Last September, my friend Stephen Cox wrote an excellent obituary of another friend of mine, Ronald Hamowy. Here’s one paragraph that got me thinking:

Ronald was a professor in the Department of History at the University of Alberta from 1969 until his retirement in 1998, at which time he immediately moved back to the United States. He detested conformist cultures, and he regarded both his department and, it is fair to say, Canada itself as epitomes of conformism. I once asked him what was wrong with Canada, and he said, “I’ll tell you. If you walk into a store in Canada, and you find a customer having a dispute with a sales clerk, 90% of the other customers will immediately side with the clerk. That person is regarded as an official, and therefore the one to obey.” He attributed this defect of Canadian culture in large part to the migration to Canada of people opposed to the American Revolution. They set the tone.

Ron–and Steve with this paragraph–have put their finger on one of the things that most upset me when I was growing up in Canada. But now that I have lived in the United States for over 40 years, I am torn. Actually, I’ve been torn since 1980, when I tried to write a book review of Edgar J. Friedenberg’s Deference to Authority: The Case of Canada for Libertarian Review. When you write about something, you have to think harder than if you just read something and put it down.

On the one hand, within days of moving to Los Angeles in September 1972, I had become aware of how different Americans are from Canadians in this respect. And I came down on the side of Americans.

But here’s why I’m torn. I think there are two kinds of authority–and both Friedenberg and Hamowy muddle them.

The kind of authority that I like Americans resisting is government authority. Here’s a piece I wrote in 2010, on the 40th anniversary of a Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, claiming totalitarian powers. But, by the way, if you think that Americans still do that, you probably haven’t traveled by commercial airline in the United States for, oh, about 11 years. Nevertheless, it is true, I think, that Americans still resist government authority more than Canadians do. Even there, though, there’s a problem. What if, perish the thought, the government is doing something good? So what if, for example, the policeman is pursuing a murder suspect that he has good grounds to suspect? If I thought the policeman had good grounds, I would want to help him. So I would be deferring to, or respecting, authority.

The second kind of authority that I think you should respect is private authority where it is backed by something credible. Take Hamowy’s example that Cox quotes:

If you walk into a store in Canada, and you find a customer having a dispute with a sales clerk, 90% of the other customers will immediately side with the clerk.

Notice that Hamowy said that this is a defect. Why? Shouldn’t it depend on whether the sales clerk or the customer is right? I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in many lines where there are disputes between customers and clerks and I would say that at least 80% of the time, the clerk is in the right. The customer didn’t bring back his receipt, he didn’t bring back the product within 14 days of purchase, or whatever. So if Hamowy was saying that 90% of Canadians side with the clerk vs., say, 40% of Americans, then I think the Canadians were closer to the right answer.

By the way, that’s why I never finished my review. Of course, now I realize that I should have written the review that way–telling the reader why I’m torn.

P.S. As regular readers know, I usually try to answer commenters in the comments. Today, though, I’m in Manhattan to tape a segment with John Stossel for his Thursday show. So it’s likely that my response(s) to commenters will be delayed until Wednesday.