Friday, September 27, 2013

Thinking about Harper, Talon, Louis XIV, and Acadian Peasants

I don't know if anyone else noticed this, but last month Toronto Star publisher John Cruickshank, in an opinion piece criticical of Prime Minister Steven Harper for his willingness to allow the sale of a portion of the country's telecommunications spectrum to the Americans, writes: "What is the Prime Minister trying to achieve with this degree of market manipulation not seen since Intendant Jean Talon ran New France for Louis XIV more than four centuries ago? He says he is trying to make the free market more effective."  What a dubious and bizarre comparison.



In a more expansive but equally provocative vein, Greg Kennedy published a piece entitled "Lessons from the past: 'So What is Government for Anyway?'" over at Active History.  In it Greg, who teaches at the Université de Moncton and has accordingly the great merit of being one of the very rare Anglos to teach French colonial history en français, muses about the difference between the role of government and the burden of taxation in the French colonial context and in our own day.  He does not take the current PM to task, but rather the system writ large.  His assessment is rather pessimistic:
Obviously, I am not arguing that we should return to this bloody and bloody-minded period of our history.  [...]  But Louis XIV’s answer to what government is for would have been very straightforward.  The sovereign (in this case, the king) was the protector and chief magistrate of the realm.  The sovereign defended the country from foreign invaders and preserved civil order.  The sovereign made laws that regulated trade, business, and industry.  The sovereign even protected the realm’s forests and waterways.  The sovereign ensured that everyone had access to justice.  And that was about it.  Local communities largely administered themselves and the inhabitants looked after each other.
 
How much have we really evolved since Louis XIV?  In getting rid of the bad of the Old Regime, what good things have we lost?  Today’s Canadian state has become so ponderous that it seems both to decide everything for us and to never be there when we need it.  A modern Canadian prime minister in a majority government enjoys legislative and executive power of which Louis XIV could only have dreamed.
 He concludes:

As an historian of the early-modern period, I think we should re-evaluate what government is for because an illiterate peasant (at least, a male, Catholic, French one) at the height of Louis XIV’s absolutist regime enjoyed a lighter and more transparent tax regime, better access to justice, and more autonomy at the community level than Canadians today.  Because modern liberal democracy has made us helplessly, hopelessly, horribly free.  And as incapable as infants.

Oh, those were simpler times!  I don't know what to make of this -- and, judging by the lack of response on the usually comment-rich Active History, other readers have had the same difficulty.  Greg, surely you must be pulling our collective leg?  Sure, people back in the day were more self-reliant.  But if you really want to go down that radically critical road, it seems to me that we should seek our inspiration not among Acadian peasants, but rather in small-scale societies of hunter-gatherers like the Mbuti of the Congo : in a not so distant past, they had no government, or social differentiation for that matter, and no taxes.  Now, they were capable folks!

I'm reminded of Hobbes' famous passage on what he saw as the natural condition of mankind: "In such condition there is [...] no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."  One doesn't have to endorse all of Hobbes' oeuvre to see that there's something here.  I'll take a ponderous government over the limited possibilities of your Early Modern Acadians any day, thank you very much.  And, since jumping across centuries is the name of our game, I might as well pull Churchill into the mix: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." 

Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go chop down a tree and shoot a deer to remind myself that I'm still somewhat more self-reliant than my infant child.  Somewhat.  I'll be sure to have an ambulance -- paid for by Greg's taxes, of course -- on standby in case I chop or shoot myself in the foot.

P.-F.-X.

4 comments:

  1. Though I hesitate to put words into Mr. Kennedy's mouth, I am unsure if he is arguing for a more anarchistic form of government, or a more direct, dictatorial variety. I think this desire for a strong but absent regime has become somewhat more prevalent in the more modern times, where the disillusionment with the western democratic tradition has only worsened. I know many people, perhaps myself included, who would enjoy the idea of a benevolent dictator or a philosopher king. An Augustus or Frederick the Great. Certainly the idea is romantic enough, especially compared to the lumbering corrupted bureaucracy that seems to make up our government today, or so we perceive.

    However, despite how much we may wish for a Caesar to come and rid us of our festering, oligarchical government, to liberate us from our liberty, I believe the romantic dream is just exactly that - a dream - for the reasons that PFX has laid out.

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  2. An interesting and entertaining response and glad to discover your blog site. However, I think you missed my central point. I was not trying to suggest that we get rid of government altogether (I think Hobbes is right about the state of nature), I was rather trying to promote reflection on what the national government should be doing and how it should be operating, and I was also suggesting that we may have lost the self-reliance that characterized families and communities in earlier times. History can provide important perspective for analyzing our current situation. Thanks for keeping the discussion going -- too bad you decided to hide behind a cloak of anonymity.

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  3. Thanks for the response and clarification. I do remain rather skeptical, though, about the value of reaching back to the Early Modern Period -- my beloved Early Modern period -- for perspective on the meanings of government and self-reliance today. Apples and oranges. Or, struggling for a better analogy here: horses and cars?

    I'd love to pursue this discussion over a beer some day, in some establishment that has a cloak rack at the door. The cloak of anonymity is for now a regrettable necessity. There was a time when one published in Amsterdam, The Hague, or London to avoid the ire and reach of good king Louis. Today, one is inclined to blog anonymously. Some of us don't have the good fortune of enjoying academic freedom.

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    1. I will look forward to that day. Cheers!

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