In search of Canadian liberalism

When a bunch of people gathered in Montreal last weekend to figure out what Canadian political liberalism is, it presented a paradox. You'd only go if you knew you were a liberal. But if you don't know what liberalism is, how can you tell you are one?

I'm not criticizing the conference. It was thoroughly justified, politically and intellectually, by the maxim that if you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else. I just think Liberals should also ponder the deeper point that if you don't know who you are, it might be somebody else there in the mirror.

Whoever it is, it's not a classical liberal. But I don't want any libertarians shouting "Stop thief" respecting the label. It will distract us from discussing what liberalism is, why its program has changed since Victoria ruled India, and what nevertheless lies at its core.

I submit that the essence of liberalism is liberation. Liberation from specific restraints in specific circumstances, certainly. But a more general endorsement of Rousseau's "Man is born free but is everywhere in chains."

And liberalism in this country has another traditional quality that, while less central, is very important to the current project. Unlike their colleagues in many countries, Canadian Liberals have consistently fought the socialists politically and intellectual because, ironically, of a favourite saying of socialist icon Tommy Douglas: "The trouble with socialists is that they let their bleeding hearts go to their bloody heads."

In my view the rebirth of Canadian liberalism must start here, with the hard heads. Back in 2005, a famous Canadian-born Harvard professor sternly reminded the federal Liberal biennial convention that Liberals know how to say "No." I say that means no to special interests, to voters, and to their own bad ideas, wrong impulses or mistaken paths. Especially as you must be tough-minded about where you've been to see where you should be going.

Here's where you've been. First, 19th century classical liberals identified Rousseau's chains with feudal restraints on economic freedom. Politically they succeeded in removing most barriers to freedom of contract but it didn't work out metaphysically even if it did make us all much richer.

Early 20th-century interventionist liberals then decided the main chain was material want. Politically they succeeded in creating massive social programs but that didn't work out metaphysically and it's not doing well fiscally either.

Finally, late 20th-century social liberals decided, on the analogy of the civil rights movement, that the chains keeping us from authentic freedom were primarily those of social exclusion. Now if you liberals are comfortable with the prissy tone and coercive apparatus of political correctness, I have nothing more to say to you except you clearly don't know how to say no to dangerous foolishness.

So before we continue, gaze hard into the mirror and ask how the person looking back at you feels about Ann Coulter being silenced at the University of Ottawa.

I grant that she's obnoxious. But if you believe a university can be dedicated to the pursuit of truth and at the same time create a "safe space" where no militant progressive ever hears a discouraging word, with unruly crowds as the enforcement mechanism, you have no use for ideas anyway.

Otherwise, let's revisit Rousseau's "chain" issue. I presume none of you now think that dramatically reducing state intervention might knock off mankind's fetters. But are you tough-minded enough to admit that the current welfare state is holding us back from creative policy, and blighting lives, by costing too much and delivering too little?

Remember, in your glory days Liberals didn't break the bank in pursuit of social justice. Instead you fended off the NDP with fiscal prudence and the Conservatives with compassion. (And if you can truly get spending under control while the Tories wallow in red ink, you will once again consign those hapless chumps to the political wilderness the way you used to.)

What, then, of social justice? Well, if big social programs are working badly at excessive cost, you need to do a much better job of identifying specific social "choke points" keeping people from fulfilling their potential, and slashing what doesn't work. Pension reform obviously commands your attention. But so does education reform, health care reform, welfare reform and smaller, smarter economic intervention.

I'm not saying it will be easy. I'm not even saying it's possible.

I personally endorse Aleksandr Herzen's tart retort to Rousseau's dream of transforming human existence: "Fish were born to fly, yet everywhere they swim." But that's a topic for a conference on Canadian Conservative political thought.

Speaking of paradoxes.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson