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The Danger of Ethnic Nationalism is Not Unique to Quebec

Published in Seattle Post-Intelligencer

What do you follow in politics, economics or your heart? The moral discipline of the market or the lure of memory? Your future as an individual or the passions of your group?

When Quebec was asked such questions this week, it split almost neatly in two. And so might many of us. Indeed, what Canada faced, and will face, is not dissimilar to what America faces and much of the world faces.

By a victory margin of only one percent, the decent, muddle-through confederation of Canada–engaging affection not because of its pride, but because of its humility–managed to hold on to just enough of the French-speaking community to give it a reprieve from permanent division.

We now see, moreover, that what was averted may have been worse than even the loss of a major province; namely, a complete breakup. When it seemed that the “sovereignist” side might prevail in Quebec, large crowds nationwide rallied ’round the Maple Leaf; and in that sense, Canada at last found its patriotic voice. But at the same time, some commentators began to re-investigate old arguments for an independent British Columbia, Alberta or Ontario.

Gordon Gibson of the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, whose Thirty Million Musketeers: One Canada for All Canadians , has just been published, warned that a “majority-plus-one ‘yes’ vote” in Quebec very quickly might result in several nation-states emerging across the broad pink map that now represents Canada. But Quebec, voting a majority-plus-one percent “no,” did not secede, for the moment, though another attempt will be made in a few years. In the long run, however, economics, the moral discipline of the market and individualism–rather than ethnic nationalism–will prevail. And, they should prevail. Je me souviens (“I remember”) is a bitter-sweet ethnic sentiment, not a principle for just governance.

Fortunately, the battered federalist victors in Monday’s vote have another chance to revise political Canada. One way to try to prevent dissolution is devolution. Not just heavily subsidized Quebec, but also the relatively well-off provinces of Ontario, B.C. and Alberta, want more power to make policies on pensions, labor training and economic development. Driven by the brutal demands of Canada’s federal debt–roughly $400 billion U.S. dollars–and huge provincial debts, too, the governing Liberal Party in Ottawa may well agree. Otherwise, as Gordon Gibson notes, the twin to the danger of losing Quebec will be losing Canada’s sovereignty to foreign credit markets.

Along the way, as federal power is devolved to the provinces, the level of federal funding will be cut. Taxes probably will not go up, however, and eventually must come down, for political as well as economic reasons; Canadians are punished by high taxation and are showing interest in the supply-side economics of the relatively new Reform Party.

If cutting spending and devolution sound like an echo of the policies of the Republican Congress elected last year in the United States, that is because these trends are, in fact, widespread. Pruning back years of government growth, privatizing and decentralizing are logical responses to increasing global economic competition.

The frugality medicine is hard enough to swallow in the United States, but Canada is likely to gag on it. But, one of the reasons for the strong separatist vote in Quebec is the poor state of the Canadian economy, and the main reason for the poor economy–high unemployment, high interest rates, sagging dollar–is government’s refusal until now to take the medicine.

The moral discipline of the market does lead to economic–and social–health, that is the good news. You can see the results in the recent improvements in such far-flung countries as Chile, New Zealand, the Czech Republic and Estonia. The government of President Meri of Estonia, who visited Seattle this week, cut taxes and eliminated tariffs and reports a sustained six percent growth rate, in contrast to dawdling, centralist Russia, next door.

The Estonians also have the second highest per capita Internet use in Eastern Europe (after Finland). High technology, indeed, is another force for decentralization and greater economic freedom world wide. The Internet is almost an emblem of what is happening to communication and commerce today. It ignores national borders.

But does this free and open world, with its economy driven by high technology, sound a bit frightening? If you feel that way, you have company in more places than Quebec. In Eastern Europe, for example, the collapse of communism caused even more fear than pain and often stimulated an escape to the seemingly warm hearth of ethnic nationalism. Chechnya, Bosnia and the peaceful but foolish secession of Slovakia from its Czech partner show the devastating consequences of that illusion.

In our own country, we only have to get over two generations’ growth of the welfare state, not totalitarian socialism. But the appeal of ethnic nationalism is strong here, too, as witness the black separatist ambitions (though now ambiguous) of Louis Farrakhan.

Wherever you are, if you are hurting and fearful, it is tempting to nourish your resentments and to imagine that you are stronger in a group — racial, ethnic, religious, geographic, gender, or whatever. The group, you find, derives its justification in grievances against some other group. If only you can remember past wrongs to the group and elevate the group identity to your all-purpose answer, you can forget the moral discipline of the market.

The American Founders and the classical liberal economists had a different vision: of personal liberty and personal responsibility. The Canadians have their own version of the same understanding. Because it respects all individuals as equal before God and the law, this vision benefits society as a whole. It tries, at least, to see you for yourself.

For people have souls as well as hearts, and souls do not go to heaven in groups, but one by one.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.