Still talking about the Madness

My review of Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis is in the current issue of the LRC, on newstands everywhere. Christopher Moore has a note about the review on his blog, and for the most part he gets what I was trying to do with the review.

At the same time though, I think it is important to stress that my beef with the book goes beyond the fact that the essays are completely one-sided in favour of the parliamentarian viewpoint. In a comment on one of my earlier blog posts on this, one reader argued that balance for the sake of showing both sides is no virtue when one side is obviously in the wrong. I actually agree with that argument — I think the idea that you should ‘teach the controversy” is almost always misguided, and I’ve occasionally turned down requests to do panels or radio phone-ins for precisely that reason. There’s no point in debating someone who has bad ideas, it only kicks up sand and makes it harder to see.

The reason why I think an exception has to be made in the case of last fall’s Madness is because the fact that there was a controversy is precisely the issue that needs exploring. It is just not acceptable for a crew of academics to take turns berating Canadians for not knowing how their constitution works and the prime minister for exploiting that ignorance for partisan gain.

I go back to a distinction I’ve found helpful in this, between input and output legitimacy — any  stable democratic institution needs both types. First, it needs to operate according to popularly accepted principles and rules. But it also needs to give outcomes that the people, on the whole, find acceptable, and if a system gives widely unacceptable output, that is a prima facie argument against the legitimacy of the inputs. So my concern throughout all of this is not that Canadians didn’t understand how their system works; it is that a large number of Canadians saw how their system works and recoiled in horror. That is the force of what I’ve called the “democratic” challenge to the orthodox parliamentarian viewpoint; a book of essays that gives no credit to output legitimacy has simply failed in its intellectual responsibility to properly explore the issues and to edify the public.

Anyway, I’m sure we’ll talk more about this soon enough. I’m told that Sossin and Russell will be penning a reply to my review for a forthcoming LRC.

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