This Canada Day, remember our twin pillars— civil liberties and economic freedom

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Canada Day should always include reflection on how our great country came to be and the values and principles that helped shape it. The founders of the Canadian federation at their core had a vision of government based on civil liberties that included freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom to elect a government and freedom from oppression by authority. Moreover, our founders were steeped in a strong sense of economic freedom and saw the role of government as the provider of a framework to allow individuals to pursue wealth and property.

Despite the conventional wisdom regarding the founders as simple pragmatists and uninterested in the philosophical underpinnings of government, the founders were committed to limiting government interference and to protecting individual freedom as has been noted in the work of political scientist Jane Ajzenstat.

In a 1999 volume on Canada’s founding debates, Ajzenstat and her co-editors note that the use of the term “pragmatist” has been interpreted as meaning Canada’s founders had no commitment or interest in political ideas but “That is nonsense, and pernicious nonsense, because it purges political values from Canada’s founding.”

The founders were familiar with the works of American founding fathers such as Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton and the Federalist Papers, as well as European political philosophers such as Edmund Burke, John Locke, Thomas Hobbs, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill. Moreover, they were quite familiar with David Hume and Adam Smith. Hume felt commercial societies were the most conducive to the creation of wealth and, along with Adam Smith, viewed the state as facilitating economic development by providing an institutional framework that allowed individuals to pursue their self-interest.

Even the views of Hume and Smith on public debt and finance shaped the founders given that Confederation also involved a massive consolidation of the public credit at the federal level after the debt excesses of the British North American colonies during the first Canadian railway building age. Hume feared that public debt was the road to national bankruptcy while Smith believed that public debt could grow too large and ruin the nation. Adam Smith wrote that the “The practice of funding [i.e. deficit spending] has gradually enfeebled every state which has adopted it” and that bankruptcy was always the end of great accumulations of debt.

The founders were greatly concerned with wealth accumulation and prosperity and the economic development of Canada. Moreover, they saw free trade as an important component of commercial policy.

As New Brunswick parliamentarian John McMillan noted during the Confederation debates in New Brunswick’s House of Assembly, the purpose of Confederation would be an alliance “that will enable us to have free trade with our neighbours.” George Brown in the Province of Canada argued that Confederation was “to throw down all barriers between the provinces... that our farmers and manufacturers and mechanics shall carry their wares unquestioned into every village.” On this latter point, one suspects that if he were around today, George Brown might be somewhat disappointed at the interprovincial trade barriers that still exist.

With its high standard of living and stable political environment, Canada is without question one of the most successful countries in human history. We should not forget that much of our success lies in the economic vision and values of its founders, which were rooted in the twin pillars of civil liberties and economic freedom.