Populism vs Liberalism and Statism

A few items caught my eyes over the weekend, especially:

Know-Nothing-Party2millThe three all deal, essentially, with the same issue: the rise of aggressive, nativist, “know nothing” populism and the concomitant decline of classical English, secular liberalism. The Economist blames anti-immigrations sentiment (racism); Professor Fukuyama blames rising inequality that is destroying the middle class dream; and John Ibbiston suggests that Canada’s (Quebec inspired) liberal-statism may be the solution. I find all three unsatisfying although each points to one aspect of the problem, and none, especially not Mr Ibbitson, get very far towards the solution.

Is Britain racist? Yes, <shrug> so is America and Australia and Canada, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, and, and, and … The more important question is “why does ‘nativism’ stream_img(a euphemism for racism or xenophobia) rear its ugly head,now and again?” Part of the answer, which The Economist gets, is fear. Fear, as I have said in other contexts, causes all sorts hqdefaultof problems, including wars. We are all afraid of the unknown … and great migrations, like the one going on today, present us with unknowns that seem to threaten the very basis of civilization as we know and understand it. The anti-immigration-rally-in-singapore-1361045204-5795threat of the new unknown brings out the very worst in us all. We want to close our borders and build walls and expel the foreigners. It’s all very sad, very unpleasant and very, very understandable, too. We “know” our own society … we fear the “other” who comes with social customs and religious traditions that are foreign to us. Is it racism? Sure, I suppose so … is it “bad?” I would rather it didn’t exist but I think I understand its source and why it happens.

But ‘nativism,’ British or American, isn’t the only problem, As Francis Fukuyama points out, one of the big problems that is creating the ‘nativist’ backlash is inequality.

From about the start of the industrial revolution, in 18th century England, until today we, in the secular, industrialized West (and increasingly in East and South Asia, too) have shared one common hope or dream: our children would have better lives than we did. I know, for a fact, that it was one of the things that animated my grandparents and our neighbours, too. The promise that everything was, in every way, getting better and better wasn’t just 1950s pop-psychobabble … it was the real hope of the average man and woman. Now, as we enter the 21st century the promise seems hollow.


In fact, on a global scale, we have never, in all of recorded history, been more prosperous and more 2equal. Hundreds of millions of Asians have been lifted from abject poverty to something like a lower middle class lifestyle ~ a change unprecedented in all of history. But, here in the industrialized West we take cold comfort in the rise of the Asian masses because it appears that we, the middle class, anyway, are stagnating or  even falling behind. We want it to stop … we want our dream back, and now a mass migration suggests that will not happen. We are afraid that free trade, globalization, innovation and migration are all just symptoms of a “race for the bottom” that is being run by everyone except the mythical 1%.

1392116349-223.jpg-pwrt3.jpg-pwrt3article-1253714-08769002000005DC-817_468x286So, the experts writing in The Economists and Foreign Affairs have two symptoms right, except that they are, I think, just one symptom. I believe that the ‘nativist’ impulse and the fear that growing inequality will destroy a centuries old dream are two sides of the same coin. And both give rise to a rather nasty sort of populism.

Preston+Manning1998_douglas_stampNow, there’s nothing wrong with populism, per se, we’ve had rather a long history of it in Canada … generally harmless. Populism, after all, just means that politicians listen to the voice of the people rather than to the experts and the elites. The problem is that the experts are right more often than the people and the elites are very often thoughtful and dispassionate … but populism works. Populism is a very conservative sort of idea because, mostly, people resist change … they want to have what worked before, even when it cannot be made to work now.

And that brings me to a problem with words …

I’m a Conservative

I self identify as a classic, 19th century liberal.

The words got confused when, in 19th century Britain and in 2oth century America, Liberalism was, still is a notion that society is a collection of sovereign individuals who, voluntarily, restrict some of their rights 7b99f29a-5d3f-4035-9eeb-2e0c71b00da2-1360x204043812(because good liberals believe know that all rights attach to individuals, never to collectives or groups and, especially, never to the state) in order to make society (civilization, actually) work, while conservatism is the notion that certain groups ~ identified by ‘class’ or status or language or race or whatever ~ are more ‘entitled’ than others. The words got attached to political parties in 19th century Britain when the mighty wars of two liberals, Disraeli and Gladstone, dominated history and political thought. The words got even more confused in 20th century America when a group of Republicans, many of whom were classic liberals, decided, inexplicably, to misuse the very good world liberal to describe their Democratic foes ~ who were, by and large, quite conservative. Anyway, real, good Conservatives are, by and large, liberal in matters like taxes, trade, and  social policy while the Liberal and New Democratic Parties are, generally, conservative in that they want to give special rights and privileges to certain groups, including to the state, itself, and to restrict e.g. the fundamental right to property. We have some conservatives in the Conservative Party of Canada, and while most of them are honest and well meaning they represent a small fringe of Canadian society. Most Canadians are liberal, as Disraeli and Gladstone and Mill would have understood that word and many, many Canadians will be attracted to an equally, albeit cautiously economically and socially liberal Conservative Party.

 Which brings me to why John Ibbitson is wrong.

He asks, in the linked article, “So what is inoculating this country against the intolerance infecting other Western nations?” He then suggests that “Part of the answer could lie in Quebec.” He explains:  “Since the days of the Quiet Revolution, French Canada has pursued a socially progressive, communitarian agenda. Quebec pioneered the modern public pension plan; Quebec legislated the first charter of human rights in Canada and was the first to protect sexual minorities within that charter; Quebec was the first to enact a government-directed child-care program.” What he doesn’t explain is that these were neither original Quebec ideas nor unique to Quebec or Canada, they are the norm in the overly statist, illiberal, downright conservative societies that actually drove many Brits into the “Out” camp.

This attitude …


… was one of the main “push” factors that worked for the “Leave” campaign. It is the over-bearing, all-knowing attitude of the Laurentian Elites who believe in the state, and the ‘rights’ of the state over the individual and his  local community, über alles. That attitude it part of why Quebec is so economically unproductive ~ conservative fiscal polices that favour provincial ‘champions’ like Bombardier over innovation and risk, and politically volatile ~ there is a constant need to explain away Quebec’s failures as the fault of the “other” rather than to look at the failed conservatism of Quebec’s elites.

91f88706-78ec-4915-9656-9b34cb02140cimgresIt may well be that our experience at working in a ‘divided’ country and seeing that French speaking Canadians could provide us with good, progressive, fiscally sound governments, made us, the Anglo-Canadian majority, more receptive to accepting and integrating immigrants ~ less fear of the “other,” in other words, but it certainly wasn’t Quebec’s statist fiscal and social policies. That’s just nonsense.

Society, civilization itself, is a constant push-pull between the needs of the individual (liberal) and of the collective (conservative). We band together into communities for “burden sharing” for safety, security, ease of production and so on. Those are conservative values. We prosper, within our communities, because we innovate, work hard, take risks and think for ourselves. Those are liberal values. Good Conservatives are liberals who understand that we must work together, cooperatively, for the benefit of most but our mantra needs to, always, without fail, be:

The greatest good for the greatest number

and never

From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.


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