52B/52W, Week 9: Comment mettre la droite K.-O. en 15 arguments

Post by Maxime Rousseau

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Comment mettre la droite K.-O. en 15 arguments - Jean-Francois Lisée

I'm back from an almost semester-long hiatus! The reading hasn't stopped... however, most of the reading I have done during this period was school stuff that may or may not have been relevant to blog about. Not to mention that working upwards of 30 hours, going to school full time and participating in extra-curricular stuff had the best of me. But that's all behind now, and I plan on doing some catch-up during the Christmas break. 

Sun Tzu, in The Art of War, said the following: "If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles." I read this book to know my enemy. Enemy might look like a strong word, but if politics is a civilized and institutionalized struggle between forces competing for power as I believe it is, then the usage of the word would be exact. Jean-Francois Lisée is pretty much a polar opposite in terms of political alignment: separatist and Parti Quebecois bigwig, leans left of center, union sympathiser, you get the idea, not exactly my kind of stuff.  Seeing as this book sold quite a lot and that I have heard it been used as reference before in friendly arguments, I thought I'd better read it myself; if the likes of him and the likes of me are ever going to debate something, I'd better be prepared.

The gist of the book is that it is a response to criticisms often levelled against Quebec and what is called the "Quebecois model", our welfare states system which has a heavy hand in things like employment, culture, health, social issues and business. Most of these criticisms are presented by think-tank-ish organisations like Chambers of Commerce and various institutes centered around business, and are more often than not centered around statistical data. In this book, Lisée attempts to fight fire with fire by responding with different interpretations of statistical data, either by putting things in perspective to delegitimize claims which he (and the left, mostly) believe are blown out of proportion, or by showing that numbers don't necessarily reflect reality. In certain cases, he cites statistics from other sources and pits them against what is usually presented, showing potential biais.

The effort is noble, but the method is flawed. The left, specially in Quebec, when confronted with empirical evidence about the failure of their model, often offer qualitative responses citing collective choices ("choix de societé", referring to some type of social contract that never was) or ideals which are to be attained, regardless of the costs. While I generally disagree with the left, I can appreciate any politic choice made on solid philosophical grounds... which is why any argument I have with political opponents generally ends up with a discussion on the traditional philosophical problems like the nature of freedom. I hate arguing with statistics; they are the tools of technocrats and pencil pushers, veils with which true political issues are hidden away from sight. I hate to see statistics make policy; the pursuit of goals in the form of numbers alienates humanity, replaces the debate on the ends of human existence with a endless debate on the means of attaining a superficial goal. Governance through statistics is one of the hypermodern heads of the hydra that modernity created, a beast which is killing it's maker. But I digress, more on that on an other post maybe. 

This book presents statistical data, which like all statistical data, has to be interpreted to make any sense. What Lisée considers the right has presented interpretations, Lisée responds with another. Often, while underlining errors in interpretation, he commits the same in his rebuttle: using small-N surveys as proof, rehashing numbers to include this or that factor, and when all else fails, the falling back on those "choices" we made as a society. Here's an oft-discussed example: fiscal burden. The right argues: fiscal burden is horrendously high. Lisée's answers: not so when the services are considered, when an arbitrary evaluation of the cost of services is included in the calculation, the fiscal burden is actually negative! This is flawed in two ways: first of all, a negative average fiscal burden means that we are receiving more than we can buy... which means we are collectively buying it on credit. Secondly, the total fiscal burden after services point is moot: the issue is not what you're getting for your money, it's that you don't have a choice over what you're getting. By discussing the issue of tax burden through numbers, Lisée offers a quantitative indicator of how well our system works, which totally ignoring both the root problem, and problems highlight within his own demonstration. That's hardly a constructive effort. 

All 15 arguments presented are discussed in this way, each touching on different socio-economic indicators. The conclusion is the one you'd expect from a PQ hard-liner: hurray Quebec, we're the best, vive le Quebec libre, etc etc. Did Lisée's book definitively address the socio-economic problems of our province and create unshakeable consensus by definitely pinning down every opinion right of center as it's title implies? The answer is no, of course. It's just another instance of the dick-showing through statistics that's been going for ages. Doctrinal hard-liners like Lisée don't adresse problems: they show you how the problems don't actually exist according to their vision of things. I would have better liked a book on solutions. 

Read it, don't read it, whatever. If you learn anything, it's going to be numbers, abstractions derived from empirical data which can be shaped into pretty much anything, and therefor useless in the grand scheme of things.