Competing Philosophies of Government

It’s always fascinating to take a tour around the media and the blogosphere and see how different communities within it approach different matters.

For instance, it would never have occurred to me that anyone would seriously have taken issue with reducing taxes paid to the Federal Government: the massive surpluses that had been run in recent years (until 2009) were evidence and to spare that during those years we had financial resources taken from Canadians that need never have been collected.

Lowering the collections to bring our national “takings” and national “expenditures” roughly in line with each other would just seem to be prudent behaviour.

Apparently not, though: there seems to be a rather largish community out there that sees large piles of unnecessarily collected money as an incentive to the creation of yet more programs to spend it.

Of course, if we don’t collect it? Then there are no shortage of “needs” that we should run deficits for.

Mon dieu! – they’d invent rationales after the fact to justify actual over-taxation (directly, or by deferring it to future generations)?

Good heavens, we haven’t even discussed dismantling some of the stale, “living dead” programs already out there and the assumption is “more of the same, thanks”?

Still and all, rather than debate at this time the relative merit of their ideas, perhaps it would be wise to take a step back and ask a different question: what is your philosophy of government?

I have, in many of my preceding posts, made reference to (for instance) neoconservatives as being right-wing liberals, and distinct from true Tories.

What could such a statement mean?

At the time I pointed to a distinction between those who find anything and everything up for grabs, ready to be changed, junked or created without reference to anything other than the needs of the moment (liberal axis) as opposed to those who see society as a bond between the past, the present and the future, and thus make change carefully (stewardship axis, which contains the true Canadian Tory amongst others around the world).

Here is where philosophy of government comes into play, for both axes allow for a “right” and a “left”. Jack Layton, for instance, as NDP leader, found himself sometimes espousing a left-stewardship position (speaking for the infrastructure needs of the cities, for instance), and sometimes a left-liberal position (wanting to abolish the Senate holus-bolus, for instance).

Liberals — just as with American Democrats and Republicans (Ron Paul excepted) — tend to only play on the liberal axis. (Ron Paul is a right-steward with his call for strict Constitutionality, a return to the American Republic and abandonment of Imperial pretensions, sound money, etc., although he is a neoliberal statist in other ways.)

The former Green leader, Jim Harris, alternated between a left-liberal and a right-stewardship position; his successor, Elizabeth May a more consistent liberal axis approach, and, to complete the picture, the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, finds himself dipping into the right-liberal realm of his Reformist roots and, less and less, using such right-steward roots as his party holds.

These axes distinguish how a centrist Tory and a centrist Liberal are literally miles apart in world-view, although apparently (to the simplistic analysis of the average media person, for whom all politics is a matter of “the guy from my team can beat the guy from your team” and little else) they are both “in the middle” of a single left-right spectrum.

The Tory starts every consideration for change from the question of his/her role as a steward of the legacy of the generations before us and the preservation of that legacy for those who follow us, even when he/she proposes quite radical change or a massive government effort.

The Liberal, to the extent that he/she cares about the past and future at all, does so only in a very abstract way, with a Trudeau-like shrug and “Watch Me” to those who say faith with Canadians is being broken, and with the internal assurance that any problems being created for the next generation (say, being burdened by a massive debt) will be solved by that generation in due course — he/she needn’t fret about that!

So, in all of this, do “left” and “right” mean anything?

The original meaning — those who sat on one side of the speaker or the other in the original French National Assembly of 1789, with republicans on the “left” and royalists on the “right” — is obviously not what these terms would mean now.

What far fewer spend time thinking about is whether (from some “centre point”), “far left” meets “far right”.

Indeed, politics is often best seen as a circle, as both the “far left” (one might think “Marxist”, in one form or another) and the “far right” (one might think “fascist”, again in one form or another) do seem reflections of each other.

Indeed, the real distinction here is between “liberty-lovers (for themselves and others)” and “those who coerce others (for their own good, or the good of some abstract ideal)”. May we call these libertarian and authoritarian?

Still, “left” and “right” do have a meaning even today: “left” means “focus on equality of outcome” and “right” means “focus on equality of opportunity”.

Consider the change made from the Liberals’ final (it only took them twelve years to get on with it) negotiations in the dying days of the Martin Government to create a national child care program, which would have created equality of outcome (everyone would have had equal day care, however good or bad it turned out to be) versus the Harper Government’s reversal of course into a program of child care payments, which created equality of opportunity (here’s your cheque, figure out what’s best for you).

So we now come to a spherical (keeping the round metaphor) representation of the political field, with three axes, all of which meet at 90° angles in the centre: historical (stewardship) vs functional, crossed by libertarian vs authoritarian, crossed by equality of outcome vs equality of opportunity.

To reduce tax collections when they are over-collected is to increase equality of opportunity, increase libertarianism and increase stewardship.

To put forward a program that captures over-collection and creates new programs to “sop the money up” is to (no matter how well expressed the cause(s) involved) decrease opportunity and work toward outcome, decrease liberty and move toward authoritarian solutions (“this is how it will be” rather than many different futures unfolding in parallel), and — depending on the programs proposed — possibly being highly functional (tends toward immediate expenditures, an “operating” approach) rather than one of stewardship (tends toward capital building, a future-directed approach).

(We still, for instance, benefit from the investments made in the railways; we have little to nothing to show for years of CANARIE (Canada’s Advanced Research and Innovation Network) programs, IRAP (Industrial Research Assistance Program) grants, ACOA (Atlantic Canada Opportunity Agency) and WD (Western Economic Diversification) “investments”, etc., just as the pleasures of a medal or two in international competition are transient and do little toward the future.)

It is, of course, horribly difficult to reduce authoritarian and outcome-directed past moves.

Programs take on a life of their own (as do their branches, agencies, ministers, etc.).

One would hope that, from time to time, real eradication of things well past their “best before date” would take place instead of the anemic and dysfunctional program reviews Ottawa is so well known for.

It will take the strength to be willing to move directly and firmly on the issue and almost assuredly be tossed ignominiously from office for your trouble to outright buck the intrenched power of civil service unions, senior bureaucrats, Cabinet and Parliamentary Secretaries who lose their posts (and the reduced prospects for largesse in the rest of the caucus), pressure groups and NGOs, media whingeing and complaining, Premiers and Mayors decrying it all — in short, the great and loud “waaaaaah!” that follows the excising of one or more national tumours.

It would have been much more difficult to junk a five-year-old national child care program in 2006 than one that had yet to actually get up and running. It will be much more difficult to bring order to the chaos of waste that is Ottawa and really hand the power to choose back to Canadians, rather than our being forced (as we are today) to normalize the outcomes of those with their hand out for public money for whatever their passion is.

Indeed, it will be easier to dismantle the Canada Health Act’s provision for a single provider than it will be to start lopping off the branches of Federal Departments, and not simply allowing them to live on on slightly less money.

Those of us who are truly tory in our thinking are proud to be libertarian, equality of opportunity, stewards of Canada. Measures — whether proposed by the Government or by Opposition Parties — should be judged accordingly.

Now, political parties will always be amalgams — “big tents”, in the vernacular of the practising pol — and so none will ever be “pure”. Neither should labels get in the way: it is eminently possible that a green can be more in favour of libertarian equality of opportunity (Green Party of Ontario) than its “Conservative” counter-part; that a social democratic crowd (New Democratic Party of Nova Scotia) can be much better fiscal managers than their right-wing opponents; that liberalisation of law can come from the right.

One must, in other words, not depend on a quick glance around the front pages on election day or tune in the babble box the night before going to vote!

Spending some time thinking about your own philosophy of government, however, is essential.

Then you can judge what you hear, and vote for the closest match, on the issues you care about most.

As for the others, the Hippocratic Oath comes to mind: I can live with this other thing for now, because it does less harm than not tackling this key issue over here.

Sort those things out for yourself, and you’ll be what politicians hate most: the passionate, committed, Independent whose vote changes.

Seriously now: if it helps you get what you want, and makes them nervous in the process, isn’t it worth a glass or two and some quiet time to think ahead?

Every day offers a place for that reflection to start. I wish you well in your thoughts.



Add yours →

  1. William F. Spaulding 29/03/2012 — 16:52

    “Sort those things out for yourself, and you’ll be what politicians hate most: the passionate, committed, Independent whose vote changes.” Wise words these be Mr. Stewart.

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