Thursday, March 05, 2009

Crisis = Opportunity

Conservatism can rediscover itself in the ashes of disaster

To suggest that the financial crisis currently facing the global economy is a disaster may be something of a hyperbole, although such things usually tend to feel like crises when in the midst of them.

With Barack Obama elected president in the United States and the Conservative government in Canada tabling a budget that half-heartedly embraces Keynesianism, many have mused that conservatism in Canada is dead.

As the Telegraph Journal's Charles Moore notes, Maclean's blogger Andrew Coyne has insisted that the Tory budget "put an end to conservatism in Canada — as a philosophy, as a movement".

Certainly, conservatism in Canada -- as elsewhere -- is in a time of crisis. It's impossible to pretend otherwise.

Conservatism has slid a long way in a short time since David Frum penned Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again. (Interestingly, Comeback was published in 2007, George W Bush had been in office for seven years.)

Some are looking upon conservatism's crisis quite triumphally. Liberal leader Michaell Ignatieff has mused that the current state of affairs "throws the conservative movement in Canada into a certain form of deep ideological confusion - from which I sincerely hope it never recovers."

This says something very telling about Ignatieff's lack of imagination. To hope that conservatism never recovers its sense of purpose is to imagine that conservatism has nothing to offer. While the most fervent ideological hacks will certainly be eager to leap to agreement with such a sentiment, they'd be every bit as wrong as Ignatieff.

Those folks -- Ignatieff, Coyne, and those rushing to affirm their conclusions -- have forgotten one of philosophy's most popular axioms.

The chinese word for crisis consists of two distinct characters. One represents danger. The other represents opportunity.

While conservatism is clearly facing danger in the midst of this crisis, it's important to remember that there's opportunity as well.

This is an opportunity to reevaluate what conservatism stands for, and what its principles are and what its purpose is.

During the neo-conservative era of the past 30 years it's been insisted that conservatism is founded first and foremosst in economics. Thinkers such as William F Buckley argued that capitalism was essentially the glue that bound social conservatism, libertarianism and free market conservatism together. In many ways conservatism got wrapped up in the struggle between capitalism and communism.

Even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the breakdown of its sphere of influence and China's turn toward capitalism -- the events definitively marking the end of communism as a global ideological force -- many segments of the conservative movement have yet to grow beyond this long-retired conflict.

It was the ideological rigidity that demanded the artificial continuation of this conflict that treated any state intervention in the economy, including regulation, as communism. It was this ideological rigidity that allowed the greed of unscrupulous business people to precipitate the current global economic crisis.

Interestingly enough, this ideological rigidity conflicted with the law-and-order imperatives so often equated with conservatism. Even well-regulated economies are now facing the consequences of this under-regulation as a deep recession in the United States -- among the most under-regulated economies in the world -- precipitates economic hardship in many other countries.

Economic regulation -- in this case, regulation of financial markets -- is simply part of a necessary law-and-order program which protects consumers and investors alike.

One thing that the economic program espoused by conservatives has proven particularly inept at is handling economic crisis. The current crisis provides conservatives with an opportunity to innovate their outlook on economics.

While the left-wing alternatives have a similarly dismal record in dealing with such crises, conservatives can learn from the failures of both their own projects and those of their ideological opponents in order to provide more pragmatic solutions.

Conservatives have to be willing do what many of their ideological opponents will not. First, they need to understand that economies are cyclical. Governments -- particularly individual governments -- are limited in their ability to influence such things.

Conservatives need to learn to balance their belief that economies must perpetually grow with the knowledge that economies must grow into something. Conservative policies should funnel economic growth toward the formation of a healthy economy -- one that reflects the wants and needs of the country in question.

Strident free market conservatives will certainly insist that an unhibited, minimally regulated market will provide such growth. But they forget that many people also want easy wealth and profit. The current economic crisis is a perfect example of what happens when unscrupulous individuals are allowed nearly unlimited means to achieve it.

Economics cannot be the sole bind between the varying intellectual strands of conservatism.

Whatever that bind would be it needs to respect individual and economic freedoms while still allowing room for law and order. It needs to value traditional values that work while remaining flexible enough to change those that don't work. It needs to balance freedoms with a sense of responsibility.

Most importantly, however, conservatism must be willing to adapt and evolve to political and social conditions in order to survive. No static philosophy can possibly survive in a dynamic and constantly-changing world.

Individuals such as Michael Ignatieff, meanwhile, should be very careful before they wish the conservative movement to effective oblivion. Not very long ago, liberalism was every bit as confused and disjoined as conservatism is now -- George W Bush was in the White House for the longhaul, the Republican party was firmly in control of political power in Washington DC and Canada's Liberal party wasn't nearly liberal enough for the tastes of many.

Right now, the conservative movement must learn to find opportunity in crisis. But inevitably liberalism will have to do so again some day.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent post. It's particularly revealing when you consider just how much Canadian conservatism has changed over the years.

    In the 1960s and 1970s, Conservative provincial premiers like Robert Stanfield, Peter Lougheed and Bill Davis actively marshalled the provincial powers at their disposal and sought a balance between a healthy economy and the social needs of their populations. In the classic Radical Tories, then-federal Conservative leader Stanfield repeatedly tried to stress to the federal PCs that conservatism does not necessarily put free enterprise on a pedestal, nor does it oppose necessary reforms.

    Sir John A. Macdonald created what amounted to our first Crown Corporation in the CPR, building the railway that linked British Columbia to the rest of the country. R.B. Bennett stated that capitalism should be the servant, and not the master, and created the Bank of Canada as a means of regulating the economy and mitigating future economic crises, while also developing the Canadian Wheat Board to help farmers in their dealings with the huge grain companies. John Diefenbaker actively sought out new markets for Western grain, going so far as to sell it to Red China, while he also offered matching federal funds to any province that wanted to copy Tommy Douglas's health care reforms in the CBC.

    Lougheed mused about selling oil to China as opposed to the United States if they could pay a better price, and in the November 13, 1999 edition of the Edmonton Journal talked about the possibility of bringing back the Foreign Investment Review Agency. Peter Lougheed, the man who brought the Alberta Conservatives to power.

    Danny Williams showed spine in dealing with Big Oil and is actively trying to make sure that the money from projects like Grand Banks and Hibernia are reinvested in his province, rather than shipped off to the United States or another jurisdiction.

    Roger Gibbins is calling for a national energy strategy, a concern shared by Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel:

    Popular protest has led to a hike in Alberta's energy royalties and a cancellation of Ralph Klein's Third Way initiatives, even as many landowners are frustrated and angry over the effects of sour gas wells and power lines that are built on or near their property-just look at the Energy and Utilities Board scandal of a few years ago.

    You can't call any of these guys Marxists or radical left-wingers, and yet they've all realized the values of strong social investments in the economy and society, and the fact that, while the free market is an essential part of modern society, it's not the only one.

    One of the best advantages of Canadian conservatism has been, over the years, the search for a balance between individual gain and collective support, between markets and governments, between private initiatives and public aid.

    Conservatism is only dead if you adhere to its most rigid ideological form of as little state regulation as possible, and an overwhelming emphasis on market forces as the primary determining social factor. The Harper Conservatives have had the most success on the bread-and-butter issues that don't seize the headlines but are important nonetheless (rebuilding our military, fast-tracking skilled immigrants, federal accountability and changes to ethics rules, etc.) and in this vein continue the good work that Jean Chretien and St├ęphane Dion did during the late 1990s.*

    Don't get me wrong, even the likes of Reagan and Thatcher and their supporters made some important contributions, most notably in giving their economies a jumpstart, the same way provincial premiers like Ralph Klein and Mike Harris did in the 1990s. The problem came when the remedies continued to be applied when they were no longer necessary, such as keeping Alberta's royalty rates very low even after the oilpatch started working again, and going too far too fast for the poorest part of society in Ontario.

    Milton Friedman-inspired economic and social theory shouldn't be the only standard by which conservatism is judged. In Canada, there's much more to it, including a careful, measured evolution of society and a pragmatic application of social policy and knowing when to intervene and when not to, all of which iconic Conservatives like Macdonald, Lougheed, Diefenbaker, Stanfield, and Bennett have been quite comfortable with.

    * (Dion accomplished quite a bit during his time as Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, including new federal-provincial deals on job training, the Social Union Framework Agreement, deals with Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec regarding their educational powers under the Constitution, the Plan on Official Languages, etc. All this is stuff that, like Harper's best work, doesn't make the headlines but has been important for the day-to-day work of the government and society.)


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