Ex Ante

I was playing poker with some folks last night, and one thing that definitely dawns on you is that there are no expected value theorists in a gambling den. Watching a whole big stack of chips vanish after a series of bets that were perfectly appropriate given one’s ex ante knowledge, the fact that if the same scenario were to play itself out ten more times you’d likely turn out way ahead provides small comfort. When you’ve lost, you’ve lost. So that’s prologue.

Brad Delong makes a point that many have made in response to my post on the American Revolution. I may be right about some of what I said, but the Revolution certainly seemed like a good idea at the time:

I, however, firmly endorse and support the American Revolution, in the sense that it looked like the right thing to do at the time. Remember that the political evolution of Britain toward democracy was not foreordained as of 1775. (Indeed, the pressure exerted by the example of the United States was a powerful democratizing force in Britain throughout the whole of the nineteenth century.) Britain in 1775 was a corrupt monarchical oligarchy — albeit one with much softer rule, a much more effective state, and a much broader and more open system of political competition within the oligarchy than has been standard in human empires. It is quite likely that — absent the American Revolution and the Great Democratic Example across the seas, and absent the long reign of Victoria — the political evolution of nineteenth-century Britain would have stuck where it was at the accession of George III, or even moved backward away from democracy to some degree.

It is one thing to be a Dominion in close alliance with and owing some degree of allegiance to a rapidly-democratizing Britain. It is another thing to be a colony of a superpower ruled by a corrupt coterie of landlords.

That’s almost certainly right. I wouldn’t want to be understood as saying that the Founders should have known better than to rebel. There’s no way they could have seen the sort of geopolitical conflicts between the English-speaking world and various Teutonic and Slavic (and now, perhaps, Arab) tyrannies, nor is it by any means clear that Britain and her dominions would have developed such benign governance structures absent the Revolution to cause them to rethink a thing or two. I just want to consider what sort of emotional response we should have to the fact of the Revolution.

Some colonial situations are inherently unworkable. Nothing France did short of genocide could have made Algeria into an integral part of the Republic. British policies in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, however, demonstrate that there were approaches that the United Kingdom could have taken to the thirteen colonies that would have led to a workable form of political association. Indeed, even without any formal structure, after World War II the British settler states share a set of fairly close ties. The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776 and argued, quite correctly, that the set of policies Britain was attempting to impose on the Thirteen Colonies were not really in Britain’s interests, revolution or otherwise. I infer from this that the realization that an enlightened policy of benign neglect combined with an effort to come up with some kind of coordination and burden-sharing on defense matters would have was not conceptually impossible in the eighteenth century. That the King and his ministers failed to work this out is something to be regretted. That, in response to this failure, the Colonies revolted was quite appropriate. Still, it would have been a better world had wiser leadership prevailed and the breach not occurred.

In this context, it’s worth noting that despite two hundred years of living under the current political order, the social and cultural realities of North America still don’t map onto the divide into Canada and the United States very well. Québec is culturally distinct from Anglo-Canada in a way that Anglo-Canada is not from the United States. This is especially true if you consider the non-Southern portions of the United States. The gap between British Columbia and the American Pacific Coast is much smaller than the gap between either and Dixie or Québec. One could say the same thing about Ontario and the Great Lakes portion of America, Atlantic Canada and New England, and possibly about the Canadian plains and the bit of the USA that lies to their South. A three-way division between the Confederacy, Québec, and The Rest would make more sense than dividing The Rest in two and grafting one alien element onto each.