Crossing the border, I see the work of officials on both sides of it. I would describe American civil servants as more energetic, but less flexible. Laws in all countries lead to absurdities, but in the United States, I have encountered not merely an acceptance, but sometimes an enthusiastic support of these absurdities. I found this an interesting difference between our two countries, and set out to explore the reasons for it.


Reason and the Face of the State

Misbehave in Canada, and her gracious majesty Queen Elizabeth will prosecute you for offending against her peace and dignity. All of the criminal cases in Canada have the legend r. v., meaning Regina (or Rex) versus. The crown, as part of most official seals and ciphers, reminds us of the face of the Canadian state: a woman who, as a matter of history, serves as the personification of several other national governments.

In the United States, by contrast, if you commit a federal crime, you will have offended against the "peace and dignity" of the "people of the United States". Get caught with a joint at JFK, and you too can have 260 million people simultaneously angry with you.

The concept of "the people" as the sovereign reinforces the democratic nature of the state; but at a cost. When you make the sovereign all of "the people" in a single union, the state may come to transcend the humanity of the individuals who make it up. To see the humanity of the symbol and sovereign of the Canadian state, you need only look: Elizabeth the second has suffered from many of the same disasters in her own family that everyone else has; the sovereign, like the rest of us, gets upset when her house burns down and her children's marriages fail; and unlike some of us, she does it on television. Her humanity grounds the claims of the state. An Canadian official enforcing an absurd or inhumane policy in her name may still have to do so; but our officials do not have a symbol that can transcend an ordinary person's humanity to back them up. Canadians in dispute with the law dispute with a single sovereign, not with all their fellow citizens.

Whether because of this, or because of some other differences between Canadian and American society, I have found Canadians, and particularly Canadian officials, much more often at least acknowledge the occasional absurdities of the law, unlike the Massachusetts insurance agent who once yelled at me "there's no such thing as a fax machine". I can't prove any difference between a more objective attitude to to absurdities of the law, and  a single and recognizably human person as the symbol, as well as the head of state; but I consider it the most likely reason that, in Canada, I have found law much less likely to trump logic.