Policy Debates: What For?

May 7, 2010 by  

Over at the’s Shotgun blog, Hugh MacIntyre reports on the Canadian Conservative government’s reintroduction of a bill that would impose mandatory minimum sentences for various cannabis and drug-related activities.  Introduced as Bill S-10 yesterday, its predecessor, Bill C-15, died as a result of the Harper government’s decision to prorogue Parliament (i.e., to end one session of Parliament, and begin a new one).  It is indeed likely the case that government was prorogued precisely so as to kill C-15.

Canada’s senate had approved C-15 only after amending it.  Of particular note: the Senate removed the mandatory imprisonment of those who grow more than five marijuana plants.  In amended form, mandatory minimum sentencing would apply only where a person grows over 200 cannabis plants.  Conservative Justice Minister Rob Nicholson exploded at news of the amendments.  The Harper government prorogued, and appointed more Conservatives to the Senate.  Clearly, the conservatives hope that they now have enough Conservative senators to pass S-10 in a form that imposes mandatory minimums for over 5 plants.

In his post at the Shotgun blog, MacIntyre writes:

…[policy learning]…is the process by which politicians or officials take ideas that are of interest in other jurisdictions, study it, discern its successes and failures, then try and apply its lessons to their own jurisdiction. It is a method that is full of potential and pitfalls, but it is something that anyone who is interested in public policy should be active in.

I agree that it is best to study the results of policies implemented elsewhere before implementing them at home.  I don’t take issue with that, or with what MacIntyre wrote.  However, on a daily basis, the media and the public all-too-frequently debate about whether a proposed policy “works” and, all-too-frequently, such debates leave entirely unmentioned the one thing that actually makes a debate worthwhile.  On the Shotgun blog, I explain as follows:

To say that a policy “works” is to say nothing at all.

Let me give you an example:

“Round-up works”. That statement is false if you are pouring Round-up on your lawn in the hope of thereby growing grass. The statement is true if you’re trying to kill every living bit of plant life on your lawn.

So it is with statements that “This policy works”.

If your aim is to create more jobs in the police force and in the prison system; or if your job is to prop-up the manufacturers of guns, helicopters, cars, bullet proof vests, and doughnuts; if your aim is to prevent people from ceasing to buy millions or billions of dollars worth of patented pain killers and mood elevators each month; if your aim is to ensure that lots of folks can make money via violence, and pay some of those ill-gotten gains into party coffers; if your aim is to get financial support from middle-class families who are buying houses across the country and turning them into moderately-well-earning grow houses; or if your aim is to secure the loyalty of “deliver us from evil” children in adult bodies, then: Bill S-10 will “work”.

In contrast, if you want a government that defends your life, liberty, and property; that uses force to ensure that nobody stops you from making choices concerning your own life, body, and property; if you want the laws concerning the production, sale, purchase and smoking of marijuana to be the same as the laws concerning the production, sale, purchase and drinking of gasoline (i.e., if you want PRINCIPLED, OBJECTIVE law) then: Bill S-10 will not “work”.

The problem is, however, for every such violation of life, liberty and property committed by the Conservatives, there is another in the minds of each of the other parties in Parliament right now, each of whom is desperate to prevent individual adults from making peaceful choices for themselves. All of them have forgotten that they are not our lords and masters, but our neighbours and servants.

In other words, the starting point for any worthwhile debate about a policy is an identification of the purpose of the policy; of the end one is hoping the policy will achieve.  The opening question in any worthwhile debate about a policy can be summed up in two words: “What for?”.


2 Responses to “Policy Debates: What For?”

  1. Mitch on May 7th, 2010 3:14 pm

    Very well said Paul.

  2. FrankD on May 25th, 2010 6:32 pm

    Maybe Harper is setting up future support for his party.

    Harper knows that mandatory minimums won’t work, and he knows Bill C-15/S-10 will require the building of more prisons, potentially private prisons, so… maybe that is his goal with this legislation (aside from using “tough on drugs” rhetoric for political advantage).

    Harper already has the support of police unions (e.g. CPA), the most powerful lobby groups on Parliament Hill.

    Expanding the prison industry in Canada will also create a strong lobby group that can be relied upon to support future Conservative “tough on crime” policies.

    Police and prison unions will fight any legislation that threatens their members’ job security.


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