What 18th-century Scotland and Saskatchewan have in common

| October 12, 2011 | 0 Comments

Troy Media – By Will Randall

Athens in 100 B.C.E., the Islamic world in 1000 C.E., and Scotland in the 1700 are often thought of as societies that exemplify a ‘golden age’. In those societies, science, philosophy, and the humanities reached a critical mass that enabled inventors, artists, and thinkers to build off one another to generate ideas and inventions that shape our world to the present day.

Comparing ancient Athens and Enlightenment-era Scotland to present-day Saskatchewan might appear fanciful at first glance, but David Seymour makes a compelling case for just such a comparison in Birth of a Boom: Saskatchewan’s Dawning Golden Age.

Seymour, formerly the Saskatchewan director with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and now running for Parliament in his native New Zealand, presents readers with a cogent argument that the elements for the creation of a golden age in Saskatchewan are at hand if the province follows lessons from the Scottish Enlightenment.

Saskatchewan’s Golden Age

Some Scottish history first: The Act of Union, 1707 united Scotland with England, and allowed Scotland to move away from periods of famine and unrest to focus on scientific and intellectual endeavours. In the Scottish Enlightenment, influential philosophers such as Adam Smith​, James Watts, and David Hume​ engaged in work that, respectively, influenced the fields of economics, engineering, and epistemology. Watts’ steam engine, for example, revolutionized transportation and industry in Britain, and led to an age of industry.

Seymour argues that Saskatchewan could enjoy the intellectual and resource capital to enjoy a golden age by returning decision-making to the individual rather than letting the state or other actors serve as the primary decision-maker for people in that province. Seymour’s favoured policy prescription is subsidiarity, which basically means letting the entity most able to competently make a decision do just that, be it the individual, or some lower level of government. That would allow remedies from the bottom-up rather than from the top-down, or, in Saskatchewan’s case, from Regina-down.

Birth of a Boom compares representative democracy with Garrett Hardin’s theory regarding the tragedy of the commons. Seymour notes how the one-person one-vote model is a disincentive to a voter informing herself of policy matters, since her vote is worth no more than that of the uninformed voter. This apparent shortcoming in democracy is how interest groups, such as labour unions or farmers, gain influence in politics at the expense of the uninformed voter. The author does not offer a clear remedy, but both informed and uninformed voters will finish his book with a better understanding of the applicability of free market principles in Saskatchewan (and across Canada).

Seymour’s musings on top-down governance and the problems that stem from the same include a look at education, Crown corporations and Aboriginal policy, among others.

On education, Seymour looks to Alberta to find an education model that he considers superior to Saskatchewan’s centralized model that provides little choice.

Whereas parents in Alberta choose schools that vary widely in faith, language, and learning style, parents in Saskatchewan are limited to public systems that offer little in the way of education tailored to student needs. An education system roughly based on a voucher model would free parents to choose between schools. A further innovation (in Canada, at least) would be the implementation of for-profit schools as used in Sweden in which the most troubled students often make outstanding gains during their first school year. In essence, Seymour offers a recipe for an education system centred on the student rather than vested interests in academia, government or labour.

Saskatchewan is home to a number of Crown corporations that monopolize telecommunication services, automobile insurance and power. Using tax dollars, they act either as monopolies or compete with private companies; they also operate at the whim of government fiat, as seen in 2006 when government encouraged Crown corporation investment outside of the province and then reversed this in 2008 when the government had a ‘Saskatchewan First’ policy.

No Saskatchewan government has ever investigated the true costs and benefits of the Crown corporations on the province to determine whether they serve taxpayers and consumers well. Seymour’s sympathies likely lie with private solutions rather than the Crown corporations, but he concludes that an accurate accounting and open policy debate are a necessary first step to determine what the province needs and the corporations’ futures.

Better to be a poor man in a rich country . . .

The most intractable problem across Canada today is that of First Nations and Metis people, and who form the fastest growing segment of Saskatchewan’s population but suffer from low education and health outcomes. Seymour dives into the debate here and argues that the only way for Saskatchewan to realize a golden age will be to improve the lives of that 15 per cent of the province’s population. He’d have Ottawa withdraw its oversight and free First Nations to make their own decisions, including individual property rights on reserves to encourage business development. Seymour asserts that’s something which would be a good first step to greater prosperity for all Saskatchewan people.

In his 2001 book, How the Scots Invented the Modern World​, Arthur Herman argued the Scots understood that it was better to be a poor man in a rich country than a rich man in a poor country – as the former allows people to rise and prosper. That was Scotland’s experience during and after the Scottish Enlightenment. It is David Seymour’s vision for Saskatchewan.

Birth of a Boom: Saskatchewan’s Dawning Golden Age by David Seymour, Indie Ink Publishing, 2011.

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