Nearly a year ago today Jack Layton died. Loved by his supporters, his legacy has taken on an eerie cult of personality. However, the aim of this post isn’t to deride or ridicule those that idolize him, but instead present a libertarian perspective on the man and his life.
Although I hate to pigeonhole my politics, for all intents and purposes I am a libertarian. I believe in a society based on voluntary association. Therefore, I view the state (an institution of monopoly force with powers of ultimate decision-making and forced payment) as immoral and corrupt.
It is through this lens that I hope to show why Jack Layton, a good man with good intentions, is not someone to admire or emulate. Why his philosophy is flawed and how his vision for Canada can be achieved through libertarian means.
Born in Montreal, John Gilbert “Jack” Layton was raised in Hudson, Quebec. His father was a Conservative MP and Jack himself was student council president of his high school. His high school yearbook voted him most likely to be a politician. He attended McGill University where he received anÂ Honours BA in political science. During his time at McGill, Jack was involved with the Parlement jeunesse du QuÃ©bec, a mock parliament where young people pretend to be politicians. From 1969 to 1970 Jack Layton served as the mock parliament’s Prime Minister.
Layton got his Masters in political science at York University and started teaching at Ryerson University. In 1983 he completed his PhD in political science at York. A year before, he had been elected to the Toronto City Council where he soon became known as an outspoken critic, even opposing Toronto’s bid for the Olympics. He ran for mayor in 1991 but lost by a considerable margin.
With the exception of publishing books that people voluntarily bought, Layton never worked in the private sector until founding the Green Catalyst Group Inc. (a consulting business) in 1992. He returned to the Toronto City Council in 1993, he led the Federation of Canadian Muncipalities and served as chair of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund. Layton was elected leader of the NDP at the party’s leadership convention in Toronto, on January 25, 2003.
Layton led the party through four elections, gaining in popularity each time. In the May 2011 election, the NDP more than doubled their seats making Jack Layton the Leader of the Official Opposition. He did all this while battling prostate cancer, being diagnosed in February 2010. Layton died in the early morning hours of August 22nd 2011. He received a state funeral that took place between August 25th and 27th 2011.
On the surface, it seems that Jack Layton led a productive life. In many ways this is true, he stood up for causes he believed in, always championed love instead of hate, hope instead of fear. However, a libertarian perspective puts a damper on his achievements. As previously stated, Layton rarely spent time in the private sector. Why does this matter? Simply because in the market, individuals have a choice whether to pay for goods or services. In the public sector, this choice is not available. Whether or not he realized it, a majority of Layton’s salaries, paychecks and pensions were predicated on violence.
And it’s possible he did not realize it. Although his political positions changed with the times, Jack Layton’s personal philosophy always remained consistent. Since his undergrad years, he saw himself as part of the intellectual tradition of Canadian Idealists.
Canadian Idealism is best described as a neo-Hegelian philosophy that emphasizes positive liberty over negative liberty. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philsopohy compares the two:
Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. One has negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to one in this negative sense. Positive liberty is the possibility of acting â€” or the fact of acting â€” in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities.
As Jack Layton himself wrote in the foreword to Canadian Idealism and the Philosophy of Freedom,
The idealist current holds that human society has the potential to achieve liberty when people work together to form a society in which equality means more than negative liberty, the absolute and protected right to run races against each other to determine winners. Idealists imagine a positive liberty that enables us to build together toward common objectives that fulfill and even surpass our individual goals.
In many ways, Layton and the idealists were partially right. Human society is at its best when individuals work together to form a society that works towards common objectives that “fulfill and even surpass our individual goals.” Of course the problem, from a libertarian perspective, is that Layton believed equality was more desirable than “negative” liberty. Competition among individuals (“the absolute and protected right to run races against each other to determine winners”) is something to be frowned upon.
Of course, libertarians reject equality based on the empirical fact that men and women are not equal. As Ludwig von Mises, a prominent economist and libertarian wrote,
Men are altogether unequal. Even between brothers there exist the most marked differences in physical and mental attributes. Nature never repeats itself in its creations; it produces nothing by the dozen, nor are its products standardized. Each man who leaves her workshop bears the imprint of the individual, the unique, the never-to-recur.
The desire to stamp out competitiveness among the unequal is an affront to the realities of economics. Ludwig von Mises saw inequality not as a ‘dog-eat-dog’ delimenia, a social ill to be eradicated, but as an opprounity for,
Collaboration of the more talented, more able, and more industrious with the less talented, less able, and less industrious [to] result in benefit for both. The gains derived from the division of labor are always mutual.
The division of labour is an opportunity for the individual to cooperate with other individuals, to specialize in a certain set of skills and practices that contribute to a greater goal. “It leads men to regard each other as comrades in a joint struggle for welfare, rather than as competitors in a struggle for existence. It makes friends out of enemies, peace out of war, society out of individuals.”
The libertarian critique of the idealists boils down to economics. As with all political philosophy, a variety of ideas consist on how to achieve such and such end. The common thread is that these ends are usually the same: freedom and prosperity for both the individual and society. Whereas the idealists emphasize the importance of society, libertarians reject this notion on the basis that economics can only be understood in terms of individual action. And since all politics is essentially economics (given the nature of the state), rejection of individual liberty (or “negative” liberty) is a rejection of rationality itself.
But the libertarian critique of Canadian idealism goes further. Since society’s interests are placed above the individual’s interests (that is, positive liberty is emphasized over negative liberty), then the question becomes: who is to do the planning? As Jack Layton wrote,
Are we better off pursuing freedom individually, in a society essentially minimized in the pursuit of that end, or together, building a society according to goals we share while respecting, celebrating and accommodating each other’s differences?
And who exactly is “we”? Jack Layton makes this very clear,
In response to the challenges we face, we need to work together to build a Canada in which government is the vehicle for our collective efforts to make the better world we all hope to leave to future generations.
It is obvious then, Jack Layton believed the state should direct society toward these goals “we” all collectively share. Whether or not such goals exist is irrelevant for the topic at hand. What is relevant, is that Jack Layton was essentially calling upon a monopoly of violence to force people to act a certain way. For the idealists never expect individuals to voluntarily give up their egotistical ways for the greater good. This process must come through force – through the state, the apparatus of compulsion and coercion.
This is indeed peculiar for a man whose famous last words were, “Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic.”
Of course the irony in all this is that Jack Layton’s vision for Canada is achieveable without having to resort to violence, imitation and fear – the hallmarks of state bureaucracy. Layton’s values are evident from what he wrote, talked about and the political positions the NDP took under his leadership.
Clearly, he believed in equality under law. Something a private law society is much more capable of. Although Layton favoured government regulations to protect the environment, the enforcement of private property rights would be much more efficient. Better health care can be achieved by privatization and less reliance on government entitlements. Likewise, unemployment insurance, better “public” transportation, a reduction of poverty, among others are all achievable by an unhampered market. Not surprisingly, many of Jack Layton’s beliefs coincided with more libertarian positions. He favoured a talking to our enemies, abolishing the Senate, lower taxes for small businesses and legalizing drugs.
Although Jack Layton always emphasized collective interests over individual interests, this was in part due to his education at McGill. He credits Professor Charles Taylor with introducing him to the Idealist philosophy. “Like many of Taylorâ€™s students before me,” Layton wrote “and many more who have followed, I was to find that the course of my life had just changed permanently and for the better.” For us in the internet age it’s easy to discredit such writing as hyperbolic, but Layton attended McGill in the 1960’s. This was a time of “old ideas and new directions â€¦ A growing and deep questioning of the post-war militaryâ€industrial complex and the expanding materialism.” It was also an age where ideas were scarce, information was constrained and books by Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard were next to impossible to find.
It’s amusing to fantasize how different Jack Layton’s life might have been if, instead of attending a Charles Taylor lecture, he had seen Murray Rothbard in New York. Or attended a private seminar by Ludwig von Mises. But alas, this kind of mental exercise is ultimately useless. Jack Layton is dead. He has left his legacy. The goal among libertarians now is to persuade Canadian idealists that praxeological economics is essential to fully grasp what it means to be human. Fortunately for us, we live in a time where the works of these economists and libertarian political philosophers are available online, for free.