Tuesday, February 03, 2009

On ideologues and revolutionaries, conservative and communist

The news pages have been replete with conservatives moaning and bemoaning the budget of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. So angry are the true believers they’ve used the absolute worst adjective in their vocabularies to describe the Harper budget: Liberal. Ouch.

As I read the latest columns from disillusioned conservatives over lunch, this time by Gerry Nicholls in the Ottawa Citizen and Tasha Kheiriddin in the National Post, I was reminded of the fall of communism. No, really, hear me out.

In their columns, Nicholls and Kheiriddin, true-believers both, decry the fact that Harper the man who was supposed to be their conservative white night, a fellow ideologue, has, in power, strayed from the path to righteousness and has failed to deliver their promised conservative revolution. I knew Ronnie Reagan and you sir, they complain, are no Ronald Reagan.

Writes Nicholls:

But minority or no minority, Mr. Harper could have at least used his position as prime minister to extol and promote the virtues of smaller government and freer markets. But he never did.

Why? Because Mr. Harper and his strategists believe the only way for Conservatives to win elections is to act and talk like Liberals. Or to put it another way, the prime minister was willing to sacrifice his principles for the sake of political expediency.

This is an oft-repeated statement – that he feels he has to act less conservative to get a majority and then be free to act all conservative -- and its an interesting one to me.

What does it say of conservatism if a party cannot run openly and honestly on a conservative platform and then get a majority mandate to implement it? What does it say that they need to either hide their conservative tendencies or shed them, depending on which conspiracy theory you subscribe to, to get elected (and only then with a minority)? And what does it say that, in a time of fiscal crisis, a supposed conservative ideologue turns to deficit-funded stimulus spending instead of employing the conservative economic principles he wrote his thesis on?

Now, Nicholls and Kheiriddin will tell you Harper’s budget wasn’t an acknowledgment that conservative economics don’t work (although there’s a healthy body of evidence to show they don’t), but rather was merely a minority government forced by political and public opinion to open the Keynesian taps. Maybe so. It’s telling though that the conservatives (small c) can’t persuasively make the case for their own deeply-held views as the prescription for our economic ills. For believers in a market economy, they seem unwilling to accept that the public just ain’t buying what they’re selling. Which, it would seem to hold, would mean it doesn’t have worth.

Looking more widely though, while conservatism may sell from time to time in the U.S., in Canada it seems to be a consistent, and increasing non-starter. Which is how I got to thinking about the failure of the communist system.

Ask any old, battle worn, communist ideologue and they’ll tell you communism never failed, despite the historical record, because a) the true system as envisioned by Marx has never been properly implemented, as personal agendas and vanity have interceded, and b) it can’t be properly implemented until the entire world is under a communist utopia. Until that day, resources will always have to be diverted to things like defense, leading to a prevision of the system. It gives them an easy out (in their minds at least) to never have to really examine the failures of their ideology.

Similarly, I suspect ideological conservatives will always be able to find rationalizations and explanations for why small-c conservatism isn’t a failure, and why their ideology isn’t faulty, or at fault. It’s Stephen Harper’s fault for hewing toward centre in the name of pragmatism. It’s the Liberals’ fault for insisting on stimulus spending. It’s Canadians’ fault for not giving them a majority.

At what point do they ask themselves: is it the customer, or is it what they’re selling?

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Scott Tribe said...

There was also Rob Mitchell in the Star this AM.

Barcs said...

Does this also apply to the popular conception that liberals (atleast the recent ones) run from the left and govern from the right?

RayK said...

The biggest problem with the "but it's not laissez faire in its purest form" argument is, for all intents and purposes, we've "been there, done that".

It was called the Gilded Age.

Barcs said...

One also has to wonder if the liberals are going to accept and publicize that Harper is not the evil rightwing ideologue. Because that is really what you are saying here... The right wing ideologues are mad at Harper for not being.... right?

And the third point is a question.... Is belief in something now analogous to ideology??? For instance,... is the deficits that Trudeau ran, and the coalition demanded evidence of how big government and spending (like small government and less spending on the right) ... only causes trouble and debt and a downward spiral?? Does that suggest that the belief the liberal coalition had (and obama since the stimulus package hit 900B this morning)....(even if you claim it was temporary) I that a result of ideological failure? Why does belief that something will work automatically demand that it is an ideological belief. There is lots of policies that haven't worked (on both sides) that people still cling to.

Olaf said...


Which, it would seem to hold, would mean it doesn’t have worth.

Is that what it means? Are Canadians such paragons of rational thought and sound judgment? Did the Green Shift have no worth? Does every policy that the majority of Canadians oppose, including those that you yourself advocate, have no worth? Did the concepts of womens equality, gay marriage, universal sufferage, and so on, have "no worth" prior to changing public opinion?

Come on Jeff, this is a bit of a stretch.

A BCer in Toronto said...

barcs, on Libs run left/gov right, I know that's the saying, but is it really truly valid in recent years? Chretien ran from the left and governed from the oh my god we need to do something about this deficit before we go insolvent. Martin ran from the left and governed from the left, centre, right, front, back, top, bottom, and a previously undiscovered dimension in space-time.

on your second point. Can we still attack Harper for being an RW ideologue? Sure. I'd argue he is, he just hasn't had the ability to go all crazy. But if he ever got a majority, watch out, its crazy right wing time. My post here though was raising the question, can someone get a majority in Canada running on a RW platform (which Harper hasn't). And if you have to either abandon or hide your conservatism to get elected, does that speak to a underlying problem with conservatism?

olaf, conservative free market purists have long held that the market is god, and should be the sole arbiter of value in society, or winners and losers. This is the argument against a strong or active federal government. Stay out of the way, they say, and let the market decide who succeeds and who fails.

Now, as a Liberal, I obviously don't subscribe to this philosophy. But many of the conservatives I was writing about here do. Which is why I was asking if conservatism is not, by their own market definition, a failure and therefore without value.

Olaf said...


I see, funny point, actually. I don't know how I could have totally missed it, especially considering that you even used the words buying and selling. Damn you and your very minimal degree of subtelty!

Next time, please be unduly explicit. Here are some tips on how to make a simple, straightforward point accessible, even to me: a) use small, easy to understand words (two syllable maximum); b) repeat the point over and over, like you would with a small child or a dog, and c) use pictures and hand signals whenever possible.

Thanks in advance!

A BCer in Toronto said...

In your defence Olaf, I do have mad* subtly skills.

*Mad= Term the kids use to mean really good, or a lot.