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Statism Isn't Liberalism

George Jonas

National Post

7 October 2006

I rarely write about Canada's Liberals for the simple reason that I'm a liberal myself -- more accurately, I am, and they're not. I'm a classical liberal, usually described as a neo- or libertarian-conservative, which I'm not; big- L Liberals are statists, persistently described as "small-l" liberals, which they aren't. The remark that CCFers (later known as NDPers) were "merely Liberals in a hurry" -- variously ascribed to Louis St. Laurent and to Mackenzie King -- is pretty accurate, whoever said it, and it shouldn't be.

I hope you got this straight.

Turning it around, one could say that Canada's Liberals are merely socialists in slow motion -- and in the last 35 years their motion hasn't even been particularly slow. In fairness, during the same period, socialism-in-slow-motion was also the story of Canada's Progressive ("me-too") Conservatives. Until the advent of Preston Manning and, especially, Stephen Harper, the PCs were a Red Tory tail wagging a gritty blue dog. The tail was eager and bushy; the dog bedraggled and bewildered. Now Stephen Harper has clipped the tail and is trying to teach the old dog new tricks. Conventional wisdom says you can't -- but then, it's also conventional wisdom that you shouldn't always believe conventional wisdom.

All that's a subject for another day. Today's story is Canada's socialists-in-slow-motion, a.k.a Liberals, electing a new leader. They're certainly well-advised to do so, because their old skippers, Jean Chretien and his successor, Paul Martin, even as they were escorted off the bridge, still had their eyes riveted to a radar scope frozen in the 1960s and '70s, which isn't the best way to steer the ship of state across the treacherous waters of the 21st century.

The emerging hopefuls -- Michael Ignatieff in front, Bob Rae a rather distant second, with Gerard Kennedy and Stephane Dion bunched up behind -- aren't exactly shoo-ins yet, any of them, but if I were a bookie, I'd fancy their chances, especially Ignatieff's. Things aren't always what they seem, but usually they are, and the horse that looks like a winner on paper tends to be in the money on the track. (They say horses don't read the racing form, but it's not true. "They have their noses buried in it, dear boy, day and night," an Irish trainer told me once.)

So the racing form says it will be Mr. Ignatieff or perhaps Mr. Rae leading Canada's socialists-in-slow-motion as the 20th century recedes. If Mr. Rae gets the nod, statism will come naturally to him. As the former NDP leader of Ontario, he'll just revert to it. Mr. Ignatieff's route to statism will be more challenging, but he'll manage.

What exactly is a statist? A person who doesn't think that walking on the grass should ever be simply permitted. Walking on the grass should either be forbidden or compulsory. Oh boy. Can someone be a charming statist, you ask? Yes, provided one is like the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Both front-runners are brainy chaps, and so is Mr. Dion. They're brainy not only as politicians go; they would be viewed as high-IQ even in an assembly of actuaries. Mr. Trudeau would have been, too, of course. Certain errors (as I've written in a different context before) require high IQs.

What errors? The first was the belief that the enemies of liberalism were all on the right side of the political spectrum. Liberals thought that -- as the French saying has it -- "there's no enemy on the left." This made them vulnerable to the influence of socialist-type statism. They tried to be better than fair, which is like trying to be straighter than vertical.

Eventually, they bent so far backwards looking for social and economic justice that they just toppled over.

Liberals tried to cook a dish by keeping the ingredients raw and separate: multiculturalism. They tried to balance one injustice with another: affirmative action. They abandoned the individual as the focal point of humanity's quest for liberty and justice, and focused instead on the group. Rather than equality for each person, they sought parity for every racial, sexual or ethnic aggregate.

Liberals lost sight of the fact that, while equality is a liberal idea, capable of fulfilment in a free society, parity is an illiberal notion that requires coercion to achieve. Guaranteeing opportunity is liberal; guaranteeing outcome is illiberal. It's as simple as that, but they didn't see it.

They didn't see that super-liberal policies often have sub-liberal consequences. Start out by making your borders porous for humanitarian reasons; end up by having to deny legal safeguards to immigrants suspected of subversion. Case in point: Maher Arar. But they didn't see it.

Do the current aspirants show any sign of seeing it? Well, a tic, maybe.

Here's the point. The Liberals have been in power for 44 of the 61 post-war years for a reason. Canada is a liberal country. Not statist, liberal. Unless this generation of Liberal leaders re-discover liberalism, as the Conservatives have, Canada's "natural" governing party may be setting out on a long voyage across the political wilderness.

National Post 2006

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