THE bill bissett AFFAIR
by Marco den Ouden
Originally published in The Libertarian - October 1978
One of the hotly
debated items these days is the issue of bill bissett and
the Canada Council. Some parties, such as MP Bob Wenman and
columnist Doug Collins, oppose Canada Council grants to
bissett. Others, such as columnists Christopher Dafoe and
Allan Fotheringham, support such grants and denounce the
detractors as Yahoos, Woolhats and Neanderthals. Neither
side, though, seems to understand the issue at stake,
although the Woolhats are closer to the mark than the
so-called Intellectuals, or "funknickels" as Doug Collins
The issue at stake is
whether bissett or Talonbooks or indeed, any group or
individual, should be subsidized by the taxpayer. The
Funknickels enthusiastically say "yes". The Woolhats,
unfortunately, say "yes but". They say, to quote Collins,
"Don't mistake my meaning. Symphony orchestras, the ballet
and the theatre do warrant help. Maybe some genuine writers
need help". So the Woolhats and the Funknickels agree on the
basic idea that subsidies are justified. They merely
disagree on who should get the handouts. They differ in
details but they agree on the fundamentals.
This is where
libertarians and Woolhats part company. Libertarians
maintain that subsidies are wrong in principle. All
subsidies, whether to bissett, the VSO or corporations.
Ed Murphy, who
unwittingly started this bissett controversy by reprinting
some of bissett's poetry in his book "Legacy of Spending",
understands the issue quite well. What he points out in his
book has been misunderstood by Fotheringham and like
detractors. If they'll look at the book again I ask them to
note that not only does Murphy criticize the grant to
bissett, he criticizes grants to numerous other individuals
and organizations. He criticizes $119,299,279 worth of
grants to such diverse companies as Noranda Metal
Industries, Burroughs Business Machines and Weldwood. He
criticizes LIP grants and DREE grants. And he lists ten
pages of grants by the Canada Council to others than bissett.
The bissett question has been blown up out of proportion and
has served to obscure the issue.
And that issue is the
question of whether subsidies of any sort are justified.
that all subsidies are wrong, evil, immoral in principle.
Subsidies are based on the idea that some individuals have
the right to live off others; on the idea that individuals
do not have a right to the fruits of their labour, to decide
for themselves how to spend their money. Subsidies are based
on the idea that some people (government bureaucrats) are
better able to decide how you should spend your money than
emphatically reject these notions. Individuals have the
right to their lives, liberty and property. They have a
right to pursue their own goals (whatever they may be) in
peaceful voluntary cooperation and interaction with their
fellow men. They have a right to be free, unfettered by the
tastes and idiosyncrasies of fellow men who would force them
into a mould. They have a right to support activities,
individuals and organizations they enjoy and approve of and
an equal right to withhold support from activities,
individuals and organizations they don't enjoy or don't
It is these freedoms
that both Fotheringham (who supports subsidies to just about
anyone) and Collins (who supports subsidies to only the
"finer" accepted arts) deny. What each of them is saying, in
effect, is that you, the citizen, must support their
favourite cultural activities or else armed men will come
beating on your door to extract money from you, or
incarcerate you, or even to shoot you down mercilessly if
you have the gall to resist.
nor Collins would be so crude as to personally knock on your
door, point a gun at you and say "Donate $10.00 to bissett"
or "Donate $10.00 to this 'genuine writer' who needs help".
But they have no qualms about someone else (the government)
doing the dirty work for them, doing things they would not
dare to take upon themselves to do.
Talonbooks a gutsy little company. There is nothing gutsy
about dipping your hand in someone else's pocket. It is
immoral. And it's even worse when you get a third party to
do it for you. It is a cowardly evasion, not a gutsy act, to
endorse theft masked in the cloak of legality.
It is interesting that
Fotheringham calls opponents of subsidies "Yahoos" and Dafoe
calls them "Neanderthals". Yahoos and Neanderthals are wild
savage men, men to whom brute force and violence are a way
of life. Libertarians, who oppose subsidies, do so because
we oppose violence. We oppose coercion as a principle of
social interaction. Coercion is wrong when undertaken by
individuals and equally wrong when undertaken by a
collectivity of men. Might does not make right and the fact
that a group may be the majority does not place it above the
moral laws governing human interaction. It is those who
advocate and support subsidies who are the Yahoos and
Neanderthals for it is they who support the principle of
coercion and violence.
I recommend that
Collins check his premises and recognize the inconsistency
in opposing subsidies to bissett but not to certain other
groups. He merely wants to substitute his choices for the
choices of the bureaucrats presently making the decision.
But he is, in principle, no different than Fotheringham.
And I would suggest
that Fotheringham and Dafoe both check their premises and
ask themselves how they can, in good conscience, support
activities by the government which they would consider
immoral if undertaken by individuals. Isn't this hypocrisy?
The notion that we
need subsidies is a sacred cow that must be quickly
slaughtered and buried. It is the notion of shortsighted men
who have insufficient imagination to see beyond the present
to a world without subsidy. Projects, enterprises and
endeavours have to be paid for regardless of whether they
are subsidized or not. Libertarians advocate a world in
which currently subsidized endeavours will be paid for
directly; a world where you, the individual, have the choice
of whether to support such endeavours or not. It is the only
moral course for society to take.
Copyright © 1978 The Libertarian