law books. Whatever a country's constitution might say, it is going to be interpreted in a way that is consistent with the prevailing culture of that country and the mentality of its people. North Korea is formally known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea but in reality it is one of the least democratic jurisdictions in the world. An Alberta Constitution could ultimately make it more difficult to take necessary collective actions like creating budget surpluses, since it could create negative rights to not be taxed, positive rights to government services, or both. You might believe that the less collective action the better, but note that collective action is not necessarily government action. Whatever one's opinion on gay rights, for example, it is difficult to deny that the primary objective for those who used the Charter to advance gay rights was the erosion of the social norm than found same sex relations deviant. Government's role was really just incidental, since there was nothing stopping same sex couples from solemnizing their relationships before friends, family, and/or clergy. "Official" government recognition was important not for the piece of paper it involved but the message that was sent to the general public. Acceptance by society, as opposed to some formal government institution, was the most important goal.

Now it is true that an Alberta Constitution could enshrine things like "a marriage consists of one husband and one wife" but enshrining norms in legislation that is superior to elected legislatures is an abuse of power. Enshrining (true) rights at least has a rationale revolving around limiting majoritarianism. Enshrining whatever happens to be supported by the majority at a particular point in time (as reflected by the opinion of an elected legislature) as unchangeable for future majorities is to engage in unjustified exceptionalism. What is so special about today's norms that some of them should receive constitutional status? There has to be some sort of timelessness argument, and it is because I believe very very little is truly timeless than I oppose charters and lengthy, wide-ranging constitutions. Actually, I should correct that saying that I believe there are a number of timeless transcendent values but I am not inclined to force others to accept them by accepting my view of a constitution over theirs. Leave it to democracy. Choose conservative humility about what constitutes social justice over liberal arrogance. Constitutions and Charters take power away from democracies and hand that power to the framers of constitutions and charters. If an Alberta Constitution took power away from the federal government, I would interested in supporting it but, of course, an Alberta Constitution could control only the Alberta Legislature, not the Canadian Parliament.

Three policy proposals that came up later arose in a sequence and I ended up approaching the microphone to speak to all three. Two concerned labour and one concerned securities regulation. I'll address the labour matters in a subsequent post since otherwise this blogpost will be absurdly long. I spoke out against the proposal titled "Securities Act" because it just added clutter to the policy book. The policy planks should bind elected MLAs (and the party executive / leadership?) and this proposal didn't limit discretion at all. Gut securities regulation? Arguably OK because the proposed clause said the party supports greater protection for sellers of securities (against whom if not the buyers of securities, who would only have a positive action against the sellers if the law gave them one?). Increase the level of securities regulation? Just as defensible because the clause also called for greater protection of buyers of securities. A speaker in favour of adopting the policy plank made reference to the financial crisis, but I would refer readers to what the Economist wrote about the financial crisis just within the last day: "Though the financial crisis was global, it originated in America’s uniquely fragmented financial system, overseen by a patchwork of federal and state regulators." If the USA has a "patchwork of federal and state regulators" what does Canada have? Yet continuing or even increasing the "patchiness" of regulation in Canada seems to be exactly what the Wildrose leadership / caucus has in mind when it so intensely opposes a single national regulator. The Alberta Securities Act and Regulations is something like 3 inches think. It was my fattest statute book when I was in law school. Now times that by 13 for 10 provinces and 3 territories and call me when you are done reading, because only then have you mastered securities regulation throughout Canada, which represents, at most, 3% of global capital markets.

Were the party to adopt a plank like,
The Wildrose Alliance will use Alberta's influence over a national securities regulator to attempt to ensure that only financial derivatives listed on public exchanges may be traded in Canada
one might actually have something that got at what caused the crisis and helped prevent a future one. As that same Economist article notes, "[under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act] Most derivatives that now trade dealer-to-dealer will be traded on public exchanges. That will lessen the risk that one dealer’s failure brings down others." Why is the risk reduced? For two main reasons. The first and most direct is that exchanged traded products are marked to market, usually daily, such that if one's counterparty defaults, the default is on just one day's worth of margin, whereas if the product were off-exchange, days, months, and perhaps even years' worth of a position going against the counterparty could have built up, leading to a massive credit overhang. The second is more structural, and goes to the transparency of the system. As the Globe and Mail reported on June 30 in a story titled, "Ignorance of derivatives spurred AIG fall",
As markets slid toward chaos, [AIG and Goldman Sachs] quarrelled bitterly over what obscure derivatives were worth, current and former executives testified Wednesday.
Their testimony casts light on what has long been one of the murkiest episodes in the broader meltdown.
Most Wildrosers support free markets primarily because they are free. As an economist, I primarily support free markets because it is generally the case that free markets make fundamental price values more transparent (government bureaucracy obscures the state of true demand and supply). But in the case of derivatives, which, as their name suggests, derive their prices from more fundamental prices, they make the fundamental economic signals more obscure. An off-exchange derivative is especially obscure because it is a tailored, non-standardized product requiring a unique valuation.

At the end of the day, neither of these policy planks, the Alberta Constitution nor this "Securities Act" plank, were especially consequential in and of themselves. With respect to the Constitution, what will matter is what is in it, not whether it exists or not. And the Securities Act plank didn't say anything. One could argue that the proposal to add a clause after "a Wildrose government will entrench individual property rights" stating "ownership of firearms is a form of property rights" would have been consequential (had it passed) but I don't think it would have been of great import in any case aside from optics (meaning voting just on one's view of the optics was entirely appropriate). It really just said what should be obvious: if one owns a gun one owns a gun. Governments violate individual property rights all the time by taxing individuals; it is just a question how much property the individual is left with after the tax man departs. What would matter was how the proposed policy plank was interpreted, and on that count I voted against it because the context seemed to be that of raising the right to own a gun to the level of, say, the right to due process, i.e. beyond mere property right. The debate on the subject helped turn votes against the proposal, I suspect, since the respected Link Byfield spoke out against and speakers in favour used implausible and/or extreme rhetoric, e.g. "a man without a gun is a slave (a man with a gun is a citizen)." As it was, a Firearms section which contained a lot of pro-firearms language was added to the policy book later, and the presumptive reason why that passed and this first proposal didn't was because the later proposal was in a context that was more appropriate to gun rights being on the level of presumptively respected but practically regulated property rights than on the level of inalienable and absolute personal rights.

So what did really matter, in my view? The provisions that were union-related, for reasons I will explain in my my next post.

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