The Conservative Vision of Social Justice

By: on November 26, 2009 |

When it comes to governing, the Conservative Party has it half right. They have famously become the party of getting tough on crime, bolstering our military and projecting our strength into the world. They extol the benefits of free trade and sign new free trade agreements. If not exactly known as the party of “hope, growth and opportunity,” at least they have a solid record and a reputation for reducing taxes. After all, they cut the GST twice, reduced the corporate tax rate, introduced the Tax Free Savings Account and delivered myriad niche personal income tax credits.

This is all well and good, and this emphasis is responsible for getting the Conservative Party to a place where it gets the highest consideration for support from voters whose priorities are the economy, crime and national defence. Yet, something is missing.

Today, the Conservative Party still struggles to be seen as a party that cares about the environment and the less fortunate. Typically, this is reflected in softer support amongst women, minorities and voters in cities, in Quebec and in Atlantic Canada.

In other words, getting it half right is not good enough if the twin goals of Conservatives are to consistently win majority governments and to achieve the best possible outcomes for Canadians. Setting aside the environment, an issue for another day, having a true conservative vision for social justice is central to achieving both electoral success and the best possible outcomes for the people of Canada.

Some readers will protest the adoption of the term “social justice,” seeing it as a term coined by the hard left to use as a propaganda tool in its fight to expand the welfare state. Undoubtedly, this is a motivation for those on the left, but instead of spending enormous capital fighting to discredit the term after it has become so broadly accepted, I suggest it is wiser to adopt it and redefine it for our own use. I propose we redefine it to mean that social justice is achieved when an individual successfully moves from dependence to independence. A person is living in harmony with social justice when that person

assumes responsibility for his or her positive outcomes and for those of his or her family. Typically, this takes the form of strong trusting relationships, long-term employment and self-reliance.

Looking at this solely through a political lens, our goal should be to convince Canadians that social policy grounded in a conservative worldview is the only realistic and effective approach to addressing social problems, and by definition that means it is the approach that is also the most generous in spirit. In other words, conservatism is the only world view that is in harmony with reality and therefore provides the best possible means to help others help themselves.

The reason I say the Conservative government has it only half right is that this is quite literally true when looked at as a percentage of total federal government spending.

Today, more than half of the federal government’s budget for programming and operations is spent on social spending, including, but not limited to, pensions, post-secondary education, seniors income support, low income and assisted housing, support for Aboriginals, childcare support, employment insurance, training, adult literacy, settlement funding for immigrants, homelessness and addictions.

Yet while almost any Conservative Member of Parliament could provide you with a credible argument for the Conservative Party’s approach to reducing taxes or getting tough on crime, I would wager that almost none could justify the current ambiguous approach the government takes to spending half its budget in addressing social problems. In other words, even hard-nosed fiscal conservatives are apprehensive and unsure about what to do with the jumble of programs and approaches in the social spending envelope.

Even worse, they would have no clue as to whether or not the current approach is helping the recipients of government programming achieve “social justice” as we have just defined it, though most would suspect not very well.

This is even more troubling given that conservative-minded Canadians are often extraordinarily generous in donating money, and they are often found volunteering with fraternal orders, charities and churches. Clearly, conservatives feel morally obliged to help, but as a big “C” political party, we seem to be unable to translate that sense into a comprehensible approach to social policy.

A key public policy question for conservatives is: What is the role of government in trying to address Canada’s social problems?

Equally important is finding a way to convincingly communicate what that personal giving and volunteering clearly shows: Conservatives do not just hope “the government will do something”; they will personally contribute to help others succeed.

In the mid nineties, conservatives in the United States took up the challenge by embracing Marvin Olasky’s important book on the matter, Compassionate Conservatism, with its emphasis on faith-based initiatives. Whatever the merits of Olasky’s vision, it fell short of transforming U.S. social policy. Partially because of its association with the Bush White House, it was attacked with extra vigour by critics who argued that the term “compassionate conservatism” was just code for the Bush administration trying to force its religious values on others. It was seen as betraying the Bush administration’s deep mistrust of government and especially the ability of government to address social problems effectively.

Thus, what was designed to unite Americans in solving the problems of poverty, addictions and social distress of various kinds actually divided them. That said, the office of faith based initiatives quietly continues on under President Obama and at least some of these groups first identified by Olasky in Compassionate Conservatism continue to work with government. The Front Porch Alliance of Indianapolis is one such group, and they can still be found on the web site of the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office proclaiming their vision:

We will improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods by educating Faith Based & Community Organizations on ways for us to work together, connecting with the Faith Based & Community Organizations in partnership where mutual goals align, and enhancing the work that city and Faith Based & Community Organizations can do by working together.

Yet there is little question that Olasky’s vision has never been realized despite the efforts of of former President Bush.

It is from those ashes that a new discussion about an effective conservative vision of social justice is quietly and slowly emerging. In the United States, a nascent discussion has begun under the leadership of the Heritage Foundation’s Jennifer Marshall.

In Canada, a similar discussion assessing the appropriate roles of civil society and government is barely underway, though recently the Institute for Marriage and the Family sponsored a conference and produced important research on social justice issues.

By far the most advanced discussion of these issues is occurring in the United Kingdom, and it is almost entirely because of the vision of Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of the Conservative Party, and his 2004 creation of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ).

The mission statement on the CSJ web site reads, “To put social justice at the heart of British politics and to build an alliance of poverty fighting organizations in order to see a reversal of social breakdown in the UK.”

The section of the CSJ web site titled “What we do” speaks in Burkean conservative fashion of the CSJ’s role in highlighting the work of the little platoons of civil society, the “unique small voluntary organizations and charities.”

In some ways, the CSJ takes a traditional approach to promoting these organizations and raising the profile of the problems they tackle daily. The Centre holds a national awards program. They conduct seminars for the not-for-profit sector, journalists and policy-makers. The Centre conducts research and polling, and it collects anecdotal evidence in the hope of gaining an accurate picture of British poverty while determining its causes and consequences. It also seeks to define “the role of the state and other players” and what these government and non-government players can and cannot do.

Through the Centre for Social Justice, Duncan Smith has assembled a team of policy experts under the leadership of Executive Director Phillipa Stroud, a co-founder of CSJ. Together, they have systematically lobbied local and national governments and political parties to first take the problems seriously and then to embrace the solutions advocated by the CSJ.

In the last few years as the United Kingdom debated many issues around social breakdown, the CSJ was frequently at the centre of the discussion.

In December of 2006, CSJ produced a highly controversial 300,000-word report called Breakdown Britain, which provided a snapshot of national social ills ranging from addiction and crime to marital breakdown and family debt.

Over the course of 2007, a follow-up report called Breakthrough Britain contained scores of recommendations to address Britain’s social problems through civil society and government.

According to the CSJ web site, the Conservative Party under Leader David Cameron committed to adopting 67 CSJ policies while Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour Government has actually adopted 30.

While the reasons for political popularity are always manifold and complex, there can be little doubt that the British Conservative Party’s recent strength in the polls has been at least helped by the party’s new and apparently quite sincere emphasis on helping society’s poor.

Conservative Leader David Cameron delivered several major speeches outlining the problems and costs associated with social breakdown while frequently referring to the work of the CSJ.

This does seem to point the way forward for Canada’s provincial and federal right of centre parties in their century-long quest to supplant the Liberal Party, Canada’s so-called “natural governing party.” In particular, the federal Conservative Party seems to be in a position where it can borrow heavily from the British Conservative Party and the Centre for Social Justice.

It has long been the knock against Prime Minister Harper and the Conservative government that although they have governed competently, they lack compassion. This criticism is bizarre in a sense given that under the current Conservative government, social spending in all big social departments has increased for the same programs that the Liberal Party either initiated or enhanced including multi-billion dollar new transfers for housing, training, immigration settlement and employment insurance.

But the criticism is also accurate in the sense that there is very little evidence that issues such as addiction and homelessness are being effectively addressed by these programs no matter how much money goes into them. Meanwhile, general social breakdown, such a big part of the British debate, is almost never raised as an issue for serious discussion in Canada.

In reality, the criticism applies to all the parties in the House of Commons, which have somewhat cynically implied that spending on these programs is a proxy for effectiveness and/or the degree to which political parties care about those who are struggling to move toward independence.

This criticism especially applies to certain poverty organizations whose fate and future are tied completely to support from government and who, I assert, long ago gave up the fight for real solutions. Instead, they spend far too much time arguing for income support as opposed to new skills and behaviours, both for their organizations and for those who they imply cannot make the transition toward self-reliance. They seem prepared to settle for helping their clients simply manage their problems while true social justice demands nothing less than a complete break from addiction, criminal behaviour or other self destructive tendencies.

That said some programming from the federal government is delivered through third-party organizations of the kind that Iain Duncan Smith and the CSJ so enthusiastically support. For instance, the Salvation Army is a major recipient of federal funding to address homelessness and addiction issues. However, I confess, as the former minister responsible, to having very little idea of the effectiveness of even this funding. Clearly the Salvation Army was doing a good job of providing shelter for the homeless, but whether this lead to programming that consistently and permanently helped their clients get off the street I honestly could not say. In Canada, little data exists to provide policymakers with the necessary direction to send funding to where it will achieve the best results.

But where the government falls short, some not-for-profits are at the cutting edge. Last spring I joined the Board of Directors of Pathways to Education in Toronto in part because they do take the time to understand whether their programming is producing the hoped-for results.

In the eight communities it serves in Ontario and Quebec, Pathways first sets hard targets for reducing the number of young people who do not finish high school. At the end of the school year, after having run some 2,500 young people through their programming, Pathways hires an independent consulting firm to analyze the results and present them to the board and staff.

Between their innovative programming and relentless measuring, Pathways has consistently produced outstanding results. At their original site in Toronto’s Regent Park 90 percent of all the students in the school take part in the programming. Amongst that 90 percent the dropout rate has fallen from 56 per cent to less than 10 percent

Pathways is producing similarly impressive results in the other seven sites they serve.

Unlike Olasky’s ideal, Pathways is not faith based, though, as in any venture, the staff and board bring their own private motivations to the table. Likewise, the Centre for Social Justice professes no faith base, and the staff and organizations associated with CSJ are a mix of faith based and secular. Instead of distinguishing between those inspired by a religious worldview and those that are not, the CSJ dividing line is between those organizations that are effective in helping people become self-reliant and those that are not.

The results focus of Pathways and the CSJ is, I believe, the key to ensuring that scarce resources are spent for the greatest possible benefit of those whom they serve. From a political point of view, if the Conservative Party truly demonstrated a real desire to see the poor, ill educated and addicted get back on their feet, it could not help but improve the Conservative Party’s reputation with voters in certain regions and demographics where the party currently struggles to find support.

For some voters, believing that politicians sincerely care about the least fortunate, even if that care is in the form of very tough love, is a minimum standard that politicians must meet in order to be considered worthy of their vote. In my view, it is better for Conservative politicians to show a flinty, consistent and demanding concern for those who are trapped by dependency rather than display the benevolent but cold indifference that characterizes the status quo welfare state.

If that is not enough motivation for the Canadian Conservative Party, the CSJ, in its recommendations to the British Conservative Party, said:

The financial costs of social breakdown are enormous; it has been estimated that family breakdown costs £24 billion per year, educational under achievement £18 billion per year and that the costs of crime are £60 billion per year – a total bill of £102 billion a year for the financial costs of social breakdown (even before any account is taken of the social and emotional costs). Therefore in developing policy solutions to tackle social breakdown, we are confident that there will be a considerable long term saving and reduction in State expenditure.

In other words, if the Conservative Party is serious about reducing the size of government, lowering taxes and improving productivity, the most obvious place to begin is to address Canada’s social ills more effectively.

Even more to the point, this is about engaging civil society and government in ways that appeal to conservative instincts to achieve a truly conservative vision of social justice; a social justice founded upon the virtues of personal responsibility and self-reliance.

It is a vision of social justice that can be measured, and it insists on hard results. It stands in stark contrast to spending billions on projects that may or may not be helpful but definitely help assuage the conscience of those who really do believe that money is a synonym for an understanding ear and a hand up.

This conservative vision of social justice is not just a political winner; it is also the right thing to do.


Enjoy reading C2C Journal? Please consider making a donation of $5, $25, $50 or more to help us continue producing C2C. To donate please click here.

About Monte Solberg