By Christopher Jordan-Stevens
Left of Centre-Left: A reply to Hugh Mackenzie’s “Listen Up! Conservatives do not need liberal-lite“
While reading—and enjoying—Hugh Mackenzie’s opinion piece I was frustrated, though not surprised, to find a misrepresentation of left-of-centre ideology. This was frustrating, in part, because of Mr. Mackenzie’s own insistence on correcting certain stereotypes that are often associated with conservatism. For him to turn around and obfuscate the opposing position is not only hypocritical, but also counterproductive. Then again, fighting a straw soldier will always be easier than fighting a real one.
For starters, I should say that I do agree with Mr. Mackenzie on one crucial point: being a committed conservative does not exclude one from having progressive social beliefs—at least not per se. In fact, I would wager that when it came to appointing Andrew Sheer as its leader, the conservative party misjudged the willingness of Canadians to embrace a socially conservative leader.
Rather, it’s Mr. Mackenzie’s political analysis that needs correction. He writes, “So, what is the real difference between a Liberal and a Conservative and why is it important? The main difference, as I have said many times, is that Conservatives believe that government should not be all things for all people. Limited government is better than excessive government.”
If Hugh Mackenzie’s political affiliation was ever a mystery to you, it shouldn’t be now. According to his analysis, being left of centre means two things.
First, government is all things for all people. Though I have always suspected a hidden Bolshevik contingent in the liberal party—I’m looking at you Trudeau senior!—I’ve never had real confirmation until now. And as someone who regularly votes left of Liberal—yes, I am a millennial—I am suddenly overcome by a crisis of conscience.
Perhaps the second attribute of leftist politics will relieve me of my worry. Nope. According to Mr. Mackenzie, Liberals believe not in regulation, but in something called “excessive” government, a phrase which almost certainly indicates a question begging premise. So not only is a Liberal government all things for all people, it is also “excessive”. I never knew that we Canadians owned the means of production in this country. I wish someone would’ve told me earlier. Workers of the World Unite!
Modification one: as a leftist, I do not believe that the government is all things for all people. In a democracy, a government reflects the will of the public. The government, in turn, is responsible for making society just and fair. Policies are imposed on society by society in the interest of fairness and justice. And guess what? Making society just and fair is incredibly expensive. That’s why taxes exist. Conservatives and Liberals disagree about how to make society just and fair, not that it should be so. They, therefore, disagree about the allocation of resources, tax policies, and the degree of regulation in commerce.
Conservatives are often defined by the belief that less government is better for the economy and, thus, for society as a whole. Leftists like me, on the other hand, believe that private interests need to be kept in check; otherwise the policies underpinning our social order will reflect those private interests instead of the social good. Not surprisingly, I believe that class inequality needs to be addressed, not by stimulating the private sector with massive tax cuts, but by making sure that the rules of engagement are fair and lucrative for everyone. I also believe that a climate crisis can only be addressed by organizational bodies that are mandated to reflect and protect the social good.
Modification two: speaking as someone who is left of centre-left, I do not believe in excessive government. I believe that the government should be involved to the extent that it must in order to make society just and fair. I also believe that individual freedoms need to be restricted to that same extent. Instead of working maximizing individual freedoms, I believe that a government should focus on maximizing equality, justice, and fairness. But don’t worry, justice and fairness cannot exist without individual freedoms.
The thing is, many people think of a community as a collection of self-interested individuals and, in thinking it, they make it true. Call this the ‘atoms-in-the-void’ view. But the atoms-in-the-void view is a false way of looking at the world. Individuals, and so family units, are first and foremost products of their communities. Without communities, there is no language, no education, no law, no justice, no money, no science, no health care, no art, no ethics, no economy—nothing, in a word, that makes us human. And without humanity, there are no individual humans either. That means that we fundamentally belong to a larger family before we belong even to our own. That family is our community and each of its members bear responsibility to the other. That’s why I believe that we are morally obligated to take less of a slice when it means that others can have more—yes, even if we “earned” that slice.
So, Mr. Mackenzie, I respectfully reject your definitions. I do not believe that government is all things for all people. Nor do I believe in “excessive” government interference. But to the extent that promotes a just and fair society—and, admittedly, it often fails at that—I do believe that the government, i.e. the will of the public, should dictate the rules of the game. When it’s working well, it’s not an alien force infringing on your freedoms. If anything, a republic builds the stadium in which our freedom can be enacted.
I would also like to mention something about ‘debt’. After describing the political landscape, Mr. Mackenzie goes on to point out that the Canadian national debt has gone up significantly under the Liberal Government. Predictably, Mr. Mackenzie is critical of that kind of spending.
It’s much more complex, of course. In Canada, the net-debt/GDP ratio is 34 per cent, which is comparable, and usually lower than, all other G7 countries. When you calculate provincial and municipal debt that number can jump to 88 per cent, which is still business as usual for a developed country in a modern economy. The net-debt/GDP ratio of the USA for example is 106.7 per cent. And Japan—the third largest economy in the world—has a net-debt/GDP ratio of 237.5 per cent. Could the government spend more efficiently? Of course! But they could also collect more efficiently. And I suspect that sovereign debt is partially indicative of corporate power run amok; when corporations and banks can hold governments hostage—indeed, when they can consolidate power and expunge competition—they become a lot harder to appropriately regulate and tax.
But to be honest, in most contexts I find that the squabbling around debt and spending is vulgar. A government is not (as the above should make clear) a company or a household. (That’s part of the reason why some economists believe that GDP is not the be-all-end-all indicator of a country’s economic performance). So, I’m not going to quarrel about debt when, for one, many First Nations communities don’t have access to clean drinking water. And, while we are at it, I should mention the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. More broadly, Canada is dealing with food insecurity, and opioid addiction, and lack of affordable housing, and income inequality and well… you know, our impending terrestrial doom. You get the point.
Or maybe you—the general ‘you’—don’t. So here it is:
I’m not going to parade around an absolute number as an indication of fiscal irresponsibility when human rights are being violated or left unaddressed.
See it’s simple: each person—i.e. every person, without qualification—deserves to be treated with dignity. So, if human beings require x in order to exist with dignity, then x is a human right. Here, x is a place holder for many essential ingredients, including liberty, freedom from slavery, education, adequate housing, healthcare, etc.
For anyone questioning the validity of human rights—or for those who see it as an extension of entitlement—I would urge you to consider the alternatives to this principle: A) only some deserve to be treated with dignity or B) no one deserves to be treated with dignity. If human history has taught us anything—likely, it hasn’t—it’s that any attempt to delineate the desiderata for being worthy of respect leads to horrors beyond comprehension. That rules out (A). And as for (B), I would go so far to wager that without the idea of basic human rights, in either its restricted or universal form, we are little more than a blistering swarm of meat-socks spinning in the void. (B) is not worth entertaining.
My point: some issues need to be taken care of whatever the cost. Our dignity depends on it. Maybe that priority is a ‘liberal’ or leftist one, I don’t know. And it doesn’t matter. Because from a moral standpoint, the question ‘who’s going to pay for it?’ should always be met with a resounding and proud ‘we are!’
Chris Jordan-Stevens is a researcher, educator, and writer. He holds a PhD in Philosophy. He grew up in Muskoka and has since returned home to Huntsville.
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