Both sides should shut up

The G8 and G20 have been and gone amid much sound and fury. But all the people making noise seem to have signified less than nothing.

First, the hard-core protesters who went around smashing stuff and setting fires. You could easily find mainstream outlets for your message if you even had one; much of the mainstream press, academia and the political class are uneasy with these economic summits. You rampage because you are thugs who insist that your point of view prevail even when you cannot persuade people of it, which is either childish or sinister or perhaps both. Democracies have seen this sort of thing before on many occasions and sensible people know it is toxic.

Next on my list are critics of the police, whether they are attempting a back-door validation of the vandals or simply playing the bourgeois-radical game of "second-guess-the-cops." Some have said the police were too tough, others too soft, and at least one commentator accused them of both simultaneously.

The first is absurd; it was not police burning dissenters' cars in Toronto. The second is hardly less so given the theatrical outcry that would have resulted from even one serious overreaction. But the third is also problematic. If a reasonably small number of people are bent on smashing glass, vandalizing vehicles, creating a shifting mass of unruly mobs and hoping to trick the police into breaking one innocent head, it is not possible for the security forces to stop them from doing so entirely even with severely repressive tactics.

That brings me to the non-violent protesters. You shut up, too. Not because you don't have every right to peaceful dissent, but because the real problem for the police is too much winking at the hard core by their fellow travellers. If you do not want the image of protest to be masked hooligans and flaming cop cars, you must sever the links of sympathy between the radical legal left and the radical illegal left. It does little good for cranky conservatives like me to deplore the rock-throwers; you must do it, too. You must confront them when it is happening and you must help the police prevent it beforehand and punish it afterwards. I'm not really sure what your complaints about these summits even were anyway, but I don't want to hear a word of it until you sternly and effectively disavow the radical rabble hiding in your midst with deeds as well as formulaic pieties.

When I champion peaceful dissent here, I'm willing to walk the walk. For having attempted to dispose of the critics, I'd now like to shut up the participants. Everything useful they said would have been far more usefully said at home.

You say they came and promised to be fiscally responsible? Well, the proof of this pudding is in the eating. If they get their budgets under control, they don't need to travel to exotic countries, or Canada, to stand around saying one day they'll do it. And, if they don't, their words were just so much wind over sand or, in the case of Toronto, asphalt. If they really feel the need to send a joint message they can circulate a PDF, affix electronic signatures and send it out to the press. We'll get it. We have e-mail.

I'm not just being irritable. I believe there's a kind of faux federalism behind these gatherings that risks misleading citizens and perhaps even politicians into thinking there's been a partial pooling of sovereignty into the G8 or G20, creating some kind of supranational authority to manage global economic affairs that, among other things, binds their members not to do foolish things when they go home because they promised not to in Toronto.

I am a big fan of real federalism. Certain tasks must be done by central governments because they cannot be done by subordinate ones (the classic example being national defence), while others, like education, are far better delivered locally. That doesn't mean I want a global federation; I'm with Bertrand de Jouvenel, who said he favoured world government until he crossed the Swiss border half an hour ahead of the Nazis. But the key point is that these gatherings are not a convincing attempt at it.

Federalism requires subordinate units permanently to surrender important legal powers they will be irresistibly tempted to use unless these powers are put definitively out of reach (if, for instance, states or provinces can withdraw their troops from the national army when they feel threatened or disgruntled, no war effort can survive). But the G20 neither does so nor pretends to. Promises to foreigners are even less binding than promises to one's own voters, and that's all we saw in Toronto.

At these summits even the people who had something to say said it in the wrong forum for the wrong reasons. Sound? Check. Fury? Check. Significance? Nothing good.

Let's not do it again soon.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson