Question isn’t where conservatism is going, but where has it gone
NationalPost.com – FullComment
Mar 10, 2012. Last Updated: Mar 9, 2012. Andrew Coyne
This is from some remarks I’ll be making Saturday morning to the Manning Centre conference, a gathering of conservatives, and Conservatives, in Ottawa.
I confess I’m not particularly interested in defining conservatism. I do not see the point of knowing whether a given idea is or is not conservative, or in asking how a conservative would respond to x or y. This strikes me as an odd way to think about the world: to start with a box and try to make your views fit inside it.
What I believe in are a set of principles having to do with the freedom of the individual, the usefulness but not infallibility of markets, and the legitimate but limited role of the state. There are, in brief, a few things we need government to do, based on well-established criteria on which there is a high degree of expert consensus. The task is simply to get government to stick to those things, rather than waste scarce resources on things that could be done as well or better by other means: that is, government should only do what only government can do.
As I say, these ideas are not novel, or controversial. Indeed, you would find support for them, to a greater or lesser degree, across the political spectrum.
Nevertheless, there was a party, once, that believed in these things, to a somewhat greater extent than the other parties. That party called itself conservative, whether with a small or a large C, so I suppose you could call the things it believed conservatism. But you are no longer that party.
For example, that party favoured balanced budgets. But you are not that party. In fact, you boast of how your decision to add $150-billion to the national debt saved the economy.
That party favoured cutting or at least controlling spending, after the massive spree of the Liberals’ last years. But you are not that party. In fact, you boast of how you have increased spending by 7% per year — $37-billion in one year!
That party favoured a simpler, flatter tax system, that left people free to decide how to spend, save or invest their money for themselves. But you are not that party. In fact, you boast of the many gimmicks and gew-gaws with which you have festooned the tax code.
That party favoured abolishing corporate welfare. But you are not that party. In fact you boast of the handouts you make, often accompanied by ministers or indeed MPs bearing outsized novelty cheques. In some cases, you even put the Conservative logo on them.
That party favoured privatization, deregulation, reform of public services. But you are not that party. Employment insurance, Via Rail, Canada Post, the CBC: you have no plan for reform of any them. Transportation and telecommunications remain as protected and over-regulated as ever, while your support for supply management in agriculture borders on the hysterical. You even boasted, through two elections, of how much more intrusive and heavy-handed your environmental policy was, compared to the market-oriented measures preferred by your opponents. To be fair, you have not actually nationalized anything. Oh, except the auto industry.
That party was for a robust Parliament, with more powerful MPs, free of the party whip. Needless to say you are not that party. That party was for a balanced federation of equal provinces. But you are now the party of asymmetric federalism and nations within nations.
That party was against breaking election promises. That party was against patronage and pork-barreling. And that party was against corruption and political dirty tricks. I don’t know whether you are still that party.
This isn’t a question of incrementalism, but of going in entirely the wrong direction. It isn’t just that you failed to do the things you should have. It is that you did things you should not have. And, what is worse, you did them, not reluctantly or shamefacedly, but enthusiastically. You didn’t just sell out. You bought in.
I don’t want to say it’s been all bad. You fought the last election on cutting corporate tax rates, and have introduced or promised some other useful tax reforms. Your trade policy is tremendously ambitious, and you have made some tentative, if largely unsuccessful, efforts to untangle the mess the provinces have made of our own domestic market.
And now, we are told, we are about to see unveiled a “breath-taking” budget that will finally begin the turn towards smaller government; that, having increased spending by nearly $70-billion since taking office, you might cut as much as $8-billion from it; that the conservatism you largely abandoned over the last eight years can be reconstructed in the course of an afternoon.
Good luck with that. You have spent your time in office educating people in what they should expect from government in general, and your government in particular. You have established the criteria by which they should judge you: as the party that brings home the bacon. They might be forgiven some distress at finding their bacon rations have suddenly been shortened. And they will be disinclined to trust you as you begin to tell them some hard truths, since you have been so little disposed to earn their trust until now.
Perhaps you will succeed, nevertheless. You have your majority, after all. But consider that even if you do, in 2016, after 10 years in power, you will still be spending more, after inflation, adjusting for population growth, than the Liberals you replaced.
So before you ask, where is conservatism going, perhaps it would be better to ask: where has it gone?
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