In Canada, there has been a long-standing fight for the heart and soul of the political right. Most readers will think that I am referring to the Reform Party and the Tories. But I’m not. There has been an even bigger war waged for a lot longer than the last couple of federal elections.
In one corner are the conservatives. The understood champions of the political right, this group combines traditional thinking and brute strength to make their message clear. In the other corner are the libertarians. This intrusive group enjoys mixing brash philosophy and stylish counter-punching in their repertoire.
But life, I fear, is not that simple. The lines of thought between conservatism and libertarianism have moved closer together in the last two decades. In fact, there are libertarians who confuse themselves as conservatives, and vice versa. As political ideology has transformed, so has our society, which often misinterprets political history.
Don’t believe me? All right, try this on for size, all ye modern-day conservatives: many are modeled after the principles of classical liberalism. Where do you think your ideas of individual liberty, limited government and free trade came from? It was from such great classic liberal thinkers as John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville, not classic conservative philosophers such as Edmund Burke, who wanted to preserve structures such as the monarchy and the existing social order. The latter type of political ideology is slowly being erased from conservative theory over time.
Here’s a Canadian example in this shift in political thinking. Brian Mulroney and the Tories won the 1988 federal election over John Turner and the Liberals largely due to their positive stance on free trade. However, our country’s political history could have been very different if Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberals had won the 1911 federal election over Robert Borden and the Tories.
In the latter case, it was the Liberals fighting for reciprocity (or free trade), while the Tories were opposing it.
Thus it was Mulroney - who declared in 1983 that he was opposed to freer trade boundaries - who changed the rules of the game. The political right would not be where it is today without Mulroney’s classic liberal intervention.
However, I’m not going to let the libertarian masses off the hook. It is actually questionable whether or not libertarianism is fully on the right of the political spectrum. There has long been a history of both left-libertarian thought (such as legalizing drugs) and right-libertarian thought (anti-government sentiments.) This is why such diverse characters as talk-show host Howard Stern, drug guru Timothy Leary, and humourists P.J. O’Rourke and Dave Barry embraced libertarian theory. It stands for so much, but positions itself on the political spectrum so little.
As well, modern-day libertarians have a strange array of political thinkers in their arsenal. This includes Ayn Rand, who wrote such famous anti-collectivist novels as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. She created the political theory of objectivism, which rejected religion, collectivism and altruism, but favoured aggressiveness, egoism, rationality and self-respect. Rand also liked to equate the idea of an unmitigated laissez-faire capitalist system to human freedom.
Rand’s opposition to the welfare state and collectivism, while supporting the virtues of capitalism, can classify her as right-libertarian. But her critical positions on conservatives and religion made her enemies with right-wing stalwarts like William F. Buckley and Whittaker Chambers, the latter of whom stated that “...Randian Man, like Marxist Man, is made the center of a godless world.”
Hence, the status of today’s Canadian political right is utterly confusing. There are youngish conservatives and youngish libertarians who have formed a strange merger of drug-legalizing, anti-religious, anti-state, market-driven and self-reliant right-wing ideologues. At the same time, there are still old-style conservatives fighting for social order, and religious conservatives concerned about the lack of religion and morals.
As for our political leaders, there are many conservatives, but very few libertarians. Why? For the most part, both conservatives and libertarians have voted for centre-right parties like Reform and the Tories. Attempts to mobilize libertarians into a political movement have only been moderately successful. The U.S. Libertarian Party has done well at times, peaking in the 1980 presidential election with over 900,000 votes. But in Canada, the Libertarian Party could not even field the required 50 candidates for party status in the 1997 federal election.
Ontario Premier Mike Harris is leading a bright new right-wing revolution, but he is not anti-government nor a laissez-faire capitalist. Harris plods in the area of privatization, believes in a central government structure, and is hardly that radical in his position on social issues. Federal Conservative leader Jean Charest is a red Tory who believes in the need for big government. He supports such programs as universal health care and multicultural policy, which hardly makes him a libertarian free-thinker. Even Reform Party leader Preston Manning, while leading the charge for individual rights and freedoms, could never agree with a total collapse of state rights on issues like abortion or gay marriage.
The same goes for journalists and policy-makers in Canada. Sun Media columnist David Frum has his roots in the libertarian concepts of individual liberty and extremely small government. But, his position on traditional social issues pushes him away ever so slightly. The same goes for Toronto broadcaster Michael Coren, who appears in the Free Press, and Ted Byfield, editor of Western Report, but both have strong religious backgrounds and moral consciences. Fraser Institute director Michael Walker calls himself a small “l” conservative (or, as I like to call him, a “lonservative.”) National Citizens’ Coalition president David Somerville is more of a social and economic conservative, while NCC vice-president Stephen Harper combines a bit of conservatism and libertarianism.
Writer Barbara Amiel? A mix of two ideologies. Globe and Mail columnist Terence Corcoran? Close at times, but no cigar. Southam News columnist Andrew Coyne? It’s hard to classify him as anything, even a libertarian. Alberta journalist Lorne Gunter? A combination of the philosophies. Former Conservative party organizer and commentator Dalton Camp? You’ve got to be kidding. Financial Post editor Diane Francis? Highly unlikely. Ottawa commentator Claire Hoy? Definitely on the social conservative side.
As for my own classification, I use the term libertarian conservative, which is popular with U.S. writers like William Buckley and William Safire. Why add “libertarian” next to the understood “conservative?” Simply, I like parts of libertarianism, and use it with my own philosophy. The libertarian beliefs of small government, individualism, free enterprise and private property appeal to me and a wide array of modern-day conservatives. And, while I admit to being non-religious, I have some strong social conservative beliefs on issues such as the need to preserve the traditional family unit, and my opposition to gay marriage and gay adoption.
If the political right wants to end the battle between libertarians and conservatives, they might want to take up a position in the middle. Why can’t a right-winger have the best of both worlds? Since all we do these days is change the historical meaning of the political right, we might want to pick and choose our philosophy to find the right combination. By doing so, the closer we will be in achieving our goal of a perfect right-wing ideology.
Michael Taube is the Publisher/Editor of From The Right, a nationally-distributed conservative commentary newspaper. He holds a Master’s degree in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics in England.
The London Free Press
Saturday, December 27, 1997
Forum section p. F3.