Authored by Jesse Rosenberg.
Having watched Michael Ignatieff’s resignation speech and Gerard Kennedy’s speech Monday night, it’s interesting that Ignatieff’s case was “well, we’re centrist, people will come back” and Kennedy argued that “Canada will always need a party that can solve problems, take some from this side and some from that side”. I’ve seen similar sentiments sprinkled through other media reports from leading Liberals.
I really didn’t like either. Small ‘L” liberalism really means something to me, and I wonder if some of what’s been lost is that no one knows what that means anymore; it’s become just centrism (whereas Trudeau, I would argue, was really a liberal). We’re pale blue and pale orange, or we’re pure pragmatism, or we’re just trying to always tack to the supposed political centre. But I’m deeply unsatisfied with those statements.
For a start, my liberalism would include the following commitments to building a better society:
1) A maximal commitment to civil liberties. I recognize there will still be some balancing issues that will arise, but our goal has to be to protect individuals’ rights. I believe we should recognize group rights only insofar as addressing the concerns of the group gives us a useful kludge to protect individuals who all suffer from a particular unfairness of society or market, and I’m not totally sure it’s clear to me when that ever happens. One example that I can get behind is the idea, though not necessarily the specifics we have, of French language laws in Quebec. That’s a case where society needs to step in to act on behalf of a group, because a language isn’t something the individual can keep up on his or her own.
2) A complete commitment to symmetrical federalism. Although I recognize that there may be some shake ups as we need to decide which level of government is best able to do a certain task, without assuming that the 1867 text is still best, the best way to achieve individual freedom is to have a strong federal government and equality between the provinces. Certain tasks can, of course, be divided up; in health, for example, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it may make sense to have the federal government take over drug coverage, because we can then negotiate nationally and maintain national standards (thus ensuring individuals are free to move from province to province despite their health conditions). But we need to stand up for fairness, and stand up for the fact that there are issues that need to be addressed as one people, not 10 + 3.
3) A commitment to ensuring markets work fairly. I’m not a big fan of picking winners; there may be some circumstances in which a certain amount of angel funding should come from the government, but clear principles should be developed. Government should take a much larger role in ensuring the market place works fairly, not just efficiently, and a much smaller one in handing out subsidies.
4) This commitment should also apply to our tax system; society needs to work fairly for rich and poor alike, with an eye towards maximizing the security of the poor. The tax handouts the Cons have gone whole hog for should be stopped; they heavily, heavily favour the rich (I don’t really think a lot of poor people can afford gym memberships or piano lessons). Along these lines, we should recognize that government is better at punishing than at encouraging; higher taxes on undesirable activities such as cigarettes and fatty/fast foods (which may disproportionately punish/benefit the poor) are fine by me, because there are always winners and losers in anything we do. If we want to discourage/raise money off of fast food, but we’re worried it will hurt poor people more, then we should give the money to poor people. I also am more and more becoming open to a negative income tax, which would be a huge shift and might be the kind of policy that could change our fortunes. That’s one way to be the party of everyone, not just the well off or whiny. Taxes are our way of coming together to invest in our common good and common future, not a “burden”. Liberals should commit to being part of the project of re-establishing the importance of a fair, progressive taxation system that can actually bring we, the nation, enough to protect we, the individuals, in the minds of Canadians.
5) Environmental policy should focus on protection/enhancement of individuals. We should crush pollution, because, to start, it makes people sick. I think the case for working on climate change essentially comes from future generations and a commitment to world fairness, and is something we should take on as world citizens and good stewards of our common trust, not for selfish or terrified reasons. Polluter pays should be enshrined as a guiding principle, and should apply to carbon emissions as well. I strongly support a carbon tax to that end.
6) Foreign policy so far trips me up, in the attempt to divide along these lines. It’s clear to me that liberalism requires a strong commitment to others around the world, and to the building and enhancement of international law and international institutions. But the big foreign policy issues of our day have been questions of when interventions are just, and I’m not too clear on how that works.
Interestingly, this is one area where the best I have so far is that we should be defined as “nots”. We’re not the NDP, which is in favour of humanitarian intervention except when it’s “too hard” or the other parties want to do it, and has an isolationist branch, and we’re not the CPC, which wants to use foreign policy to try to trick Canadians into believe only the CPC is patriotic. I think it’s clear we have to stand with, and for, all people everywhere, not their leaders, but this all gives us few answers on what to do. We must also return to our world role as an honest broker, rather than an American lapdog or a socialist agitator.
The fact that the final area is a struggle to sort out how principles sh0uld be applied is a feature, not a bug. Here’s a tip: if you think your ideology, or the company you keep, tells you so easily exactly how to solve complex issues like war and peace, then there’s something wrong with you, the ideology, the company, or all three.
The difference between Liberals and the NDP should not be that we sit “right”, and the difference between Liberals and the Conservatives shouldn’t be that we’re more “left”. The ideas outlined above demonstrate that we are not just “in between”; we are something else that often happens to be in between.
I see things this way:
1) The social difference is that the NDP stands for turning society into a series of collectivities in which those without a connection, and those whose connection the left doesn’t recognize are left out in the cold, while we stand for enhancing the liberty of all.
2) The economic difference is that the NDP stands for completely rewiring our economic system, whereas we recognize the genius and freedom of capitalism.
3) The systemic difference needs to be that we are a party that is truly committed to democracy, from tail (ensuring our party becomes the most fair and democratic) to tip (ensuring that Parliament holds government accountable, and is itself held accountable, even when it does not serve our own interests). Democracy is a liberal principle, not a socialist one and we need to take it back and enforce its dictates brutally.
1) The social difference is that the CPC stands for trying to dial society back to an era where liberalism was even more imperfect, and majoritarianism could rule. Again, individuals who fail to be in the (real, perceived, or rigged) majority are excluded. Liberals stand for everyone. The Conservative claim to care about individual freedom and responsibility is high on my list for future debunking.
2) The economic difference is that the CPC (Harper’s willingness to pander aside) stands for unchecked economic “freedom” that would leave the less fortunate (or, increasingly, the not-rich) to “free” fend for themselves in a system that would be even further rigged against them. We understand that capitalism is the worst form of economic organization, except for all the others that have been tried.
3) The systemic difference needs to be that we are a party that is truly committed to democracy, from tail (ensuring our party becomes the most fair and democratic) to tip (ensuring that Parliament holds government accountable, and is itself held accountable, even when it does not serve our own interests). Democracy is a liberal principle, not a Conservative one, and we need to take it back and enforce its dictates brutally.
The one place where liberalism is definitely a true middle, rather than different, ground between the other two ideologies is in the role of the state. Unlike the NDP, we are aware enough to recognize that the state may have shortcomings, and to have a preference for allowing individuals to make their own choices; unlike the CPC, we understand how incredibly important it is for us to come together as a people to better our common good.
Though I would reject “centrism” as an end, rather than a coincidence, I do not mean to reject pragmatism, at least in one particular sense; Liberals, over the years, have correctly not allowed the perfect to become the enemy of the good. It represents one of our true strengths over our opponents when wielded correctly. We should be comfortable making incremental progress, or taking the best deal available if accepting that deal is the only way to progress our goals. Pragmatism can become a weakness, however, if deal making becomes an end to itself in one of two ways. First, if we accept a deal without really getting anything in return; for example, in the current Parliament it seems stunningly unlikely there will be opportunities for us to agree with other parties unless their policies actually coincide with ours, because we have nothing to offer them. The CPC has no need of our votes, and the NDP won’t be accomplishing anything anyway. Second, pragmatism must never be allowed to slow us down in our mission to deliver a more just and successful society. Those pointing to the failure of full Democratic control of government from 2008-2010 to deliver larger successes in certain areas make arguments along this line that should be listened to, if not necessarily accepted as accurate given the complexity of the realities of the situation. Pragmatism where necessary, but not necessarily pragmatism.
I really believe we can take back the Canada we want by driving in our own direction, rather than trying to mediate between the visions of others. We’re not always going to agree, and you won’t agree with everything I’ve suggested; but we know the same thing goes on in the other two parties, if to a lesser extent, and for all the wrong reasons. What we need to do is work from principle, so that both Liberals and Canadians understand where our vision comes from, and why the applications to specific issues are what they are. We also need to start seeing the politics as the country as something to try to move in our direction, rather than just races to win; we need to develop policies that we believe will make people free, and then try to get those policies enacted for their own sake. We need to build our institutional capacity to achieve these goals.
This is going to be an interesting five years for a lot of the wrong reasons, unless the Conservative caucus is nothing like we know they are. But it can also be interesting for a lot of the right reasons if Liberals, liberals, and those who don’t yet realize that they’re either or both can all come together to build something far better than what we had before. The Liberal Party of Canada has achieved much for Canada and for the world; we can do it again.