In his speech to the House of Commons on the current crisis, which really is a crisis, with parts of the country in danger of shutting down, the prime minister told us “Patience may be in short supply and that makes it more valuable than ever.” Strictly, value depends on both supply and demand, so if demand falls apace with supply, value may not change. And right now fewer and fewer Canadians seem persuaded patience is the best policy.
But let’s not get too smarty-pants. It’s good to see this government preaching economic fundamentals. It so often ignores them, as many governments do. “The first lesson of economics,” Thomas Sowell says, “is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to ignore the first lesson of economics.” We economists may not have all that much to offer but what there is can’t really be argued with. Things cost. Choice is unavoidable. You can’t always get what you want. (Mick Jagger learned well in his time at the London School of Economics.) And this above all: incentives matter.
We’re simple-minded enough to be universalist — to believe these basic propositions are part of the human condition, maybe even, experiments suggest, the animal condition. They apply whether you’re one of 38 million Canadians or 3,443 members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation.
What incentives are at work here? One obvious one is that if you don’t enforce the decisions of your courts, people will conclude the cost of ignoring the courts is low. That’s not a conclusion you want to encourage. On the other hand, if you do enforce court decisions and forcibly remove people blocking important transportation networks, all hell may break loose, especially if someone gets hurt, which you can’t guarantee won’t happen even with the best of intentions. So a desire to act carefully and deliberately is perfectly understandable.
A desire not to act at all is also understandable. Thus the prime minister’s urging that we all reject the temptations of “populism” (to which Conservatives supposedly have succumbed) and listen to each other. Fine, listening almost never hurts. But is our problem really one of not understanding each other?
We settler-colonialists do generally understand that native people believe it’s their land — the prime minister starting his speech by recognizing “we’re on the ancestral land of the Algonquin people” rather reinforces that view — and that they have their own languages and ways of doing things which they want to preserve and decisions that they want to make for themselves. Fine. We mainstream consumerist energy-users also understand that environmentalists think the planet’s in trouble if we don’t change our ways. That’s fine, too — in the sense that they’re welcome to believe that. It’s still a free country, outside the universities, at least.
But have these two groups in turn been listening to the mainstream? Do First Nations understand we’re trying to run a big modern society here, doing as much consultation as possible but declining to stop the entire undertaking because a small minority within a small minority isn’t OK with it? Do environmentalists understand people of good faith can have quite different views both on what the future of the planet is and on what to do about it? And that in democracies they don’t get to decide what happens unless they persuade, not blockade or browbeat, their fellow citizens?
The trouble with more listening is another basic economic principle: diminishing returns. It’s also not what the demonstrators want. They want action, not more talk. They want to change the government’s course. But that creates another difficult incentive. If the result of further talking is, as it must be, an agreement to do something different — to delay resource projects further, to consult ever more extensively, to share profits from the projects (if profits remain) even more widely — that alters incentives: people will learn blockades pay. Want real change? A blockade is the way.
The government clearly hopes we’ll resolve this one final paroxysm of the old order, after which “reconciliation” will be at hand and there won’t be further need — ever — for confrontation. But reinforcing the incentive that blockading pays is an unlikely way to persuade people to give up blockading.
A fine principle in legal philosophy is that everyone is equal before the law. But economics suggests the costs and benefits of enforcing the law may differ for different groups. In our big cities, demonstrations in support of the Wet’suwet’en are populated more with the usual message-me-a-mob suspects than with native elders. Arresting urban white trespassers and blockaders will cost less in international condemnation and will pay off most if the alternative is months and months of flash mob urban anarchy, as Montreal suffered through in the “Maple Spring” of 2012.
Taking full economic inventory of the crisis, many Canadians will conclude what’s in greatest demand at the moment, but in supply that has all but dried up, is not patience but leadership.