Beware mob tyranny in democratic guise

By Lorne Gunter
National Post
Aug 07, 2007

Last week, I wrote a column about the increase in the size of the federal civil service since the staffing cutbacks in the mid-1990s.

Even by 2004, the rolls of the federal bureaucracy had regained their pre-cut numbers. Not including members of the armed forces, the Mounties, arms-length agencies or Crown corporations, Ottawa now employs at least a quarter of a million civil servants.

And because it cut secretaries, clerks and janitors in the 1990s and replaced them with executives, academics, lawyers and economists in the 2000s, its payroll is now more than 50% larger than it was a decade ago.

My piece prompted an e-mail exchange with a reader so naive about the benevolence of government that I would like to share our correspondence, while maintaining his anonymity.

"You bemoan the size of the civil service and the expenditures for it," he wrote. But "isn't it the proper role of governments to try to ensure significant income equality by providing jobs? You don't want corporations owning the schools, hospitals, roads and jails do you?"

I must admit that in 25 years in journalism and politics, I have never before heard the argument that civil servants should be hired as a way to even out the differences between rich and poor. Sure, I've heard that government should redistribute income, but never before by adding to the ranks of the Environment Canada or the Industry department.

Of course, since governments don't preferentially hire the poor, the most a massive public sector hiring could accomplish would be to even the gap between the middle class and upper-middle class. Mitigating such class envy is hardly a noble social goal.

I replied "Government should only hire the people it needs to provide the services it deems vital. The trouble is it hires too many people who then have to think up ways to spend billions to justify their existence.

"And, no, I don't have any trouble with private schools, hospitals, roads or jails."

In return, my correspondent answered "Why shouldn't the people decide what kind of services they need-- vital or otherwise?"

Unfortunately, I think this writer shares a view of democracy that is all too common today: If the majority will it, it is democratic. And if an action is democratic, it is moral.

But democracy was never meant to be a license for the majority to do whatever it wished at the expense of the minority -- to authorize unlimited taxes or encroachment on private property, to permit the dictation of beliefs and actions, or to fund whatever services it chooses, "vital or otherwise."

Democracy was always meant to be limited. It is merely the best way to solve those issues that cannot be kept out of the public sphere. Most decisions and actions, though, are best left in the personal sphere, away from government -- and the majority.

Just because most citizens vote for a government that is prepared to use its coercive power to make other citizens do as the majority wishes and fund what the majority believes is noble doesn't mean the actions of the majority or the government it sanctions are democratic.

The Federal Court of Canada ruled this week that the federal Cabinet could not release Prairie barley growers from the tyranny of the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly without a vote in Parliament. This is probably a sound interpretation of the law, as the editorial on the facing page argues. But why should we have a law in the first place compelling farmers to sell their own legal crop only to the government's grain merchants?

Even if that were in the interests of most farmers, and 99.9% of farmers voted in favour of such an arrangement, there would still be no moral justifications for it in a democracy.

Similarly, this week the Canadian Human Rights Commission decided not to investigate a complaint against the Web site A crusading lefty academic (who later withdrew her complaint) charged that Free Dominion was guilty of insensitivity to Muslims. Good on the CHRC.

But in a democracy, there should be no government agency at all that has the power to decide whether one citizen's or groups' political views are acceptable. The courts exist to hear charges of individual libel. Beyond that, we each have the right to counter views we find objectionable, but not to seek state help in suppressing them.

When our concepts of freedom and democracy are based on misunderstandings, we are at risk of losing both.