No room for libertarians in Harper conservatism

Posted on April 30, 2009 in Debates, Inclusion Debates – Opinion/Full Comment – No room for libertarians in Harper conservatism
Posted: April 30, 2009, Terence Corcoran

Recently, the editors of this page have run a series of short commentaries on the nature of Canadian conservatism by a rainbow coalition of writers — Andrew Coyne, Karen Selick, Deb Grey and others. The contributions were originally produced for a conference sponsored by the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. But until today, one of the key Manning Centre speakers was missing from the series, which means that Post readers were unaware of The Night the Prime Minister Purged Libertarians from Canadian Conservatism.

Speaking on the eve of the Manning event to a room full of presumably like-minded conservatives, including Preston Manning, Mr. Harper delivered a rambling two-track message (See text below). First, he defended his Conservative government’s record, listing items that he said were solidly and uncompromisingly conservative: supporting the military, defending Israel, resisting national day care, dodging Kyoto, defending Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.

Canada’s Conservative government, he said, “has made a big difference in this country, and we should never forget it.” He didn’t specifically mention government spending and the big move to deficits, but he was clearly defensive. “This is not to say that we haven’t made compromises while governing. Indeed, compromises are an inevitable consequence of governing. I’m not talking about compromises about principles, or compromises in the name of expediency or opportunity. I’m talking about compromises that have to do with basic reality.”

The Harper Conservatives, in other words, were mugged by reality. They had to do it because of the recession and Wall Street. When the global recession struck, it was not the time to hold fast to ideas — balanced budgets, spending controls, small government. Why? “Because unlike various forms of Liberalism, Conservatism is a value system, not an ideology. It is a value system based on reality, on the realism of experience, not on abstract blueprints for society.”

Modern Liberals, said Mr. Harper, tend to believe that the solution to all problems lies in more government. “In fact, if a solution doesn’t involve more government, today’s Liberals dismiss it.”

Then Mr. Harper moved to the second track of his message, demolishing what he called “libertarians.” It was an odd message. In reality, libertarians are a mixed bag of people who roughly favour free markets, less government and greater individual freedom than we have now. Exactly how many libertarians exist in Canada, how many call themselves conservatives, or vote Conservative, isn’t known. But there can be no doubt that some core of conservative support comes from people who hold some libertarian views and favour smaller government.

What followed was Mr. Harper’s conscious rebuke of libertarianism. In fact, more words were spent undermining libertarians than Liberals. Libertarians, he said, “believe that the solution to all problems lays in less government. More specifically, they believe in individual freedom, freedom from government, the freedom that does in fact underlie the market economy.”

The essence of Mr. Harper’s conservatism is that it is a happy middle ground between two undesirable extremes, the small-government push of libertarianism and the big-government push of Liberalism. This middle ground is based on “conservative values,” which he defined by the three “Fs” — freedom, faith and family. Freedom, he said, can only exist if it is “used well,” as if to achieve public good.

Mr. Harper’s attempt to purge libertarians from Canadian conservatism reached its lowest point when he pretty much blamed libertarianism for the economic crisis. Wall Street, he implied mockingly, was the heart of libertarianism, and Wall Street and the libertarian free market tanked the economy.

“Look at Wall Street, the great free-enterprise global financial institutions that wanted so much freedom from government regulation — they were the first in line for government support when the recession hit. And now I read that now some of them are saying they don’t like that this government money may limit their freedom.”

This drew laughter and applause from the Manning Centre crowd, from the few hundred conservatives in the audience. As if Wall Street bankers were libertarians. Worse, as if Wall Street bankers were libertarians who deserved to have their banks nationalized and their compensation controlled by government.

Do libertarians pose some kind of threat to the Harper Conservatives? Apparently they do, judging by Mr. Harper’s attempt to eliminate them from the party. And he might be right.

National Post

Terence Corcoran is editor of the Financial Post. On Saturday, he will participate in a debate at the 13th annual Civitas National Conference in Toronto on the subject: “Mugged by Reality: The Role of Ideology and Pragmatism in Government.”

Text of remarks by Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

Individual freedom is something Conservatives value. But it is not the only thing we value. Reality, my friends, is something we cannot lose sight of, as we are in government faced with, and entrusted with, guiding our country through the most challenging economic times the world has seen in generations.

Conservatives don’t believe that big government — the welfare state — is the solution to all problems, that is true. We didn’t believe it before this recession and we’re not about to believe it now. But neither can Conservatives believe today that the marketplace is the solution to all problems.

We are in a global recession principally because a lot of people on Wall Street (financiers, business people) and a lot of people in the private sector more generally (home owners, consumers) pushed or bought into a very un-conservative idea: that they could live beyond their means.

Regulators may have failed to prevent it, governments probably made it worse, but it was in the end a failure of the private sector to live according to the values we as Conservatives know to be true.

And also do not forget, because we certainly will not forget, that once the global economy begins to recover, the primary wealth creation of the future will come principally from the private marketplace — from a well-regulated private market place, yes, but in an irreversibly globalized economy, a marketplace just the same.

In the Canada of the future, we should be able to have one of the most free-enterprise, one of the most prosperous, societies on the planet. That would require us to govern according to conservative values.
What exactly are those conservative values?

I think we all instinctively recognize them when we see them, although it is sometimes difficult to define them. I like to summarize my idea of conservatism in three “Fs” — freedom, family and faith.

Individual freedom, political and economic, is one of our fundamental values. It is absolutely critical. But it must be tempered. First, individual freedom must be tempered by family. We are part of a chain in which we honour and build upon those who came before us and in which we hope and look out for the future of those who will come after.
Second, freedom must be tempered by faith that there is a right and wrong. It teaches us that freedom is not an end in itself, that how freedom is exercised matters as much as freedom itself. Freedom must be used well. And freedom can only be maintained if it is used well.

Now I know the libertarian says — and it’s a simple perspective I have a lot of sympathy for — the libertarian says: “Let individuals exercise full freedom, and take full responsibility for their actions.” The problem with this notion is, as conservatives know from experience, that people who act irresponsibly in the name of freedom are almost never willing to take responsibility for their actions.

I don’t speak just of individuals who may have ruined their lives, through drugs or crime or whatever. But look at Wall Street, the great free-enterprise global financial institutions that wanted so much freedom from government regulation — they were the first in line for government support when the recession hit.

And now I read that some of them are saying they don’t like that this government money may limit their freedom.

So I say again, my friends, Conservatives cannot be just about freedom. It must be about policies that help make sure freedom will lead to choices — to responsible choices, prosperous choices with wider benefits to all citizens.

Now friends, I am not here to tell you everything we are doing as a government is perfect. We are operating in a very difficult political and economic environment. Options are limited, risk is everywhere, but I can tell you we are on the right track.

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