I wish I’d said this, too (even though there’s a lot of it)

This is longer than I planned when I started to write it, but I hope some will read most it because I believe this is important for Canadians, especially for Canadian Conservatives.

Bagehot is the nom de plume under which one of The Economists writers, currently (I think) Adrian Wooldridge  writes about British affairs. This week he takes on liberalism in a way that I only wish I could. Again, apologies for the length but it is BIG topic.

He focuses a bit on the Brexit, but he gets to one of my bugbears in the third paragraph when he says: “There are two misleading definitions of “liberalism”. The first (and most misleading) is the American idea that liberalism means left-wing progressivism. This definition was foisted on the American left by Republicans in the 1970s: the likes of Richard Nixon and George Bush senior liked to talk about “limousine liberals” who advocated “progressive” policies on crime and social integration so long as they could protect themselves from the consequences of those policies (eg, by sending their children to private schools and living in gated communities). Since then some progressives have worn the badge with pride. But American progressivism, particularly in its current iteration, with its growing obsession with group rights and group identities, is incompatible with liberalism as I’m going to use it in this blog. The second is the classical idea that liberalism means small-government libertarianism.” I know it bothers a few people that I, who generally supports the Conservative Party in most things, self identify as a liberal, but like Bagehot I “use liberalism in the British sense: to mean a philosophy that began as small-government libertarianism but has acquired many new meanings over the years. Liberalism was inspired by the three great revolutions of the late 18th century—the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. It began as a small-government philosophy—he governs best who governs least—but later made its peace with bigger government. Liberalism is a pragmatic philosophy that is constantly evolving. The central idea of liberalism is the primacy of the individual rather than the collective. But in his brilliant history, “Liberalism: the Life of an Idea”, Edmund Fawcett makes clear that liberalism involves four other ideas: (1) the inescapability of conflict, (2) distrust of power, (3) faith in progress, (4) civic respect.” So, there is the first thing I wish I’d said: Liberalism is “a pragmatic philosophy [based on the ideal of] small-government libertarianism [while emphasizing] the inescapability of conflict, distrust of power, faith in progress, [and] civic respect.” That’s the sort of liberal that Bagehot and I are, we are not the caricatures of that word misused by semi-literate American politicians, activists and journalists.

Discussions of the crisis of liberalism usually emphasise practical things,” Bagehot says, thing like “The global financial crisis [that] destroyed people’s faith in both the wisdom of technocrats and the fairness of the system. Liberal icons such as Tony Blair and Barack Obama over-reached—Mr Blair in Iraq and Mr Obama in the culture wars. A magic circle of companies and entrepreneurs piled up too much wealth. I want to suggest a more wide-ranging explanation that focuses on the life of the mind: liberalism as a philosophy has been captured by a technocratic-managerial-cosmopolitan elite. A creed that started off as a critique of the existing power structure—that, indeed, has suspicion of concentrations of power at the molten core of its philosophy—is being misused as a tool by one of the most powerful elites in history. Liberalism has, in effect, been turned on its head and become the opposite of what it was when it started out. It is time to put it back on its feet.” I agree 100%, especially with the notion of that it is time to put liberalism back on it’s proper footing.

He goes on to say that “Liberalism at its best should preserve a delicate balance between four opposing sets of principles: (1) elitism and democracy, (2) top-down management and self-organisation, (3) globalism and localism, and (4) what might be termed, for simplicity’s sake, the hard and the soft.” I agree, again, 100% and this is, I think, the key challenge facing the real liberals in the Conservative Party of Canada and the few who remain amongst the Liberals. “The global elites—that is the people who run the world’s biggest companies, NGOs, and trans-national organisations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and, of course, the European Union—have routinely emphasised the first of these two principles (elitism, top-down management, globalism and hard metrics). And in the process they have reduced one of the world’s richest philosophies into a desiccated hulk of its former self—a set of arid formulae that are united by the single fact that they advance the interests, psychological as well as material, of the world’s most powerful people.” Those global elites are, of course, the kith and kin of our Laurentian Elites who run the highly illiberal  Liberal Party of Canada. Bagehot goes on to say that “The greatest danger facing liberalism at the moment is that it will double-down on this mistake. The paradox of populism is well-known: that the failure of populist policies fuels demand for yet more extreme populist policies as bad government creates more havoc and populist leaders blame that havoc not on their own foolishness but on the machinations of the global elite (as will surely be the case when Brexit fails to deliver that £350m a week for the National Health Service that Brexiteers promised during the referendum). But there is a liberal paradox as well. The more the people turn against liberalism the more liberals are tempted to build walls against the populist tide in order to push ahead their world-improving project: political walls that insulate elite projects from popular interference and intellectual walls that protect members of the elite from having to listen to “bigots”.” This is precisely what I think the Trudeau (père et fils) Liberals are doing: building walls to keep the ‘proles,’ the great unwashed, those who voted for Doug Ford’s Conservatives in Ontario, away from the elite decision making processes.

The dangerous irony,” he says, “is that liberalism’s retreat as a political force is being accompanied by its advance as an institutional force: look at trans-national institutions such as the World Bank, educational institutions such as universities or syllabus-setting bureaucracies or voluntary organisations, and you see the liberal elite in its pomp. Liberal administrators are not only entrenching their power, squeezing out conservative or populist points of view. They are moving to the left, powered by a furious indignation at the rise of the Trumpenproletariat and its equivalents around the world. The European Union’s response to growing popular discontent with its operations is to retreat still further into orthodoxy. We are thus seeing the development of a malign dialectic: the more populists seize control of the political system the more liberals entrench themselves in their chosen caves, and the more the liberals entrench themselves (often deliberately embracing unpopular causes) the more furious the populists get. This is not only bad for these institutions because it puts them at war with the wider society. It is bad for liberalism because it prevents it from addressing its biggest challenge: recreating a fruitful balance between democracy and technocracy, managerialism and self-determination, globalism and localism, and quality and quantity.” That ~ the liberal elite in all its pomp moving left in response to the will of some people and against the will of many others ~ is what we see in Canada, right now. Justin Trudeau, Catherine Mckenna, Bardash Chaggar et al are entrenching themselves and, in the process, stoking the flames of populism.

Now, here in Canada, the Liberal Party hasn’t been liberal since Pierre Trudeau took the reins in 1968 … his single, overarching goal of subduing nationalism anywhere and everywhere put the Liberals on a leftist social, economic and political course that aimed to buy the people’s loyalty to a mythical post national state.

Here, in Bagehot‘s words, is a brief history of liberalism in America, Britain and Canada: “Classical liberals were always surprisingly ambivalent about democracy, given their commitment to individual rights. Liberalism began as a revolt against the Old Regime with its hereditary ranks and fixed privileges. It was driven by a belief in open competition and equality of opportunity: remove all artificial restrictions on competition and you would produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Liberals were the first people to demand votes for workers, ethnic minorities (particularly Jews) and women … [but] … at the same time liberals were intensely worried about the uneducated masses with their habit of clinging on to irrational traditions, on the one hand, or demanding the redistribution of property, on the other. America’s Founding Fathers, particularly James Madison, believed that constitutional intricacy could solve the problem of the masses. They codified rights in a constitution. They divided ruling institutions into rival branches to create a system of checks and balances. They gave Supreme Court judges jobs for life and Senators six-year terms. They removed the Senate from the hurly-burly of politics by insisting that Senators were appointed by local grandees rather than directly elected. Alexander Hamilton even wanted to give presidents jobs for life, though better sense prevailed (why a man who was so suspicious of the masses and so enthusiastic about capitalism has become a left-wing icon is one of the mysteries of our time). Many British liberals believed that education was the only thing that could temper democracy. John Stuart Mill wanted to give additional votes to educated people. Robert Lowe supported mass education on the grounds that “we must now prevail on our future masters to learn their letters” (usually remembered as “we must educate our masters”) … [but] … Liberals eventually overcame their instinctive fear of the masses or “demophobia”. In America progressive liberals led the campaign for the democratic election of Senators and the introduction of open primaries. In Britain David Lloyd George brought the House of Lords to heel in order to pass welfare legislation. For much of its post-war history the British Liberal Party has been identified not with snobbery about the intellectual capacity of the masses but with trying to make “every vote count”, often by using highly intricate schemes. Even today Liberal Democratic conferences contain a remarkable number of people (mostly men; mostly bearded; mostly sandal-wearing) who will talk your hind leg off about various complicated voting systems such as single transferable votes (whereby your vote is allocated to your first choice and then re-allocated according to complicated formulae) …[but, again] … more recently the anti-democratic strain of liberalism has reasserted itself. It is once again respectable in liberal circles to say that the people are too stupid (aka short-sighted, racist, sexist, transphobic, nationalistic, bigoted) to make sensible decisions, and that dispassionate experts need to be given additional powers.” The last real liberal to lead the Liberal Party of Canada was Mike Pearson; Pierre Trudeau led the Liberal Party into the last (somewhat anti-democratic) phase, and then, later Stephen Harper tried to lead the Conservatives into the ‘space’ vacated by the Liberals where there was room for a classically liberal moderate, pragmatic, small government but reliable and respectful political model.

Speaking from an essentially British perspective, Bagehot goes on to explain that “The most powerful engine of elitism is the European Union. The EU was founded by people who wanted to make sure that Europe was never again torn apart by Fascism and war. This meant imprisoning the two great disruptive forces of nationalism and populism within an iron cage of rules. The Founding Fathers of Europe deliberately removed a great deal of decision-making from the hands of the (nation-bounded and short-sighted) public. They created a powerful European Court of Justice in order to safeguard individual rights. They concentrated decision-making power in the hands of a Platonic European Council and only added a parliament as a reluctant afterthought. Confronted with popular revolts against the rule of experts they have simply dug in their heels, most recently in Italy where the Italian president forbade the new government from choosing a Eurosceptic finance minister. For the EU, technocratic decision-making is not a bug but a feature …[and] … The second engine of elitism is Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism: a school of thought that had its roots in the ideas of libertarian economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, who argued that the freedom to buy and sell things in the market is much more important than the freedom to exercise your vote every five years. This has now been systematised in global institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and various central banks. Anglo-Saxon liberals argued that the best way to create mass prosperity is to create a stable system of economic policy-making: take decisions about monetary policy out of the hands of politicians (who will always be tempted to buy votes by debasing the currency) and give them to central bankers; take decisions about trade out of the hands of national governments (who will always be tempted to make trade-distorting deals) and sub-contract it to trans-national bodies such as the World Trade Organisation.” We, Canadians, were always onside with the American and British elites when, in the 1940s and 50s, they (we) created the current liberal world order which Bagehot calls “technocratic liberalism.”

He says that “There are lots of arguments in favour of technocratic liberalism. Giving central banks independence from political interference has helped us to slay the dragon of inflation. Creating rules-based trading systems has unleashed growth in the emerging world and flooded the rich world with cheap goods. The neo-conservative bid to spread democracy at the point of a gun in the Middle East turned out to be a disaster. The West’s support for democratisation in Egypt also proved to be misguided. Democracy is the fruit rather than the cause of economic and constitutional development: introduce democracy before you have a liberal political regime, based on robust institutions and a notion of the “loyal opposition”, and you are likely to introduce elective dictatorship followed by non-elective dictatorship or chaos also followed by non-elective dictatorship. Who can blame Europe’s Founding Fathers for fearing a resurgence of fascism? And who, in retrospect, can fault the European powers for their scepticism about George Bush’s democratisation project in the Middle East? … [but, he adds] … there is also a big problem with elite liberalism: by insulating technocratic elites from the pressure of popular opinion—by putting them in a comfortable cocoon of like-minded elites—it encourages over-reach. Britain was the perfect example of this. During the Blair-Brown-Cameron years Britain was dominated by a class of politicians who went to the same universities, followed the same career path of a spell as a special advisor followed by a safe seat (usually in an area of the country they had no connection with) followed by a fast-track to a ministerial post. The Labour Party lost its links to the old working class of trade unions and never established any links with the new working class of casual workers. The Conservative Party lost its links with provincial England. In this sense the Brexit referendum was a just punishment: the result of the referendum took everybody in the political elite by surprise, from David Cameron who called the thing, to the commentators who predicted an easy win for “Remain”, because they live in a self-contained world.” I have long shared the Jeffersonian view that liberal democracy does not transplant, easily, into soil that is not ready, which is, essentially, most of the world beyond America, Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Scandinavia and a few other places. I think that India is experimenting with its own version of liberal democracy and I am sure that many countries like Singapore and Taiwan have successful conservative democracies. But I suspect that the chances of even illiberal democracy taking root in e.g. the Middle East and West Asia are slim.

Bagehot is convinced, and I agree, that the elites have gone way too far. He says that “The most dangerous example of this over-reach in Europe is the EU’s insistence that free movement of labour should be ranked as one of the non-negotiable “four freedoms”. This played a major part in persuading Britons to vote to leave partly because, as an  English-speaking country with a relatively liberal economy, Britain is always a chosen destination for immigrants and partly because the British instinctively feel that there is a distinction between free-trade in goods and services and free movement of people (NAFTA, for instance, does not confer free movement of people across North America). This, more than anything else, will fuel European populism in the future, as immigrants flow into Europe from the Middle East and Africa and then, once established, flow across various borders.” This, as I have said, over and over again, is also a HUGE problem for Canada. The Laurentian Elites and the Liberal Party misunderstand the hopes and fears of the people who are not, by the way, knuckle dragging racists or religious bigots but who, rather, welcome immigrants who obey the laws, wAit in the (too long) queues and want to be part of an ever changing Canada. They would welcome some greater freedom of movement from and between some countries, but they will not, for long, tolerate a government that is afraid to control its own border.

Bagehot completes his critique of the failures of modern liberalism by saying that “The technocratic elite compounded the problem of over-reach with incompetence. The great liberal project of the past 40 years—globalisation—depended on a bargain between the elites and the masses: the elites promised that globalisation would produce higher living standards for broad swathes of the population. They also promised that they could make globalisation as smooth as possible by judicious intervention. Globalisation might exact a price in terms of democracy: decisions that had once rested with local governments would be taken by politically insulated technicians. It might exact a price in terms of local shocks: some groups of workers (particularly blue-collar workers) would suffer. But it would produce a higher over-all standard of living. The technocrats broke the contract. They not only failed to deliver macro-economic stability. They failed to deliver the boost in living standards in the West. They forgot about basic social justice: while blue-collar workers were crushed under history’s progressive chariot, bankers were saved from the consequences of a crisis that had been created by their greed and incompetence. In Britain average incomes have been stagnant since the financial crisis and are unlikely to resume their pre-crisis growth until the middle of the next decade. Across Europe and America old industrial centres have been reduced to metaphorical rubble. No wonder so many people feel that they have sold their democratic rights for a mess of pottage. No wonder the cry of “taking back control” resonates.

Xi Jinping, China’s president,” Bagehot reminds us in what is, perhaps, his most withering critique of the elites, “unwittingly got to the heart of liberalism’s current dilemma in his speech to the World Economic Forum at Davos on January 17th 2017. Mr Xi presented himself as the champion of globalisation—the man who would save this wonderful process from the pitchforks of the Trumpenproletariat. He proclaimed globalisation inevitable (“Whether you like it or not…any attempt to cut off the flow of capital, technologies, products, industries and people between economies…is simply not possible”) and declared his faith in multilateralism (“We should adhere to multilateralism to uphold the authority and efficacy of multilateral institutions. We should honour promises and abide by rules”). A striking number of the CEOs and opinion formers in the crowd praised him as the last best hope of corporate man. But if the leading champion of liberalism’s central project for the past 40 years—globalisation—is a Chinese dictator who has awarded himself a job for life and happily imprisons people for criticising the state then we have to recognise that something has gone desperately wrong with the liberal project.” It has indeed, and real Liberals, which, in Canada, means the Conservative Party, need to set themselves to the task of reclaiming liberalism for ordinary Canadians.

The essence of liberalism,” he writes, “is self-government: liberalism is at once a philosophical critique of the conservative notion that people owe their identities to their social stations and a practical protest against the idea that people are bound by certain social obligations to their superiors (or, if they are lucky, their inferiors). The basic liberal philosophical construct is the idea of the social contract: individual rights precede (and therefore trump) social arrangements. And the basic liberal moral position is self-reliance. We should be able to rise as high as our talents take us. And we should be able to deliver a single pungent message to even the most paternalistic landowner or employer: take your job and shove it. Liberalism is the philosophy of free movement of citizens within the nation-state (particularly from the land, where they were bound by traditional social relations, to the city, where they could find their own level) and free competition in talent … [but, he goes on to say] … liberalism has also offered a home to managerialism. Free competition inevitably leads to winners and losers: successful companies can use economies of scale to destroy smaller companies. Take-your-job-and-shove it leads to the destruction of traditional ways of life that tolerate muddle and inefficiency. The second half of the 19th century saw liberalism transforming itself from a philosophy of small companies (or indeed tiny workshops) and small towns into a philosophy of big companies and urban bureaucracies. Giant companies such as US Steel and Standard Oil first summoned up tens of thousands of employees (when it was formed in 1901 US Steel had 250,000 employees) and then turned those thousands into disciplined armies with steep hierarchies and precisely defined roles. Liberal bureaucrats created national and city bureaucracies in order to wipe out the scourges of raw sewage, pollution and general anarchy. If the great creed of liberals in the mid-19th century was laissez-faire, the great creed of liberals in the late-19th and early-20th centuries was national efficiency … [however] … This obsessive predilection for managerialism has become more pronounced in recent decades. Elite liberalism is the liberalism of management consultancies such as McKinsey’s, rather than great philosophers such as J.S. Mill. The great justification of managerial liberalism is its focus on productivity: it is only by boosting productivity that we can create the surplus that makes for civilised life. But the means to that end are often wrong. Managerial liberalism treats people as tools rather than as ends in themselves. It assumes that managerial wisdom lies in the heads of managers rather than in the practical wisdom of workers. And it makes a fetish of measurement—that is not only measuring people’s performance against various metrics, but also giving people rewards on the basis of whether they fit various goals.” We are getting very close to the problem that plagues Canada ~ geography has made us rich but geography has, also, hampered our national productivity. We live on a continent, one we share with the United Stares where the natural flow of things should, probably, be North <> South <> North, but we live in to, separate countries with East <> West <> East mentalities. But the bigger problem, and the one Bagehot gets, is that “managerial liberalism treats people as tools rather than as ends in themselves.” Each individual person is sovereign and her or his rights supersede all of the state’s notions of its own rights and privileges.

Bagehot looks back to John Stuart Mill for a solution. He says, it’s a bit lengthy but bear with us, please “Mill is rightly regarded as one of the great founders of liberalism. He was also one of the great re-founders of liberalism. The first great rebalancing took place within Mill’s capacious cranium … [and] … Mill started off as a crude utilitarian. His father, James Mill, was the “most faithful and fervent disciple” of Jeremy Bentham, the inventor of the felicific calculus. He not only force-fed his son on Bentham’s ideas, along with Greek, Latin and history, he set him at work preparing his sprawling texts for the press. Mill’s early work bears all the signs of this immersion in the utilitarian belief that the ultimate measure of a good society is its ability to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number (with no distinction being made between the higher and lower pleasures). He conceived of individuals as pleasure-maximising machines. He argued that society only had a right to limit people’s freedom if that freedom was likely to harm other people. He turned himself into a high-priest of laissez-faire economics …[but, Bagehot explains] … as Mill matured he developed a more sophisticated philosophy. He recognised that his father’s extraordinary educational programme had robbed him not only of the whole of his childhood but also of a portion of his humanity (he confessed in his brilliant autobiography that he was “never a boy” and grew up “in the absence of love and presence of fear”) and that seeing the world as nothing more than a giant calculating machine misses half the point of life. He was heavily influenced by both S.T. Coleridge, Britain’s greatest critic of Enlightenment rationalism, and Tocqueville, France’s greatest critic of liberal individualism. He consequently set about producing a more humane doctrine than the austere doctrine of his father … [and] … This involved an intriguing manoeuvre—in crudely political terms Mill moved both to the right and to the left. He learned from Tocqueville that mass society can advance at the expense of freedom and pluralism. “Apelike imitation” and “intrusive piety” are just two of the phrases he used to describe the threats that lurked under the carapace of progress. He learned from Coleridge why it is vital to make a distinction between the lower and the higher pleasures. At the same time he learned from his soulmate, Harriet Taylor, that women had been systematically marginalised … [but] … Mill’s move to the left is the most eye-catching: he moderated his enthusiasm for free markets to make more room for trade-union rights and state activism. Employers were simply too powerful to preserve a safe social balance, he argued. He became one of the earliest advocates of votes for women, arguing that preventing women from voting made as much sense, morally, as excluding red-haired men. At the same time many of his criticisms of techno-Benthamism are marinated in conservative insights about the importance of inter-generational ties … [Bagehot says, and I agree, fully, that] … Modern liberalism needs to go through its own Millian moment (with, perhaps, the global financial crisis playing the role of Mill’s nervous breakdown in promoting new thinking). Liberalism needs to engage with critics—particularly its Marxist and populist critics—rather than arrogantly marginalising them. It needs to regain its humanity by addressing the problems of utilitarian cost-benefit analysis in general, and the problems of managerialism and measurement in particular. It needs to move simultaneously to both the left and the right. From the traditional right it needs to learn about the importance of institutions and culture. From the populist right it needs to learn to look at “progress” from the bottom up—from the perspective of shuttered plants in Manchester and Milwaukee rather than IMF offices or university lounges. And from the progressive left it needs to learn about the importance of structural inequality. Equality of opportunity means something very different to the descendant of a slave than for the descendant of a slave-owner … [but] … In rebalancing itself it also needs to avoid two big temptations:

  • The first is the temptation is simply to add a hefty helping of identity politics to elite liberalism: introducing transgender lavatories (or making all lavatories unisex); celebrating diversity at the drop of a hat; seeking out the next oppressed minority … [and, while] … There may be good cases for doing all these things: avoiding discrimination on the basis of race or class is the essence of liberalism. But far from addressing liberalism’s elitist problem, this strategy will actually make it worse. Identity politics is a creature of the campuses rather than the workplace. It fails to address (and indeed often contemptuously ignores) the problems of working-class people who have seen their incomes stagnate and their jobs removed. Many elite liberals are happy with this strategy precisely because it doesn’t really challenge them very much: it panders to their vanity without forcing them to step outside their comfortable cocoons … [but] … In the end identity politics is not only incompatible with liberalism but positively repugnant to it. The essence of liberalism lies in individualism: liberals believe, along with Benjamin Constant, that “there is a part of human existence that remains of necessity individual and independent, and which lies of right utterly beyond the range of society”. Liberals certainly need to do more to address structural constraints on individual self-fulfilment. But they need to address these constraints as a means to an individualist rather than a collectivist end. By contrast identity politics is obsessed with the collective. It makes a fetish of biological characteristics such as gender, race or sexuality. It encourages people to identify with groups rather than stand out from the crowd. It submerges individuality into some broader sense of identity. It also encourages people to argue that rational arguments are subordinate to questions of identity: white men are asked to “check their privilege” while non-white men frequently invoke their race or gender (“speaking as a black woman) as a way of winning arguments. The price of wokeness is the re-racialisation and re-biologisation of public discourse … [finally] … Liberals also put a premium on tolerance: partly because they regard individual rights as pre-eminent and partly because they understand that, particularly in the world of human affairs, people seldom know enough to be absolutely certain of their judgements. They are averse to orthodoxies. But identity politics is an ascendant orthodoxy: its votaries habitually deny people with alternative views the right to speak, using the methods of the people they say they oppose in order to get heretics sacked, and books and arguments censored. And they do so not just because they get carried away but because they think that it is the right thing to do. Hurt feelings trump freedom of speech. A history of oppression trumps open debate. Identity politics is thus the biggest challenge to liberalism’s commitment to free speech and diversity of opinion since the red scare of the 1950s; and
  • The other big temptation is to surrender to the populism. I know several classical liberals who are so furious with the global oligarchy (the people who run the global companies and dominate global institutions) and the damage they have done to liberalism that they have embraced either Trump or Brexit. But this is a dangerous way to go. Liberals certainly need to do more to listen to the will of the people: the Brexit mess would never have happened if Brussels had paid more attention to the rising cries of discontent across Europe and moderated its ambitions accordingly. But we should nevertheless recognise the limits of populism. It tends to ride roughshod over the rights of minorities. It thrives on demonising elites while celebrating the wisdom of the masses. It invariably damages the economy (thereby whipping up the discontent upon which it thrives). It is prone to making foolish economic decisions: witness the history of Argentina under the Peróns. Liberals need to preserve their defences against the unwisdom of crowds in the form of bills of rights, second chambers in parliament, independent courts and other barriers against elective dictatorship. But at the same time they need to reduce the need for these filters by moderating their ambitions and reacting more quickly to popular discontent.

I believe that Canadian liberals, who have gravitated, mostly, to the Conservative Party, need to take heed of Bagehot‘s warnings and of his solution. First Conservatives, who are, in Canada, the guardians of liberal values, must eschew both identity politics and populism; neither will serve the party well and both are, already, the property of the Liberals and the NDP ~ Doug Ford just borrowed the populist ‘playbook.’ I have often said that Canadian Conservative leaders need to look back to Louis St Laurent for a model of moderate, prudent, progressive but cautious liberalism. Conservatives need to tell Canadians that they, as a nation, one nation, not deux nations or some odd mix of first nations and settler nations, are bigger, better and stronger than the sum of individual communities and groups. Conservatives need to believe and act on the premise that the individual rights of each and every Canadian are both coequal with the fundamental individual rights of every other Canadian and, in every respect superior to the collective ‘rights’ of any and all groups, ‘nations,‘ religions and of the state, itself. But, equally, Conservatives need to understand that Canadians want to band together in communities ~ regional, linguistic, racial, even professional or work related in the case of e.g. trade unions. Communitarianism is a very, very human instinct. But Conservatives must remember that the rights of any individual ‘outrank‘ the rights of all the communities put together.

Conservatives need to move, steadily to recapture the socially moderate, fiscally prudent, liberal middle ground which the Liberal Party has, ever since the demise of Mike Pearson, abandoned. That middle ground is populated by people of all sorts: young and old, female and male, Asian, black and Caucasian, gay and straight, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim, rich and poor … they are all Canadians and they have ideas about how they want to be governed, and their ideas not mine or some university professor’s, need to be heard and debated, earnestly and honestly. It is very likely that half of them can be persuaded ~ as they were by John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney ~ to vote for a Conservative Party that makes sense to them because it reflects their values: moderate, tolerant, prudent, progressive and efficient. They are not libertarians, they want enough government to free themselves from their many (too many in my personal opinion) needs and wants. But they are not ready for “post nationalism,” either. They are patriotic, even if they are not, usually, very loud about it; they are also, in many cases, quite provincial, Nova Scotians and les Québecois, and Torontonians and Calgarians and Yukoners often seem too diverse to ever be united … but look at our national reaction to President Donald Trump’s attack on a prime minister of whom less than half of us approved just a few months ago.

If we are going to restore real, useful, productive liberalism to the West then it has to be for the ‘ordinary’ people, not for the elites, and it has to serve the needs of the people, even, perhaps especially when the people’s needs are inconsistent with the desires of the Laurentian Elites in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.

Canadian need a choice between populism and Justin Trudeau’s illiberal identity politics. That alternative is classical liberalism updated for the 21st century … it’s something like Mill in the information age.


2 thoughts on “I wish I’d said this, too (even though there’s a lot of it)

  1. A couple of points:

    An etymology of the word “liberal”

    “liberal (adj.)
    mid-14c., “generous,” also “nobly born, noble, free;” from late 14c. as “selfless, magnanimous, admirable;” from early 15c. in a bad sense, “extravagant, unrestrained,” from Old French liberal “befitting free people; noble, generous; willing, zealous” (12c.), and directly from Latin liberalis “noble, gracious, munificent, generous,” literally “of freedom, pertaining to or befitting a free person,” from liber “free, unrestricted, unimpeded; unbridled, unchecked, licentious.”

    This is conjectured to be from PIE *leudh-ero-, which probably originally meant “belonging to the people,” though the precise semantic development is obscure; but compare frank (adj.). This was a suffixed form of the base *leudh- (2) “people” (source also of Old Church Slavonic ljudu, Lithuanian liaudis, Old English leod, German Leute “nation, people;” Old High German liut “person, people”).

    Who hath indeed, most like a liberal villain,
    Confess’d the vile encounters they have had
    A thousand times in secret.
    [“Much Ado,” IV.1.93]
    Liberal was used 16c.-17c. as a term of reproach with the meaning “free from restraint in speech or action.” The Enlightenment revived it in a positive sense “free from prejudice, tolerant, not bigoted or narrow,” which emerged 1776-88. In 19c. often theological rather than political, opposed to orthodox, used of Unitarians, Universalists, etc. For educational use, see liberal arts.

    Purely in reference to political opinion, “tending in favor of freedom and democracy,” it dates from c. 1801, from French libéral. In English the label at first was applied by opponents (often in the French form and with suggestions of foreign lawlessness) to the party more favorable to individual political freedoms. But also (especially in U.S. politics) tending to mean “favorable to government action to effect social change,” which seems at times to draw more from the religious sense of “free from prejudice in favor of traditional opinions and established institutions” (and thus open to new ideas and plans of reform), which dates from 1823.

    This is the attitude of mind which has come to be known as liberal. It implies vigorous convictions, tolerance for the opinions of others, and a persistent desire for sound progress. It is a method of approach which has played a notable and constructive part in our history, and which merits a thorough trial today in the attack on our absorbingly interesting American task. [Guy Emerson, “The New Frontier,” 1920]
    liberal (n.)

    1820, “member of the progressive and reformist political party of Great Britain, an anti-Whig,” from liberal (adj.). General meaning “person of liberal political principles or tendencies” (without reference to party) is by 1832; in reference to persons of a political ideology not conservative or fascist but short of socialism, from c. 1920. Also used from early 20c. of ministers from less-dogmatic Christian churches.”


    I cheerfully define myself as aspiring to the Enlightenment definition of “liberal” ie “free from prejudice, tolerant, not bigoted or narrow,” which emerged 1776-88. Working on it. Not there yet. And I do not consider telling others how to be tolerant as being either tolerant or liberal.

    Beyond that, regardless of the terminology, I find that I generally subscribe to the political philosophy of both yourself and Bagehot.

    As to “walls” – the primary “wall” in Canada is Trudeau Sr.’s Constitution of 1982.

    Absolutism seems to come in many guises.

  2. One further point…. (I have to admit it took me two readings to get to the bottom of the page)…. I cannot agree with the disparaging tone when referring to the generality of the population. Population. Popular. Populist.

    Why “populist” when “popular” does equally as well? It used to be seen as a societal good to be conforming to popular opinion. In fact that was how elections were won.

    Now we have spent so much time and effort ensuring that the majority does not have a chance to exercise its tyrannical urges that we freely allow minorities that very privilege. Sometimes it is a minority in the popular sense. Sometimes it can be a tyrannical minority of nine, serving for life. Sometimes it can even be a tyranny in the ancient Greek sense: a minority of one.

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