Why Canada Needs Conservatives, Though it Tends to Imagine Otherwise

Canadians are fortunate beyond measure. Given that underneath we’re the same creatures that the world has ever seen, the liberty, civility, prosperity and opportunity that we enjoy is astounding. Little wonder that people the world over want to move here, while relatively few seek to flee. An awareness of our good fortune must supplement our appreciation for the enormous effort that goes into making Canada such a pleasant place to live. We should be more grateful and less smug. We may be tempted to take our situation for granted and find more to criticize than admire about our regime. This is a dangerous temptation. Nothing puts the good at risk like forgetting how unusual and vulnerable goodness is.

The long term well being of a liberal and democratic polity like our own depends on healthy contestation between progressives and conservatives, both of whom represent different aspects of the good which that form of regime attempts to model. Of course, committed conservatives and progressives alike assert that their part of the truth represents the whole of it. The progressive side is attuned to the imperfections of society and confident that it knows how to make society ever more comfortable and just. The conservative side is wary of efforts to perfect society. It, too, is interested in making improvements to our individual and collective well being, but it is more alert to the ways in which we may risk losing what we have. The progressive side works to construct a society in which everyone will finally feel at home, promising the realization of individualities living in egalitarian harmony. The conservative side is attached to the society it has inherited, or adopted, and looks to fortify it. Progressives believe that the possibility of personal happiness is largely dependent on rearranged collective conditions. Conservatives prefer leaving people free to pursue excellence and achieve successes which accrue to the common benefit. Progressives aspire to raise consciousness; conservatives respect freedom of conscience. Much of what the progressive side calls necessary progress the conservative side sees as a gamble or a decline. Moderates on both sides recognize the need for the other side, though they may be disinclined to admit it. In Canada, the progressive side has been enjoying ascendancy for a generation or more. A conservatively inclined government now seems like an aberrant interruption of a preordained progressive program. What would it take for conservatives to reestablish themselves as one of Canada’s naturally governing parties on an enduring basis?

Those who are convinced that conservative policies are best for the country have a long term interest in the education of its inhabitants. I refer to education broadly understood, which includes the cultivation of talents in critical thinking and erudition as well as the practical experiences which build the qualities of character that make conservative ideas effectual. Education understood as technical training is insufficient. Progressives in this country have been long engaging in a multifaceted, if loosely coordinated, effort to instruct and habituate the people in accordance with their vision, conforming their appetites, passions, opinions and behaviour so as to consolidate their support for the long haul. It now falls to conservatives to make their appeals to a public acclimatized to skepticism regarding their ideas.

Conservatives commonly place a greater emphasis on economic questions and consequences. They need reminding that wealth is an instrumental good. Politics should not be reduced to business, as efficiency and profitability alone do not provide a full justification for policy proposals. The tiresome accusation that conservative ideas are merely an ideological ruse for protecting the wealthy and exploiting the poor is exacerbated if conservatives are seen as exclusively preoccupied with economic priorities narrowly construed. If conservatives believe that the plan that this country has been following is injudicious, they will not succeed in adjusting its course by appealing to people’s pocketbooks alone. Conceptions of individual happiness and collective welfare account for the policy priorities of progressives. To make the policies they would implement stick awhile, conservatives must offer a compelling vision of good citizenship, flourishing social conditions and the national interest. In order to obtain and deserve a majority share in governing, conservatives must persuade people that they will be better able to live together in a manner they find desirable and admirable when their policies are in place. Even the best policies will fail if those whom they would benefit expect them to fail or are determined to make them fail.

To be more precise, conservatives do not need a singular vision, nor should they desire one. They are devoted to a plurality of goods. They have a multiplicity of traditions to draw upon and debate. The invention of rigid systems of thought based on abstract principles and oversimplified images of man and society, and the will to impose comprehensive programs derivative of these fabrications for the transformation of society, belong properly to fringe parties. Visionary programs like these, however well-intentioned, are inconsistent with liberty and virtue.

Not long ago conservative ideas (branded as partially “progressive”) retained broad public appeal across Canada. The results of the 2006 federal election and the 2007 Quebec election show that openness to and support for conservative alternatives survives. The younger generation of Canadians, however, finds the idea of having a Prime Minister from a Conservative Party still somewhat strange and, when duly prompted, scary. If my students are any indication, the younger generation has been educated to embrace and exhibit a comprehensive progressive ethic, a default statist orientation, and faith in an idealized global future. Of our political institutions and history, or the basis of our prosperity, however, they have slight familiarity or interest but many complaints. Pride in Canada’s commitment to universal health care, the cultural mosaic of cuisines, costumes, arts and tongues, as well as our international reputation for peacekeeping, moral enlightenment, and environmentalism are well inculcated. Of course, conservatives agree that disease, intolerance, war, injustice and pollution are bad. Prevailing prejudices, however, look to define “Canadian values” at the level of programs and outcomes that conservatives would see fit to contest. The question is whether or not exposure to a wider range of ideas and experiences would encourage the younger generation to reassess the views they’ve been handed.

It has been said that in every regime the reigning ideas have been established to benefit the reigning authorities. The self-image of young Canadians and the image of the society they expect to inhabit are crafted so as to engender commitment to and progress toward a certain way of life governed by a certain view of human happiness and how it is to be assured. The end state is foreseen and agreed upon. The plausibility and desirability of the view of man, woman and society it rests on is assumed. Only the gradual concretization of that society through bureaucratic administration remains.

Young Canadians unhesitatingly affirm that there is greater freedom of thought in Canada than in the United States. At the same time, they express confusion and frustration that Americans still engage in lively political disputation over questions which they regard as settled. It is as if Canadians think that we should already live in a world where only technical questions remain, relegating nagging quarrels to judicial resolution (where their outcome is not much in question). Canadians not only criticize the particular decisions Americans make in the defense of their nation and way of life; they express disbelief at the idea that it needs defending (or warrants it). Canada is a (very!) good country that wants to be loved, with uneasy relations with a neighbour that aspires to remain great and therefore needs to be fearful. Canadians should remember how lucky they are that they can get away with being so lovable. Having too much confidence in one’s own good intentions, friendly disposition and enlightened outlook makes one an easy mark—a hard lesson many young people eventually learn as a result of various misadventures. The American founders knew that their republic was an “experiment in freedom,” one that might not succeed or survive. Their republic has been preserved in part because they have been so wary of losing it. Canadians are right to cherish the freedom, prosperity and justice of their society, but supposing too strongly that history is on our side only leaves us vulnerable.

Listening to students, I hear a number of commonplace claims—some of which I will now outline—that serve most often as innocent shorthand for supposedly shared assumptions. They are, however, sometimes engineered to sidestep controversy or deployed in order to stifle critical reflection and circumscribe civilized debate. These ways of thinking are entirely typical of democratic society, which naturally anticipates the extension of its premises throughout every aspect of life. When people make recourse to them to stake out a position, they should be encouraged to elaborate further. I would not say that the views papered over by these claims are altogether bad or wholly wrong. We cannot, however, assess their merit if we defer to some nebulous and triumphal conception of historical necessity.

It is, for instance, not only imprudent but unbecoming a free people to be so determined to see a certain policy work that one regards it as inevitable or beyond reconsideration even when the mechanics of it prove unworkable. We must be wary therefore of references to particular socio-economic programs or arrangements as being “the Canadian way” (just as we should be skeptical of any interpretation, report or judgment that claims to come from “a Canadian point of view”). A case always needs to be made as to why we should prefer to pursue one way of living together rather than another. Claiming merely that some way is right for us simply because it is “our way” is no argument at all, at least not one that befits people who may deliberate together and affect the things that may be otherwise.

Famously, Canadians have interminable identity issues. More often than not we rely on defining what is Canadian as not-this or sort-of-like-that—especially as not-American and more-European. When it comes to deciding on the best policies for Canada, however, it strikes me as ill-advised to dismiss an option because it gets labeled as too American and silly to recommend something by calling it more European. I confess that I cannot discern the meaning of these expressions, except as obvious rhetorical devices for bypassing examination and securing hasty approval or disapproval. Among Americans, from administration to administration and state to state, I see substantial diversity of opinion and practice. (I have even met some Americans who wish that the U.S. were more like Canada!). I value Canada’s strong historical ties to European peoples and traditions, but Europe is so busy disavowing its own heritage that I cannot pin down what it means for a policy to be more European nowadays—certainly not in any sense that makes it automatically preferable. The various European nations cannot agree among themselves regarding what unifies them. With each of them having its own difficulties and deficiencies I am unsure why we should be racing to emulate them.

Political proposals promising to “transform” people or society in some way call for special criticism. The language of transformation draws on religious and metaphysical connotations that those who use it typically protest against. Transformative political agendas profess a faith that if only things could be made over in some novel fashion, then previously unimaginable felicities would follow. These schemes are never anything but conjectural. While history usually yields ample examples of analogous efforts which haven’t gone as planned, their proponents invariably exaggerate their originality and insist that things don’t necessarily have to go that way. Ordinarily in politics, “transformation” is a hyperbolic description of some change that, if attempted, will prove far more mundane in its results and complicated in its consequences than those who marketed it promised.

Luckily, Canadians today are not seduced by the language of transformation so much. We are nevertheless romanced by the language of progress in general. As I have observed, a liberal and democratic society should expect to have partisans of progress and partisans of tradition. Modern conservatives may even admit a moderate appreciation for a tradition of gradual progress. They recognize the validity of making progress in various ways, understood especially as increasing success at meeting specified goals, such as reducing gang activity, unemployment, the costs of operating government, or corrupt business practices. When, however, progress takes on a providential dimension and is conceived of as an irresistible unfolding toward a shared destiny, when traditions are jettisoned wholesale because enlightened people have discerned the absolute imperatives of justice, when experts then claim the authority to make political decisions that properly belong to citizens and their representatives, and when entertaining alternatives is taken as a sign that one must be malicious or ignorant, then we are dealing with a conception of progress worthy of suspicion.

Our most illiberal form of progressive thinking resorts to the language of evolution. The idea that society evolves is inherently contrary to political liberty. The idea that morals evolve makes nonsense of morality. What is meant when the language of evolution is used? It doesn’t mean that it is merely on the basis of random mutation that ideas come to take on a new form. It is also plain that it doesn’t mean that ideas change in ways that favor breeding. Rather, those who use it invoke a clever interpretation of History as their authority in a manner difficult to distinguish from religious appeals to Providence. Those whose ideas have evolved pretend to a higher level of consciousness that does not require (but surely wouldn’t refuse) mysticism or mushrooms. They do not mean that ideas change and change again as people choose to live one way or another. They mean instead that there is no choice to be made in the matter. However things have been hitherto, this is the way it is going to be from now on, and that’s that. And if you will not turn, then your children will. In truth, an imperious conception of progress in which opinions or practices prove their merit by winning out over time belongs to the theory that might makes right. Nothing is right and good simply because it happens and endures.

Those who think that some decision should be put to a vote again and again and again until they win—but never again afterward—betray something of the despotic about themselves. Free people are always able to deliberate afresh and reevaluate their decisions. Ideological progressives accuse those fossils who aren’t with the program with wanting to “turn back the clock.” This is a red herring. Those with evolved sensibilities regularly approve of turning the clock back in many small ways, eliminating the inconvenient consequences of accidents past. It is of course impossible to actually undo the events of the past. The yearning to exercise that power always has a hint of the wicked about it. Obviously, reversing a political decision and its effects is not always practicable, and efforts on behalf of such reversals may be foolhardy in particular cases. But the possibility of persuading people to reassess the way things are going properly belongs to democracy.

The proponents of a strong conception of progress depend on certain conceptions of human nature, the good and the just in order to buttress their position. These presuppositions are often left hidden under a veneer of relativism. Progressives will furthermore censure their critics for making appeals to ideas regarding human nature, the true and the good, as if they don’t do the same. The argument that something is inevitable is always a political argument. The further assertion that something inevitable is also good is always a value judgment. Politics is always about making judgments about what is advantageous or disadvantageous, just or unjust, dignified or undignified. Nonjudgmentalism is always feigned, and nonjudgmentalism in the service of progressivism should be exposed as a facile ploy.

Some insist that the United States is governed by a “military-industrial complex.” Canada at worst suffers from something of a “bureaucracy-judiciary-academic-mass media-labour union-complex,” with its own peculiar set of elites. But as I have been arguing, the long-term obstacles facing conservatives in Canada are not merely institutional. Conservatives have a number of well embedded prejudices to slog through if they are to make lasting progress in combating the doctrinaire progressivism with which Canadians have been inured. The success of progressivism is in good part due to its slow and subtle advancement, featuring sudden leaps forward only occasionally. (So, it isn’t entirely unlike evolution!) Because a socialist left retains some visibility in Canada, a more patient progressivism is able to creep forward by increments unnoticed or unobstructed. Eventually a major change presents itself as the unavoidable next step, even though not long before most people would never have believed that it would come to pass. Many Canadians like to watch politics happen without taking an active part. This situation inadvertently grants those who have more to gain from changing things opportunities for undue influence. Canadians whose principal preoccupations are household and business are at a slight but not insignificant political disadvantage compared to those who spend their time (and sometimes public funds) engaged in agitation and the dissemination of ideas.

I suspect however that activists of various stripes are frustrated by the relative passivity of Canadian youth. Young people today agree generally but casually with progressive causes. They aren’t terribly interested in strongly identifying with them or getting much involved in stirring up trouble. The partial successes of activists frustrate the complete realization of their agendas. There is confidence enough that the progressivist vision will come to pass that people don’t feel compelled to labour on its behalf. If you break down the affective ties within communities and convince people that they will find happiness through an inward indulgence of the self (and that obstacles to that self-fulfillment are injustices to be rectified through the interventions of government), don’t be surprised if they lack the sentiments of solidarity or the motivation and habits that dedicated common action demands. Nurture a soft postmodern disdain for truth and goodness and watch as efforts on behalf of charity and justice (and even that most sanctified of causes, social justice) deteriorate into playful diversions, ironically passionate pretenses for boosting self-esteem, hooking up and padding résumés. Persuade people that they are the products of sweeping general causes and they will be less likely to see themselves as having the power to affect anything, and so less likely to bother trying. To the great embarrassment of all decidedly egalitarian political movements, they require a number of exceptional persons to accomplish their goals.

The political left enjoys a natural advantage when it comes to appealing to youth. Youth is impatient, rebellious and indignant. It enjoys fewer responsibilities and incurs lesser expenses. It loves novelty, suffers from extremes of credulity and incredulity, and likes oversimplified explanations and even simpler solutions. Conservatives cannot reckon on their ideas being favored by young Canadians so long as Canadians live so youthfully for so long. They might hope for less hostility. To that end they must continue to defy the persistent caricatures plaguing them (as angry relics, radical ideologues, loony doomsayers, merciless money-grubbers, etc.). In part, this requires cultivating a broader, historically-informed, culturally-attuned and philosophically-rich public discourse in addition to hardnosed economic analyses. This means adopting a longer view of things than an exclusive focus on immediate policy concerns allows.

It also means finding ways to encourage young Canadians to recognize, create and take better advantage of opportunities to obtain experiences in their communities or the marketplace that cultivate the qualities of character this country needs in order to remain energetic and prosperous. There are some natural conservatives among the youth in a democracy, such as those who resist the reigning prejudices of their regime and find themselves attuned to the injustices peculiar to excessive equality, admiring excellence more than fairness. Democracies need both fairness and excellence, but they invariably educate their citizens to attend primarily to the injustices derivative of inequalities. Democratic passions lead us to forget that human lives actually lived and shared are of greater significance than the comparative status between persons. For their own sake, and for the benefit of the nation, these natural conservatives need encouragement and guidance to become outstanding citizens and not simply selfish, ambitious or exploitative. (The most cynical and manipulative of them wind up becoming the demagogues responsible for promoting excessive equality under their generous care.) Conservatives here find themselves again at another apparent disadvantage, insofar as they cannot best cultivate the next generation from the top down through government programs. They depend on the initiative of individuals, families, communities, and voluntary associations working from the bottom up.

There is no reason why cultural diversity should work exclusively to the disadvantage of conservatives. In teaching the history of political thought, in contrast with home-grown open-minded Canadians whose relaxed confidence in their worldview is nearly unshakeable, I find that students who retain closer ties to various “traditional” backgrounds typically exhibit greater interest in thinking critically about the big questions, show greater concern for ethics, read texts more carefully and in a generous rather than a condescending spirit, and remain open to the possibility of learning from others. It seems to me that conservatives should in principle be more genuinely respectful of cultural diversity than secular progressives. Conservatives are practically defined by their respect for the repositories of wisdom that traditions embody. They will not, however, regard the differences among peoples as a matter of indifference. While they might not celebrate every element of every culture equally – nobody does – they show more appreciation for what makes different cultures different by taking the grounds and consequences of those differences seriously. Conservatives also do not insult particular cultures by treating them as so fragile that they would readily crumble without government assistance (something usually foreign to them, and thus a corrupting influence anyway), or so sensitive that they will devolve into barbarity unless you tiptoe around them. Moreover, many people who have come to Canada more recently are intimately familiar with the contingency of peace and prosperity in this world. They will not be fooled into taking it for granted.

It is the strength and weakness of statist progressivism that its policies do not fully succeed. They cannot fully succeed because they are not based on the whole truth regarding human nature. Disagreement never comes to an end, the corrupting effects of patronage never vanish, we cannot master fortune, and human beings cannot be transfigured by political means. The failures of progressivism may be used to justify digging heels in as more money can always be spent, more experts consulted and new programs implemented. There are always men of privilege and ill-will to point fingers at for sabotaging things. Eventually however, citizens lose patience with public fictions, especially expensive ones. (“Sure the taxes here are really high, but we have some great social programs!”) Eventually people observe that those who promise an egalitarian wonderland always labour to establish themselves as a new privileged class. Hopefully not everyone has become too complicit in their own dependence in the meanwhile. It is also the nature of progressivist ideas to become inarticulate over time since they take their own truth for granted. The more momentum they have, the lazier they become. Conservatives who study the history of ideas end up understanding the origins and foundations of progressive ideas better than their devotees, some of whom would be surprised to learn what they ultimately entail. On their own terms, progressives ought not enjoy contentment until the whole world is rendered altogether good. Conservatives are much more comfortable in a world of uncertainties and imperfections. They seek practical progress in different directions without fabricating a grand historical narrative in an attempt to justify all things.

Thankfully, there is too much difference of opinion to be found among conservatives for them to settle on, let alone execute, a comprehensive agenda for the transformation of society as a whole. Moreover, an array of persuasively articulated conservative challenges to the leftward-sliding status quo is necessary for the long-term well being of the country. After all, it is certain that the more a country resembles a one-party state, the less liberal it necessarily becomes.

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