By John von Heyking, April 8, 2009 in Pedagogy and Teaching
In reading the Canadian Founders, my first year students have a case study in the basic meaning and functioning of liberal democracy. They consider the meaning of liberty (is an end in itself or does it serve a further goal, such as human happiness?), equality (of opportunity or result?), economic opportunity, ambition (many Founders thought Confederation would expand the sphere for talented ambitions), representative government versus direct democracy (they debated whether the Constitution ought to be ratified by legislatures or in referenda in the provinces), and responsible government.
In each iteration of the class, I have time to focus only on a few of these themes. In the most recent iteration, I focused on the meaning of responsible government, with an eye on the difference between it and how the Founders viewed the U.S. constitution.
Contrary to the popular image of the Founders as dedicated to statism, they thought their system of responsible government offered greater individual liberty than the U.S. system. The Canadian Founders agree with their American counterparts with the end of politics, but they thought their system of responsible government offered a more effective means of obtaining it. The idea of responsible government is that government (the Prime Minister and his Cabinet) are sitting members of the House of Commons, and government needs constantly to secure and maintain the support of the House. If working properly, members of government should be in constant fear of getting the "heave" because nary a day goes by when the House could withdraw its support. Parliament in Canada doesn't quite work this way (though Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain seem to have retained this practice better) because, many argue, power has been centralized in the office of the Prime Minister (though this argument has its detractors). Canadians got to see this process seeking confidence last November when the Opposition parties attempted to withdraw confidence from the current Conservative government, and to replace it with a coalition of their own. Whereas the U. S. President faces the electorate every four years, and Members of Congress frequently face the possibility of having their bills vetoed, government in responsible government perpetually seeks support from its peers on a daily basis.
Perhaps the Founders' belief in responsible government, and its superiority over the U.S. system of separation of powers, is due to an insight Machiavelli makes in Chapters 9 & 18 of The Prince. There he states the prince should base his rule on the many instead of the great because the former are easy to manipulate. The many only have a passing and distant interest in the affairs of state, while ambition makes the great take continuous and close interest in those affairs (at the prince's expense). When Canadian political parties decided to choose their leaders by its membership instead of by caucus, they seemed to have inadvertently followed Machiavelli's advice for princes. In their desire to democratize responsible government, later reformers forgot something essential about responsible government.
In learning about responsible government, students also learn that it differs from democracy. Further, they learn the wisdom of having institutional restraints—or what Tocqueville describes as forms—on democracy. They learn that not all problems democracies face can be solved by creating even more democracy. They learn the age-old wisdom that a mixed form of government, guided by a statesman's practical wisdom, may be the best practical solution to political problems.