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Are we in the North secretly secessionists?

So what is this nonsense about everybody seceding from everything? It’s a way to make us think about how we would put the system back together.
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David Robinson, economist, Laurentian University; director, Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development

Toronto should secede from Ontario, Azilda should secede from Greater Sudbury. North Bay and Timmins should secede from Northern Ontario. Everyone should secede.

Sounds outrageous, doesn’t it? Not to mention unrealistic, irresponsible, nihilistic, destructive, crazy and downright stupid. But don’t you love it when a crazy idea turns out to solve an insoluble problem?

The germ theory, for example, was originally proposed in 1546. It was so obviously crazy to think that invisible little animals were making your milk go sour that it took 300 years before Robert Kotch proved that invisible critters were making cows sick. That crazy idea has saved millions of lives. You believe in germs.

You probably also think that the world is round; you may believe Charles Darwin’s absurd claim that humans and apes had a common ancestor. You might even believe that that petroleum can replace whale oil in lamps.

My crazy idea comes from the relatively new field of co-operative game theory. The heart of this approach is the concept of voluntary coalitions. No citizen or group joins another group unless they think they will be better off in, rather than out of, the group. For the group, the argument goes the other way. No group should accept a new member unless the new member makes the old members better off. That way, everyone gains.

This idea is the basis of successful deals and successful marriages. One hundred and 50 years ago, four British colonies voluntarily entered into a rather successful marriage called Canada. If you believe in voluntary association, fair deals, keeping your word, and Canada, you like this approach.

You already probably oppose many of the alternatives to voluntary collaborations, like shotgun marriages, colonialism, theft and military invasions. Whether you realized it or not, the central idea in co-operative game theory is how you think the world should be run.

So what is this nonsense about everybody seceding from everything? It’s a way to make us think about how we would put the system back together.

Very little of our political system is based on voluntary association. Our fathers of Confederation came up with a deal that the four original members liked, but not everyone entered the federation voluntarily. Treaties were signed later to paper over the fact that Indigenous territories had been expropriated. The Red River settlements went to war over the terms of entry and were beaten down.

At the local level, none of us have a real say about our community boundaries. In 1958, Port Arthur voted strongly against amalgamating with Fort William. In 1969, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs forced the two cities together.

In 2001, Mike Harris forced Sudbury and surrounding communities to amalgamate. He simply abolished local councils. Notice what that says: under the Canadian constitution, local democracy is whatever the provincial legislature says, not want local people want.

So what could we do to fix our limited and top-down version of democracy? We could apply the principle of voluntary association.

We could break our towns up into neighbourhoods and let each neighbourhood decide how much it wants to pay for sidewalks and garbage collection. Neighbourhoods could amalgamate to share costs or form regional councils. The province could set health and safety standards, but locals would decide neighbourhood by neighbourhood how wide streets are or how often recycling is collected and how much property tax to collect. If you wanted to drive through someone else’s neighbourhood, you could be charged a toll, or your community could pay for a right-of-way. We’d be building the system back up from the bottom.

This sounds awful, doesn’t it? So much local responsibility, so much negotiation. So much real democracy. And serious challenges. For example, we’d have the “hold-up problem” if towns tried to use control of roads to overcharge travellers. Co-operative game theory provides good solutions, but the province would have to act as referee.

This is a different way to think about government. Is it possible that governance by voluntary association is what you have always wanted? Are you secretly a secessionist?



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