Why the Liberals and liberalism got hammered: ideological, idea and identity confusion

By: on May 12, 2011 | Politics

Since Confederation, four of five of Canada’s longest serving prime ministers have been Liberals. The longest reign since 1867 belongs to William Lyon Mackenzie King, at 21 years and 154 days (non-consecutively). Other Liberals on the list include Pierre Trudeau (15 years and 164 days), Wilfrid Laurier (15 years and 86 days) and Jean Chretien (10 years and 38 days). Only Canada’s first Prime Minister, Conservative John A. Macdonald, also made it into the top five. (In total, Macdonald, our second-longest serving Prime Minister, served six days short of 19 years.)

At present, history is unlikely to be much solace for federal Liberals given their showing in the May 2 election. With barely over 10 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons, it’ll be a while before any Liberal leader makes it back to 24 Sussex, never mind compete with previous party heads for a spot in the record books.

It’s not about attack ads or personalities

The factors that underlie that historic defeat have little to do with personalities, negative ads, or even the Liberal party itself. In fact, it was a combination of liberalism’s many 20th century successes—some of them thankfully so—that tempted liberalism to pursue more victories and via interventionist government as the preferred means to solve all ills. That turned liberalism into a movement that valued intervention for its own sake regardless of whether it always made sense. The Liberal party merely followed the movement into that same dead-end.

To see how far the mid-to late 20th century version of small or big-L liberalism moved from earlier positions, consider this speech from one of the Liberal party’s earliest leaders: “The good Saxon word, freedom; freedom in every sense of the term, freedom of speech, freedom of action, freedom in religious life and civil life and last but not least, freedom in commercial life.”

If that sounds like a modern-day conservative or libertarian, and perhaps an American Republican presidential candidate at that, such is the window into how much liberalism changed over the last century.

The speaker was then opposition leader Wilfrid Laurier, in an 1894 speech in Winnipeg. (Laurier later became prime minister, for the first time, in 1896). Laurier’s views were consistent with liberalism’s historic mission since at least John Stuart Mill: more freedom for the individual vis-à-vis any collective which might seek to constrain her.

More on that momentarily, but first, consider the victories of modern liberalism—defined as progressive socially and interested in an expansion of the welfare state.

In the United States, large-scale social welfare programs were enacted between the 1930s and 1960s. Progressives also largely won on the social front. Whether abolishing historic racial injustice in law, or liberalism’s (and feminism’s) triumphs that achieved equality for women, liberalism’s original animating principle that the individual should, by default, be deferred to, won—and happily so. It was never a good idea to discriminate based on skin colour or treat women as second-class citizens. Insofar as liberalism can claim at least partial credit for such changed policies and attitudes, and it can, it deserves credit.

Thus, whether on government-as-good-for-you or on the civil rights side, much of liberalism’s progressive agenda was implemented.

Proof of liberalism’s victory is found in the behaviour of conservatism’s inability to roll back much of how liberalism approached society’s ills in the 20th century, via the welfare state. On economic matters, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan—two of conservatism’s icons—barely trimmed the role of the state. There was no large-scale diminution of it. To be sure, there has been some transference the other way. Socialism failed and the power of the state was weakened slightly, but much of the welfare state remains and conservatives and libertarians have been unable to change that fact.

One may not like that fact—as I’ll suggest shortly—there are better options on some programs than government-taxed and government-delivered, but the size and scope of the welfare state remains largely intact at present.

On social matters, a better world now exists because barriers were barreled over and this is something that on many though not all issues, there should be no regrets. Whatever some past self-professed conservatives might have opposed generations ago, few self-described conservatives today would or should desire anything other than what liberalism and feminism won on matters related to equality of opportunity.

Even on sexual orientation issues, where some conservatives might disagree with gay marriage on the grounds of either religious fears or cautious Burkean conservatism (suspicion of too much innovation all at once), they’re unlikely to lose any sleep, nor press for a reversal. In that sense, liberalism’s best argument—individuals ought to be granted maximum freedom unless that freedom proves injurious to the rest of us—won.

Liberalism won the argument—and then reversed course

Ironically, where liberalism ran into trouble was how it used activist government to win many victories. It then became addicted to the same despite consequences for electoral democracy, and regardless of whether all late-era liberal causes should have been implemented. That led to late 20th century overreach.

Consider racial quotas as a useful example. You can be for equality of opportunity—precisely what the original civil rights movement was about—or you can be for equality of result, but not both as the latter is the antithesis of the former.

Early liberal victories quashed legal discrimination based on gender, skin colour and ethnicity. The later liberal agenda morphed into affirmative action that awarded college spots or jobs based on those same factors. The result was that the individual, which earlier liberalism fought hard for, was once again sacrificed to the collective.

For many, that new anti-individual focus weakened liberalism’s appeal and hollowed out any state claim to impartiality between individuals. Instead, liberalism and state power coincided to deny individuals a chance to fairly compete and win or lose on merit. Instead, it again mattered what you looked like.

The same overreach happened in the role of the state on economic affairs. Every time the federal Liberal party has been in trouble as of late, someone will assert that liberalism just needs to return to Pierre Trudeau’s model.

Except Trudeau’s economics—wage and price controls, nationalized energy companies and deficits as far as the eye could see—never made sense. The state was always incapable of fine-tuning inflation by wage fiat, running an oil company, or dealing with debt before first racking up massive bills for future generations. Trudeau’s liberalism and Liberal party was evidence of progressivism largely captured by socialism and which ran into the brick wall of human behaviour, something optimistic liberalism in its heyday regularly forgot.

The liberal overreach was also, and especially evident, in liberalism’s addiction to state intervention as the remedy for all that ails us. It is one thing to advocate more social programs and larger government when the state is a minor part of the economy in 1910, quite another when it’s much larger in 1990, or even in 2011 when despite minor trimming, Western governments are still significant players in our lives by any historical measure. There’s the obvious fact of diminishing returns. If the state via public intervention, cannot solve every private problem at “X”% of GDP, it’s unlikely to do so at “X+10”% or “X+20%” either.

After more than a century of the welfare state (it began in Germany in the late 19th century) most people are aware that despite the best of intentions, or perhaps because of them, government programs can and do fail and contribute to society’s problems. That’s why 1990s welfare reform was popular; it was driven by public demand over excesses that created dependencies.

The upshot of liberalism’s overreach was that it morphed into quasi-socialism economically and into rights areas injurious to individual freedom. That provided room for conservatism to adopt many classic liberal principles just as liberals abandoned them. In the public square, liberals won Mill’s argument that individuals should be the main focus of the modern state—and then dropped it and plumped for a plethora of anti-individual policies in economic and social matters and also used the heavy hand of government to further those policies. (Think of how human rights commissions have been used to try and eliminate unkind words from public discourse.)

It’s why modern liberals, insofar as they don’t tack back in the direction of Sir Wifrid Laurier, are unsure of who they are, and such ideological, idea and identity confusion sends out mixed message to the voting public.

Liberal and conservative paralysis

The Liberal party of Canada came a cropper later than liberal parties in other Western democracies. They hit the shoals early on in the United Kingdom when they departed from classic liberal principles. Once conservatives articulated classic liberal principles in the 1980s and 1990s, and implemented at least a change in the direction of government albeit imperfectly, liberal parties began to suffer unless they responded, accepted the directional shift, and implemented some classic liberal ideas. In the 1990s, think of scaled-back government under Jean Chretien or Bill Clinton on welfare reform.

Even Barack Obama’s ascendancy two years ago is no proof of a resurgence of 1960s or 1970s-style liberalism. It was more a political response to another movement with ennui, the conservative movement after Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (and that’s another essay.) In that sense, Canada’s federal Liberals have merely arrived at the Rubicon where other liberal parties have been for some time. Question is, what do they do now?

One response is to ape the true believers on government intervention. That was the Liberal party’s approach in this recent election. But do that, and you risk, as Michael Ignatieff just found out, that fervent believers in such things will tack to the entity that actually believes in that: Jack Layton’s NDP.

But even the NDP will find itself limited by the reality that it’s not 1848, nor even 1988 before the Berlin Wall fell. There is a limited appetite for massive government after a half-century of massive government with an appetite that has only been slightly reduced.

What does exist is a desire for the successful articulation of the role of the state in combining the ever-present human desire for both security and freedom in the context of what 21st-century governments should or should not do.

Since Marx, movements, parties and nations have battled over the expansion and contraction of government, with security and freedom being the tectonic plates underneath those surface political and physical wars.

More recently, a few added culture wars have been fought, including the question of how much of a threat Islamism is to classic Western freedoms at home and abroad. (This is less of an issue in Canada, given we’re not a superpower and have limited means to affect the outcome of global struggles, but it still matters.)

But the culture wars and international matters aside, political ideologies, movements and parties are in a holding pattern in the Western world.

Except for a few libertarians, few wish to see the end of the state. And anyone who advocates its cessation, or even a massive shrinking of the welfare state—code for “security” for many people—will go nowhere; people are too attached to social programs precisely because of the human need for security. Such programs need to be replaced by something else but they cannot be abolished without a substitute that seems more appealing than what exists.

On the other side, except for a few unreconstructed socialists, few likely want to see government once again run the commanding heights of the economy.

The result is a stasis on all sides.

Memo to thinkers: recall the human need for security and freedom

The bright side of this policy and idea paralysis, including for the Liberal party, is that the present stalemate contains within it the seeds of opportunity.

Practically speaking, the only way to satisfy the desire for both freedom and security is to engage in the creation of ideas and policies that reflect that urge.

Think of on-the-ground concerns over health care as an example. Most of us want universality; few like the idea of not being able to pay medical bills. But only ideological zealots would deny the current system is costly, that millions don’t have a family doctor and how the current system is unsustainable. All the money now spent in the system is based on present needs and not actuarial realities; it’s rather like an insurance company that pays out all its premium money every year and has nothing left in the kitty for catastrophic events.

One partial remedy is for government’s role to be converted from an active participant on delivery and insurance to one where health insurance is mandated, premiums subsidized where necessary and catastrophic care subsidized. Beyond that, health care options courtesy of private mandatory accounts would future-fund the system and widen the spectrum of choice.

Libertarians who oppose the mandatory part waste their time. Because of the need for security and voters will take a lousy “universal” health system over its absence because no one wants to scrounge for money for medical bills when your child has cancer.

Conversely, interventionists who cannot stand the private sector in health care confuse, often on purpose, universal coverage with private involvement as if the latter undercuts the former. It doesn’t. Switzerland mandates that everyone buy health insurance. The state subsidizes some premiums and runs a few hospitals but mainly allows the private sector to insure people and run the health care system. No one thinks the Swiss are uncivilized or reckless.

The beauty of forced savings—and I’d extend this to private mandatory pension accounts as well—is they also reinforce responsible behaviour, which both the right and left claim they want.

After all, it’s irresponsible to assume future tax dollars will take care of future health and pension needs regardless of demographic shifts. It makes more sense—given voters demand security—to require individuals to put aside money all throughout their working life. If that means some Canadians must spend less on their house, hockey tickets or new car; so be it. It’s that or we can bankrupt future generations a la Greece.

At least on the economic front, near-term policy and then political battle are less likely to be about big government versus small government. It’s more likely dust-ups will revolve around which party can propose attractive ideas, policies and platforms that provide for security and freedom.

That’s not as exciting as the grand battles of the 20th century but guerilla warfare on the idea front that pays attention to the fundamental human desires for security and freedom will crosscut the current paralyzed left-right divide. The first party that offers policies that reflect that twin desire will find they also attract more votes.


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About Mark Milke

Mark Milke is a writer for Canadians for Affordable Energy, and a founding editorial board member of C2C Journal. He is a public policy analyst and author of five books. His newest, Ralph vs. Rachel: A Tale of Two Premiers, will be released in November.