Category Archives: Politics

Essays on politics and current events.

The Problem with Identity Politics

It wasn’t long ago that one would hear it said the world will be a different place when women are in charge. But then came the masculine regimes of Indira Gandhi — from whom a politician as dirty and ruthless as Richard Nixon recoiled — and Margaret Thatcher. From then forward, the essentialist claim that female leadership is distinct from its male counterpart could be put forward only with laboured qualifications and irony.

Continue reading The Problem with Identity Politics

Ron Paul: The Dave Matthews Band of American Politics

I shrink a bit when I recall my twenty-year old self. It’s a character-forming exercise, recalling the supreme confidence of one’s “formative years,” and for this reason and others I should probably do it more often. The universal style of youth is of course unshakable commitment to simple ideas, the enthusiastic throwing of one’s arms around a slogan. It’s this style precisely of which I’m reminded when I behold the ever-hopeful and ever-futile efforts of Ron Paul.

Continue reading Ron Paul: The Dave Matthews Band of American Politics

I Give You Mr. Charles McVety

Readers of this humble column of mine know that as a matter of principle I defend the right to unfettered expression of any and all persons, regardless of point-of-view. The other and necessary half of this social compact requires that I subject to deliberation the jingoism, fear-mongering, and stupidity which from time to time result when this right is exercised. And so, Dear Reader, I give you Mr. Charles McVety. Continue reading I Give You Mr. Charles McVety

The Koch Brothers: Drinking Your Milkshake

Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of oil tycoon Daniel Plainview was six years in the future when real-life tycoons, the Koch brothers Charles and David, were found guilty of drinking their milkshake from federal government and Indian reserve lands. To call them “oilmen” is to bring them down somewhat: the Koch (Coke, not Kotch) brothers have business dealings in chemicals, lumber, minerals, ranching, pulp and paper, fertilizers, polymers, finance, investments, and commodity trading, as well as in the refinement and distribution of petroleum products. Among the five wealthiest Americans, the Kochs control America’s second-largest privately-held company. It was Koch brother Bill who issued the charge of stealing against Koch Industries, for which service he was awarded one-third of the 2001 $25 million settlement. Well, as they say, money goes where money is. David and Charles in 1983 had bought out the shares of brothers Bill and Frederick for $1.1 billion, so a windfall probably wasn’t the issue. Other considerations appear to make the Koch family tick as well. Continue reading The Koch Brothers: Drinking Your Milkshake

The Flanagan Slip

Arriving at precisely the moment the quite probable hand of Mossad has been discerned murdering Iranian scientists in, as they say, broad daylight on the streets of Tehran, Tom Flanagan’s call for the assassination of Julian Assange is remarkable only for the lathered and laboured shock with which it has been received. If you doubt there is already an ad-hoc CIA cell at some point between prophase and telophase, just in case, you haven’t been paying much attention to real-world geopolitics. Julian Assange is a wanted man, and the people by whom he is wanted have much more than Mr. Flanagan’s meagre ounces to put behind the shove. Continue reading The Flanagan Slip

Just Say No To The War On Drugs

On November 2, California voters will be given an opportunity to vote upon Proposition 19, the “Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010,” thereby rendering a verdict upon legalization of the possession and consumption of marijuana, under certain conditions and restrictions. Proposition 19 may well fail, and the legalization of marijuana may be years or even decades away, but the era of drug legalization is coming. There is nothing — nothing — one can do to prevent that inevitable day from arriving. The reason is simple: the “war on drugs” is at best a stupid and expensive failure, and at worst a piece of dangerous propaganda, used to justify American military actions in Latin America and elsewhere. Every day, more of us enter the coalition of the knowing. The cause of drug legalization is so plainly correct, and so rational, that it appeals across the political spectrum: among its many advocates have been Tommy Chong, Christopher Hitchens (both during and after his Socialist International days), David Frum, and William F. Buckley. Continue reading Just Say No To The War On Drugs

Michael Ignatieff: You Can’t Have It Both Ways

Some hours ago, votes were cast upon Liberal Member of Parliament John McKay’s Bill C-300, “An Act respecting Corporate Accountability for the Activities of Mining, Oil or Gas in Developing Countries.” First introduced to the House of Commons on February 9, 2010, during the 2nd session of the 40th Parliament, and re-introduced on March 3, 2010, the bill was designed to hold Canada-based mining companies subsidized by Government accountable for human rights abuses committed abroad. The bill was defeated 140 to 134.

In September, former Liberal MP John Manley published a rebuttal of C-300, arguing that “the bill could result in […] companies losing business to corporations based elsewhere that do not have the same regard for environmental, safety and human rights standards” and “that it would encourage mining companies to locate in jurisdictions with less regulation and no commitment to corporate social responsibility.” Manley is today President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, a group which promotes the views and interests of (among others) Canada’s mining companies. Continue reading Michael Ignatieff: You Can’t Have It Both Ways

The Tea Party Rot

Today in Tupelo, a news agency reported the following words of Elizabeth Smith.

I’m so hurt about what’s going on in our country. It’s hurt my heart. I was so patriotic as a child. It makes me cry cause I have grandchildren coming up they’re not going to have what I had.

What Ms Smith has, and what she presumes her grandchildren will have not, is uniquely American: the world’s most expensive and most technologically advanced health care system — a system which bids millions of uninsured citizens Best of Luck (while still outspending all other countries per capita to get inferior outcomes) and which manages furthermore to bring into co-habitation the inefficiencies both of the public and private spheres, with few of either’s advantages.

Well, never mind that. Let’s cry with Ms Smith and her fellow Tea Party protesters over the forthcoming triumph of more efficient, universal, single-payer insurance. Let’s tear our garments and roll in the dust, our spirits broken by the diminished corpulence of the country’s 1,300 private insurers, whose profit hungry bureaucrats, CEOs, and investors devour thirty percent of every health care dollar.

I am able to respect a difference of opinion when it is informed by intelligence and principle. But concerning the health care debate, isn’t it rather time for the J’accuse which will dissect these Tea Party Neanderthals? No: worse even than that, for their tropes are not simply unintelligent or under-developed. They are plump with the malevolent blue veins of racist innuendo and other bigotry.

It takes a certain vileness of character, for example, to introduce into a health care debate the immoral cuteism “Obama-Bin-Lyin” or the birther charge that the President is a Kenyan Stalinist. Or to de-historicize the proper noun Nazi, as if it could ever be a respectable synonym for over-reaching government. The Tea Party protestors are not morally serious, but their fear and loathing of all that is foreign or in any way different are genuine. They appear to know nothing of the cultures, histories, or health care systems of the world beyond, nor to care to. Enough for them are ahistorical and closed-minded prejudices — that the Founding Fathers were a uniform cast of pious Christian evangelicals, that America has nothing to learn from the rest of the world, and that a wink toward the foreign pedigree of anything is sufficient to render it contemptible. This is the deeper rot beneath this xenophobic movement’s willful abuses of language, and those of us familiar with the Germany of the 20s and 30s know rot when we see it. For these are not the unfortunate mischaracterizations of ill-informed bumpkins. The people who level these charges know precisely what they mean to say, and their filth ought therefore to be given none of the benefits of doubt.

They are hateful people, and civilized folks everywhere ought to be saying so.

Ontario Under the Harris Government

WHENEVER THE TOPIC turns to politics I am thoughtful of this aphorism, written by H.L. Mencken: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” So far as I know, Premier Mike Harris has never offered his definition of democracy. Yet I imagine if he did offer it, it would come out something like that – dressed up perhaps, but not substantially different.

Democracy is one of those words, and there are many, whose meaning is inseparable from its speaker. I am led to understand, by the local MP, that democracy consists in sending a representative to Ottawa for 5 years because you fancy him brilliant and competent, hence able to act as a matter of course on your behalf. Labour leaders appear to define democracy in relation to their wages and benefits, which doubtless offers a scientific means of measuring precisely what quantity of democracy we’ve got at any given moment. My mock-favourite definition however comes from Samuel P. Huntington’s The Crisis of Democracy, and could fairly be called an ‘elite’ view. Here, democracy designates a general uppityness to be contained by government, that is, bankers, heads of state, and the CIA. In other words: Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and we must keep them from getting it.

The first thing to notice about these definitions is that they are all rather self-serving, and the last thing to notice is that they don’t get us very far on the road to a useful understanding of democracy. I begin with these considerations of democracy because what you think of Mike Harris is related to what you conceive democratic government to be. One’s definition of democracy involves a value judgement, and this value judgement extends not only to government in the abstract, but to particular governments as well. If you believe democratic government means higher wages for unionized workers, you’re not likely to be a Harris supporter. I do not claim this is impossible, only that it is not very likely. Democracy is not an object, and we do not regard it objectively. Even the commonplace definition, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’, only introduces more controversy. What do you mean by government? – representation, or direct rule? And so on and so on.

As the title of this essay suggests, I am not interested in democracy or government in themselves, but instead in Ontario under the Harris government. This is a specific topic, and calls for specific language. Already the debate has stagnated, one team asserting the Death of Democracy and the other, quite incongruously, retorting, If you think so, save it till the next election! (There are other teams as well, yelling from the sidelines.) They are speaking past one another, because they have incompatible assumptions. Is there anything to be said of Ontario under Harris which goes beyond this sorry state of affairs?

There are some remarkable facts about Mike Harris that are worthy of recollection. For instance his CV: Born in Toronto in 1945, briefly studied math and science at Waterloo Lutheran University (1 year), ski instructor, attended teacher’s college, public school teacher, Chair of Nipissing Board of Education, President of the Northern Ontario School Trustees Association, professional golfer and golf-shop manager, owner of a tourist resort and ski centre. What is remarkable about this? Only that it is not remarkable. It does not point in any direction. The next entry could as easily be accountant or hotel manager or disc jockey as it could politician. Harris is a Premier ex nihilo (or ‘deus ex machina’ if you prefer). He came from nowhere, unlike the majority of Canadian politicians, whose CVs, one feels, destined them to become leaders. This is the case with politicians as far apart in temperament, class, and ideology as Sir John A. MacDonald, Tommy Douglas, Preston Manning, and John Chrètien. Consider the CV of the man who Harris replaced, Bob Rae: Born in Ottawa in 1948, son of an ambassador, summer work as a Parliament guide in 1966, studied at U of T, involved in student politics, attended Oxford (Balliol) and again U of T (Law School), briefly practiced labour law before running first as a Federal NDP candidate (in 1978) and afterward as a Provincial NDP candidate. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is enough to establish the point: Harris is a different species of politician, even an anti-politician. This is the key to understanding the nature of his government and Ontario’s support for his agenda.

There is nothing inherently wrong or right with the route Mike Harris has taken to Queen’s Park. I have not put Harris beside Rae in order to disparage one or elevate the other. They differ, and Bob Rae is the more typical politician of the two. Harris has been often ridiculed, unfairly I think, for being little more than a jock. The revelation that his reading consists exclusively of Mr Silly and He Shoots, He Scores was attended by snobbish ridicule, but one should understand this is part of his appeal. If Bob Rae is a certain recognizable type of man, the ‘millionaire Socialist,’ so too is Harris a certain type of man. He is the man who comes riding into town to shake things up. Essential to this role is his status as an outsider. Indeed, what we are discussing here is an archetype. Harris is Perseus, come to slay Medusa, or John Wayne, come to set things right (or, more recently, William Munny of Unforgiven). For reasons that are easy enough to guess, the archetype is fondly regarded especially among the corporate elite, of whom ‘Chainsaw’ Al Dunlop is the most infamous example. To some the archetype is repellent, and it is interesting to read Rae’s memoirs and find him arguing against Harris, armed with Edmund Burke’s writings on the French Revolution. Rae’s principal grievance against Harris is not that he is too ‘conservative’, whatever that means, but that he doesn’t see the useful and positive aspects of the things he has set out to reform. Why? ‘Ideology’ is Rae’s answer; Harris has come riding into town, determined to impose his vision of justice.

This helps us to analyse Harris the ‘revolutionary,’ whose arrival for many was long overdue. What Ontario needs, according both to his supporters and detractors, is Change. At the bottom of this vague call for change is a generalized hostility toward bureaucracy in general and government in particular. Mike Harris appeals to that part of each of us that has patiently endured the irrationalities, injustices, and arbitrariness of the System. This is not a left vs. right nor rich vs. poor issue, but rather transcends political and class affiliations. We all know what it’s like to deal with ‘Big Government.’ Canadians have a shared sense that their governments are not working. This shared sense is a Common Sense in every meaning of the phrase. Every day an Ontarian tells his houseguests about the absurd encounter he’s just had with the bureaucrats, and they all shake their heads and commiserate because, as they say, they’ve been there too. It’s so obvious to us what’s wrong, why don’t the politicians get it? The answer is usually that they don’t get it because they’re ‘part of the system.’ If only someone like us, an outsider, could be in charge. That is the fantasy, and it’s revolutionary in the sense that the bureaucratic elite by definition are never one of us.

Change is the universal language. The working poor would like some things to change and so would the Canadian Bankers Association. Ontario voters swim in every direction, but cast a wide enough net, such as the promise of change, and you’ll catch them. The Harris government’s strategy tells us much about Ontario. Harris is not a reformer, he is a terminator. He is a politician against politicians, a governor against government, a public servant against public service. In no other career may you reasonably expect to succeed on the basis of your professed dislike of the profession. Who would hire a Doctor who promises to stamp out the practice of medicine? What would you make of a writer motivated by a dislike of books? Such things suggest that an odd psychology is at work. Does the public like Ontario, and perhaps even Ontarians, so little that they wish the White Horseman of the Apocalypse to pass through and give it to them good and hard? Rhetorically this is of course extreme, but one should be conscious of the fact that the year 2000 approaches. Fin de siècle mass psychology is not lightly to be dismissed. It infects everything, including the computer-programming profession. Today it would seem the end is at hand; only the means are disputed. Will it be the deficit or the debt? Inflation? Perhaps global warming or El Niño? Or will special interest groups, or international terrorism, or global competition, or AIDS, or the flesh-eating disease, destroy us all? And let us not forget the Quebec Separatists. And on and on and on and on. Nor does mass psychology yield to the so-called educated, who are busy churning out books with titles asserting ‘The End of’ – as in The End of Work and The End of History. Do such psychological conditions perhaps call forth a certain type of politician?

While I suspect the millennium informs the current political mood, I don’t feel it’s a satisfactory explanation of that mood. But the mood itself is unmistakable. We are anxious, cranky, impatient, frustrated, and restless. We have good reasons to be. Furthermore, where reasons have been lacking, Harris has been obliged to come to our assistance. We are oppressed, he has told us, by big government in the service of special interests, the latter meaning organized labour, women’s groups, environmentalists, misguided advocates of the poor and disabled, and welfare recipients. On the principle that a man declares himself by the enemies that he keeps, we can learn much from this litany. The chief thing to note is that each of the groups in this list represents a net social cost; these people seem always to be demanding, in popular parlance, a ‘handout.’ Labour wants wage increases, women’s groups want pay equity and funding for shelters, environmentalists want to curb production and to spend money on conservation, the disabled want more ramps, etc., etc. In their relation to government and society, they are demanders and dependants, like children. They are seen to take more than they contribute. No doubt these last 2 sentences are offensive. Nonetheless, it stands that Mike Harris is repulsed by what we may term ‘maternal relations,’ which is precisely how he construes the coddling welfare state. (In August 1995, he complained that mothers on welfare ‘do not work.’ Paula Todd was present and asked him what his mother did all day, but there was no answer.) Nor does he care for poverty because it is to him ugly and offensive, as, let’s be honest, it is to most if not all of us. Our instinctive reaction to the poor is to wish they were otherwise. Their principal effect is to bring out feelings in us we prefer not to have: especially anxiety and disgust. The function of political discourse is to exorcise these feelings and thereby make us feel things can change.

Since I’ve lived in a city with a good number of poor people, I will do as an example of the psychology I am describing. As I’m out walking a homeless man comes into view. I suspect he will want money. My first impulse is to cross the street, or at least move to the further edge of the sidewalk. It is not the money itself that is the issue. I avoid eye contact because he is a different species of being. (The street homeless are mostly male, by the way; women tend to flee into marriage and/or prostitution). His difference makes me suspect he may be dangerous, or mad, or both. In any case, I am sure he is not of my class, and this makes him offensive. He is dirty and no doubt smells bad, and anyway, the encounter would be terribly awkward because I could not possibly strike up a conversation with him. This latter detail sounds trivializing, but for the middle classes it is a devastating indictment, no less serious than physical repulsiveness. And so I pass. I am not finished with him, however, for now something else happens. I begin to wonder about his life story. What brought him to this? Where did things go wrong? Could it happen also to me? This is an unpleasant thought, so I flatter myself that, given his fortunes, I would nonetheless overcome. I even imagine myself, in a momentary fantasy, doing so. I embrace the myth of the self-made man, and I tell myself that he could better himself also, if only he made an effort. Notice that up close I find him unpleasant and pitiful, but from a safe distance I overcome the unpleasantness and the pity by means of a mental exercise. The principal function of the psychological twists and turns I have briefly described is to minimize my discomfort. I begin by feeling fear and disgust, but by the end I have convinced myself that he perhaps deserves his fate, or at least that my charity won’t make a difference. And I find solace in the conviction that he, and others like him, would cease to be a blight on our streets if they just made an effort.

I do not believe any of this nonsense. I feel it, as I feel wishfully the world would be a better place if only people behaved differently. Such is the stuff of the Common Sense Revolution. Harris wishes sincerely that the special interests shall go away, for their own good, by behaving differently. And he will force them to behave differently if he must, because he is the tough-loving father who knows what is best. Please note I am not endorsing the current cliché that Mike Harris hates women. Rather, he is nostalgic for the mythical 1950s, when father’s common sense was unchallenged and brought to the home peace and prosperity. That the 1950s ‘worked’ is held to be self-evident. The ‘progressive agenda’ thereby is associated with dissolution of the family and the rot that naturally follows. Harris thus trivializes dissension not only because that is what leaders do, but because his familial model tells him the children should only be expected to make a fuss. The essential thing is to maintain your authority, because in this rests the cohesion of the family. The children will protest, and you may listen as a loving father when they do, but it would be irresponsible of you, and dangerous to the interests of the family, if you let them each run her own life as she saw fit. Your job, as father, is to guide them along and keep things together.

Extrapolate from this and you’ll have a coherent conception of democracy. It is a literally home-made and not elite view. Mike Harris mistrusts the scholar-expert and disparages political theory, while he respects the practical. His ideal person, as the Ontario cabinet indicates, dropped out of school before learning too much and made the first $1 million or inherited it by age 30. Regarding professional enemies, the career advocates for the poor for instance, he dislikes their ‘elitism,’ that is, their impractical university education. The idea of a business elite makes little sense to him because the corporate culture in which he lives has mythologized the drop-out. What matters is practical knowledge, preferably got in the School of Hard Knocks. The poor and their advocates are united in Harris’s mythology by a lack of practical (read ‘common’) sense, which alone keeps them from getting ahead in the world. People like them must be forced to swim, and then to swim in a certain direction, for their own good. Mike Harris’s conception of democracy is a paradox: manufactured populism. Consensus and cohesion are its touchstones, but not a consensus and cohesion brought about by active mediation between opposing views. Instead, consensus in his view is something into which the passive citizen ought to be delivered, like a child into its family. This is why Harris chose the metaphor of common sense. How could you possibly disagree with common sense? It is the definition of consensus and as natural for you as your family. Thus, the quintessential Harris challenge is not how to resolve competing interests, but what to do about the black sheep.

No one of these explanations – the family, millennium psychology, anti-government sentiment, masculinist archetypes – captures entirely the character of Ontario under Harris, but each captures something of it. Each tells us a bit about what we are. (By ‘we’ I mean ‘the Ontario public,’ which is of course an abstraction.) Harris is not the cause, but the expression, and when he is gone from public office Ontario will go on. Its character will change in some ways, but in many it will not. We will continue to argue about democracy, and most of us will talk past, rather than to, one another. We will insist that we know what we want, and we will elect folks to give it to us good and hard. [-June 1998]

A View from the Stadium: Politics and Sport

A common view among academic writers, and especially writers of the political left, is that professional sport constitutes a diversion from practical affairs. The consuming public, according to the Diversion Theory, is made stupid and docile by generous outlays of – one can feel the approach of the inevitable phrase from Juvenal – ‘bread and circuses.’ Here I must qualify the discussion with a distinction between sports as recreation and sports as business. The following essay does not consider sports from the view of the participant, but rather from the view of the spectator-consumer. Our topic, major-league spectator sports, is particular. My job in the following paragraphs will be to answer a question: what is the spectator getting these days from sports? Indirectly, however, I shall be attempting to investigate the relation of sports and politics as this relation is described in conventional theory.

Intellectuals, among whom are few sports fans, often give an unflattering answer to the question just posed: what is the spectator getting from sports? Here are some of Umberto Eco’s thoughts on the subject, from a 1980 essay called ‘Sports Chatter’ (published in an excellent book, Travels in Hyperreality):

And since chatter about sport gives the illusion of interest in sport, the notion of practicing sport becomes confused with that of talking sport; the chatterer thinks himself an athlete and is no longer aware that he doesn’t engage in sport. And similarly he isn’t aware that he could no longer engage in it, because the work he does, when he isn’t chattering, tires him and uses up both the physical energy and the time required for sports activities.

You’ve gathered that the sports fan gets from sports, among other things which Eco elsewhere identifies, the illusion that he or she is an athlete. I suspect that this aptly describes a portion of the sports audience. One weakness of Eco’s approach however is that it considers sports from the point of view of one who presumably has risen above the folly he describes. This strategy comes with limitations. I shall attempt to clarify the matter of limitations by transposing Eco’s paragraph into another subject: literature.

And since chatter about literature gives the illusion of interest in literature, the notion of practicing literature becomes confused with that of talking literature; the chatterer thinks himself a writer and is no longer aware that he doesn’t engage in literature. And similarly he isn’t aware that he could no longer engage in it, because the work he does, when he isn’t chattering, tires him and uses up both the physical energy and the time required for literary activities.

I doubt that Eco, or academics in general, would accept this transposed statement. For chatter about literature (or art, or politics, etc.) is precisely how critics show their interest; they furthermore do not suppose this interest an ‘illusion.’ Here we disclose the critical necessity of attempting to understand human behaviour by examining one’s own.

We should be suspicious of the view which reduces all interest in sports to a parody of civic participation. The view is widespread, especially among Marxists – who necessarily suppose that ‘politics’ is a universal human concern. The alternative is to suspect that perhaps The People don’t care much for political affairs, and from this to infer a possible lack of enthusiasm for Marxism itself, or whatever one is promoting. The fan of sport, therefore, must be revealed as expressing his or her political nature. The result is a denigration of the sport spectator, over whom the superior theorist casts a dark shadow. The duped sports fan gets excited, argues about the decisions of the leaders, debates the strengths and weaknesses of outcomes, and urges what ought to be done to improve things. All of this energy is political in nature, but unlike the efforts of the scholarly investigator, it is foolishly misdirected toward an inferior end. Worse, the fan’s behaviour is manipulated by commercial interests: hence, he is not accorded even the attributes of agency. You can see why this reasoning flatters the academic, whose own perspective apparently rises above that of the mob. Eco, who (I think) is not a Marxist, even uses the telling phrase “fake conscience.”

Academic chatter about sports tells us a good deal about the assumptions of academics; it tells us less about the assumptions of fans. Seen from the perspective of the sports fan, professional sports are not a diversion from a more substantial occupation (that is, electoral politics); they are a diversion from tedium and banality. ‘False consciousness’ was a concept invented by Marxists to explain the masses’ complicity in their oppression. At the heart of the concept is the proposition that the people support the ruling classes because they (the people, that is) haven’t got a proper, Marxist understanding of class relations. In other words, to know Marxism is to love it. Needless to say there are other explanations for the rejection of Marxism, most of which concern the character of people who call themselves Marxist. ‘False consciousness’ nonetheless was adopted by critics of various political persuasions as an explanation of mass-behaviour. It allowed one to believe, ‘The People do not submit to me because they do not understand me: they are ignorant.’ Furthermore, false consciousness renders urgent the crusade to enlighten the masses. Academic writing on popular culture often discloses this logic, especially when it concerns political matters from the perspective of the political left. The unpleasant fact for the left is that they often find the behaviour of their beloved masses repulsive. Thus, the masses must be irrational or misinformed, and hence capable of being reformed through the application of rational analysis. Eco does not strike me as the crusading sort, but many critics are missionaries in disguise.

The challenge for the academic, then, is to offer a rational explanation for a behaviour that is considered irrational. The favoured explanation of the academic is that mass behaviour is a distorted version of his or her own; hence, the sports fan is engaged in an irrational parody of a rational human activity. Yet the sports fan’s relation to sport is the same as the academic’s relation to his subject of study. Both relations are rational and gloriously useless. Both reward an intimate knowledge of the discipline’s history, techniques, and rules. Both involve skill, the pursuit of excellence, and above all competition – for a trophy, for jobs, or for scholarly eminence. The literary critic who cleverly discerns a feature of, say, Shakespeare’s genius implicitly puts himself in Shakespeare’s company. The idea is that it takes a certain degree of skill to discern and appreciate skill in others. One reveals his or her genius in the praise of the genius of others. On this foundation rests the reputation of scholars and sports commentators alike. Academics, like sports fans, affiliate themselves with the honoured tradition and are thereby honoured.

If an intellectual feels it necessary to hitch his efforts to High Public Purposes, then we may reasonably suspect that he feels insecure. His insecurity is probably apt, given the unenviable social status of most intellectuals. Sports fans, for their part, are comfortable with the inutility of their pursuits. Indeed, inutility is one of the chief merits of sport for the fan. Sport, we need not be reminded, is play. Politics, we have all learned, is crass; it is about little more than advancing one’s own agenda. At least one is able to enjoy sports, despite the commercialization, and to see in them something more than money- and power-grubbing. It is precisely the academic thesis that ‘everything is political’ which blinds many intellectuals to the positive value of sports and mass culture in general. Many fans see as clearly as the intellectual that sports are political (theirs is not a ‘false’ consciousness), but they choose sports nonetheless and manage to look beyond the politics. The sports themselves are felt by the fan to be good; when however there is no ‘sport in itself,’ but only a manifestation of the political, the rot appears wherever one cares to look. So it is fulfilling even for a casual fan to sit in the stadium and watch the game, while it’s a scandal for the theorist who sees only or mostly political theatre. Both sports and politics offer intellectual stimulation, abundant statistical data, debate, controversy, allies and enemies, and collective endeavour. The principal difference is this: sports do not leave you feeling only that people are vile.

Perhaps the previous line is too harsh. Nonetheless, I think, it makes my point. The public aspect of life, which includes the pundit’s analysis of it, is rather cynical. Professional sport may be the only public good able to command broad respect. We recognize that sport is a business, and that as such it is a private commodity as much as it is a public good. My point is that mass-produced spectator sports often succeed while politics often does not. By ‘often’ I mean that sports command a broader following than politics. I cannot prove this with numbers; it is a conjecture based upon my experience. Furthermore, my definition of success is the following: the ability to produce and substantiate both constructive attitudes and actions toward collective ends. Politics fails because contact with it produces, in many cases, the feeling that the world is filled with shits. It is perhaps healthy to avoid environments that support this feeling, and on this proposal I rest my claim that the sports fan is usually engaged in healthy behaviour. The word ‘usually’ allows for the sports fan who engages in chauvinistic displays of team boosterism, especially where these displays involve violence. Violence tells us something about the psychological condition of the individual fan, and it reminds us that spectator sports invoke deep feeling. But it is clear that deep feelings do not lead by necessity to predetermined acts. In any case, some of the feelings are themselves good – for instance, the sensation of being involved in the pursuit of a shared, worthy good, such as winning the championship. When is the last time politics made you feel something good?

Of course, I’m intellectualizing a feature of contemporary life which is transparent to ordinary folks. I suppose a good many fans would say they like sports because sports are action-packed, interesting, and full of compelling strategy. In other words, they no more feel their pleasure needs analysis and justification than do the critics theirs. Pleasure is pleasure. Nor is there only one sort of pleasure involved in any single field of interest. Sports offer the pleasures of watching, reading, learning, committing facts to memory, and discussing those facts with others. Unlike other forms of knowledge – knowledge of literature, for instance – sports knowledge also constitutes a lingua franca. Sports talk is the language of Common Humanity, and unlike talk of politics, it is usually jovial and at most mock-belligerent in nature. In short, sports yield a useful and engaging discourse among many ordinary, civilized people. And as any intellectual ought to understand, language itself is (among other things) a basic form of human recreation. [-January 1999]

Democracy Makes the Best Television

A university graduate, I have endured years of Theory. That is fine, yet were I given the opportunity I should like to teach in an inductive manner, beginning with observation. What follows are my notes toward a freshman course on Canadian Democracy, in which I consider not the Theory of Democracy, but instead the actual workings of democratic governance in Canada. The two, theory and practice, are no doubt related; one even resembles the other. There are however noteworthy distinctions to be made. Allow me to make them.

The professor often starts with a definition. How is the word democracy understood in actual practice? Well, every few years Canadians are expected to pick from among several choices a political leader. To this end, some TV commercials are produced and a few speeches are made. The politicians have learned to market themselves in the manner Procter and Gamble markets its soaps. Democracy in practice is Show folks the goods and let them select. At election time democracy is a practical affair. You can see physical evidence of an active citizenry. Between elections democracy is more an abstract, or institutional, matter. Having chosen leaders, the public lets the system do its work. Democracy is Parliament Debates and representational government. The people do not govern themselves directly, which would be ‘radical democracy,’ but instead they pick others to act on their behalf. Actual democracy is the result of compromises, between efficiency and equity, between authoritarianism and anarchy, and between idealism and realism. In theory democratic government bends to the will of the majority, who know what’s best. In practice things are much more complicated. Nonetheless, actual democracy does invite the common people to participate in the formation of governments. That is its essential empirical feature.

Are the common folk qualified to govern themselves? Here one finds controversy. There is a an argument against ‘radical’ democracy which begins from the observation that the average citizen is inadequately-informed. Modern society is complex and must therefore be run by intelligent and well-trained people. Democracy as a result ought to be restricted to popular elections. Let the people choose competent leaders, and let the leaders run the show. Indeed, existing democracy conforms to this theory. We should note however the argument’s flaws. Our experts make dreadful mistakes; educated experts are not specially qualified to promote the interests and needs of average citizens. Experts tend to be committed to expert opinion, academic theories, and the needs of people like themselves – that is, the élite. But there is a more basic misunderstanding. Democracy is not the theory that the people ought to govern themselves because they are wise, benevolent, and especially gifted. Perhaps the élite are smarter than average, or perhaps not. So what? Professional expertise is an élite obsession and has little to do with the theory of democracy. And what is the theory to which I refer? It is this: if folks bear rights and responsibilities, and if they govern their own affairs, the result will be a society of individuals more capable than before of self-government. In other words, intelligent, informed, and capable citizens are the end of democracy, and not its starting-point. The so-called élite view reverses cause and effect. Perhaps its not surprising that this is so. We should hardly expect the select to embrace a theory that threatens their exclusive and privileged state.

We shall need to isolate two features of democratic governance for further consideration. These are the selection of leaders and the representation of citizens, by no means simple facts. Citizens do choose politicians, and politicians do represent a constituency. Yet these need further clarification. For in practice there are complex webs of influence and manipulation which make governance messy. Governments respond to public opinion, but they seek to manipulate that opinion also. One should also understand that ‘public opinion’ is usually an abstraction inferred from polls, of which I shall have more to write. Does the public know what precisely they have chosen when they have supported a candidate? Do they even know for certain that they have supported a candidate? The relation of votes to a political program is, I suspect, less clear than pundits sometimes suppose. A vote may manifest many things: protest, misunderstanding, hope, ideological conviction, enthusiasm, or cynicism. As a result of low voter turn-out and a multiple party system, politicians are today put in office by a minority of voters, many of whom have only a vague understanding of the issues and a moderate commitment to the party elected. Elections tell you unequivocally who has won the race; why they have won and what is to be done about it are left to interpretation. This is actually-existing democracy.

An elected, representative government needs a base of support both to seize and hold political office. Governments must represent a constituency. The constituency itself is a matter of expedience, a necessity. It is not necessary however that governments represent ‘the people,’ only that they sell themselves to a sufficient number of consumers. Elections are today the sophisticated means by which a product is offered to a market. Success therefore depends upon successful marketing and successful fund-raising – marketing works but it is expensive. The structural conditions which inform modern election campaigns aren’t mysterious. Politicians must have votes and money. They must lodge the product in the minds of potential buyers. Gathering the votes is a tricky matter, but the techniques are rather plain and have been perfected over the years. Television ads, featuring a catch-phrase or an ‘angle,’ are a necessity. The ad agency will try to distinguish its product from the competition, employing to this end a variety of visual techniques. Psychologists, opinion polls, focus groups – in short, market-directed research – assist the product development. The essence of marketing, by the way, is Find out what will sell and then produce it. Will people be more likely to buy your product if the ad slogan is x, or y ? Would a brighter label help? Does the product image need to be updated? These are the questions which absorb the energy of the “best and brightest,” and their work does not come cheaply. Modern campaigns are after voting constituencies and paying constituencies. There are less votes to be had among the paying constituency (mostly corporate donors) and less money among the people. This is also an important feature of actually-existing democracy.

Consider this. The rabble will always dominate in a ‘pure’ democracy because there are more of them than there are élites. It is necessary for minorities who want their way to overcome the majority. The majority must either be conquered outright or subtly manipulated. In practice the only minority able to compete with the popular majority on anything approaching par are the rich. What billionaires lack in numbers of votes they make up for in numbers of dollars. Democracy in practice involves a competition between interests, between votes and money, between the organized and unorganized voter. Politicians cannot afford to alienate either votes or money, with the result that their public performances resemble a comical sort of balancing act. They must obediently serve wealth, which they need, and yet serve also the working man, who they need also. In practice, these constituencies often have competing interests. The working man wants curbs put along the avenues of the boss, but the boss wants deregulation. The worker wants better wages, but the boss wants ‘competitive industry.’ The working man wants to bring in the Red Book, and the boss wants to chase out the Red Menace, or some equivalent. Most of the contortions of political life can be explained in relation to these and other competing interests. Put in this unenviable position, what would you do? The professional lobbyists represent the people who donate the bulk of your funding, and who pay careful attention to the job you do. Most ordinary folks however have other things than politics on their mind: that is what makes them ordinary. So you appease the constituency that is looking over your shoulder and worry about the opinion polls a bit closer to the election, right?

The point I am trying to make is that the democracy Canadians actually have now is reasonable, practical, and even necessary – at least from the point of view of the people who have to make a living within it. If it doesn’t quite live up to the Theory of Democracy, well, that’s a problem for university professors. Besides, there is a good deal of decency to the form of democracy in which currently live. Canada is still a reasonable and tolerant country where dissension is allowed. Now and again there are anti-democratic displays, such as the treatment of the APEC protesters in British Columbia. Overall however Canada has a functioning democracy. Again, it is the character of Canada’s democracy that is under investigation.

I stated already that I would return to opinion polls. These are the principal technique by which the will of the people is divined. Opinion polls are apparently thought by some to be of great use. Politicians, I am led to believe, use them to interpret the public mood and thereby to decide upon ‘themes’ for upcoming speeches. Whether the intended use of the opinion poll is to facilitate democracy or manipulate it (or both, or neither), the actual effects of these devices are clear. As the poll industry grew, the media increasingly began to publish the silly things in their papers. At first they served a decorative function, usually appearing beside a column, in the form of a colourful graph. Then they became the news itself, so that it is now common to hear journalists discussing the polls as if they were the very voice of the people. There are reasons however to suspect the polls are something else. First, the character of a poll must be considered. How is it conducted? What questions are asked, and of what audience, under what conditions? Imagine that the Financial Post asked its subscribers the following question: ‘Dalton McGuinty opposes Mike Harris’ plan to modernize and improve the health care system. Given that Dalton McGuinty has no plans for health care of his own, would you consider voting for him?’ Then imagine the result showed up in the same newspaper as follows: ‘55% of Canadians said they will not vote for Dalton McGuinty in the upcoming election.’ Imagine the rest of the information is not provided; only this dubious ‘scientific’ conclusion appears. So 55% of Canadians reject McGuinty? No, not really. Analysis of the question itself, which clearly contains a good deal of misleading assertions, would reveal that respondents (are Financial Post subscribers representative Canadians?) reject an obstructionist politician with no ideas of his own. Maybe that’s your McGuinty. In any case, the poll hasn’t really measured public support for Dalton McGuinty. It is a lie.

I’ve invented an obvious example of distortion. Most polls are likely more careful than this, but one can’t be sure. Relevant information is lacking. Polls are more than ever used to mediate between the people and their governments, so this oversight, if that’s what it is, should be a matter of great interest. To the degree that democratic discourse is managed by pollsters and their inscrutable polls, it is esoteric and possibly even rigged. Who knows? This leads us to another astonishing feature of actually-existing democracy, that it is utterly dependent upon private commercial media for its existence. The only way citizens are able to exchange ideas and criticisms and proposals is through the media. True, anyone can start a newsletter or a local organization. But political discourse at the national level is another matter. Have you tried to get your viewpoint on the national news lately? No, you wouldn’t even think of it, it’s too absurd. How about the Globe and Mail? Of course not. We’re told that debate and dissension are vital, and that democracy is the exchange of ideas. The theory is that everyone has freedom of speech, and that the voice of the people will be heard by government. The reality is that most Canadians have never experienced the debate except as a member of an audience. ‘Freedom of speech’ means throwing something at the TV. Debate and dissension are the property of media industries, who extend the privilege to a handful of well-paid professional commentators, or rent it to commercial sponsors. The idea, which you’ll find familiar, is that the conditions of democracy are satisfied by the appointment of clever people to think and talk on the public’s behalf. The opinion polls operate on this assumption, and so do the commercial newspapers.

The experts never talk the way ‘ordinary people’ do, at least not in public. I don’t mean by this that the experts are less vulgar, or more erudite. Rather, they are obsessed with the procedure of politics rather than the application of policy to real life. How did the PM’s speech go? Did it ‘resonate’? How will it ‘play’ among the back-benchers? What do the polls say? Ordinary people don’t care so much about these things. They want to know What’s it got to do with me? But as I’ve argued, the function of ordinary people (that is, folks not paid to have an opinion) is to give the experts an audience which can then be sold to advertisers. And the function of advertisers is profits. All the theories about the sanctity of public debate amount to this, Democracy in the service of Profits. This may sound cynical, but it isn’t. Most people, including media owners, are sincere advocates of public debate. The problem is that real conditions are structured in a manner that makes not-for-profit public discourse nearly impossible. Once you reach the national level of public discourse, money talks – first and last and longest and loudest.

A description of actually existing democracy is beginning to take shape, and it looks something like this. A set of candidates with political ambitions study the public in a scientific manner to determine what sort of mood they are in. A product is put together to exploit that mood and is promoted at great expense. The whole affair is managed by one group of professionals while another looks on and jabbers. Most Canadians are obliged to act as an audience, until the crucial moment when they make their selection (or don’t). Opinion polls, interpreted by pundits, tell you what you’ve just chosen and why you’ve chosen it, and the discovery is presented, glossed, analysed, and debated by TV and newspaper ‘personalities’ hired for these purposes. In short, democracy is industry. After the election, Canadians are freed from even the suggestion of civic responsibility, while the civil servants tend to the necessary business at hand – holding onto power, voting on legislation, raising money, and coping with the demands of the several thousand career lobbyists that swarm centres of political power. The journalists tell the people (or don’t) what their elected leaders are up to, careful, if unsuccessfully, not to bore them or demand too much mental effort. Technical matters, like the content of bills or international treaties, make bad news; it’s better to focus on the sensational, or ‘human interest’ stories. The best news does not disturb the flow. It moves the audience along effortlessly from advertisement to advertisement. Inevitably a scandal will come along, perhaps about something trivial but emotion-charged, like the display of flags in the House of Commons. The editorials will rage, and the politicians will try to smooth things over or else to assign blame elsewhere. The system takes everyone’s interests into consideration: the interest of the leaders in their power, the interest of the papers in sales, the interests of advertisers in marketing, the interests of the pundits in their careers, and the interests of investors in the establishment. The process by which these interests are made secure is called democracy. Most Canadians know democracy as television. This is where the interests of citizens are taken into consideration. For the establishment works hard to ensure that democracy makes the best television. [-November 1998]

Sarah Palin

The abrupt 2008 national-stage appearance of Sarah Palin (and more on that presently) gave me for the first time an opportunity to consider a major political candidate of my own vintage. Sarah Louise Heath was born February 11, 1964, making her roughly 22 months older than me — close enough to qualify as a chronological peer.

Before Palin, I implicitly assumed candidates to high office to possess greater historical memory and geo-political knowledge than me. Here however I was confronted with someone who invited direct comparison, and who in this exercise fared quite poorly. I hardly need defend myself against the charge of arrogance in this instance. Palin made me feel I would need to dust off H.L. Mencken words to craft a fitting description of her. A poltroon? Milquetoast? Chautauqua was one to keep at hand, to be sure. But in all of this was the unfortunate condescension which says more, or at least as much, about the speaker’s character as it does about the spoken’s.

It does matter to me that Sarah Palin made it to age 44 without ever grasping the fact that there is a South Korea and North Korea, and that this is a legacy of post-war geo-political compromises. Her indifference to the world outside Alaska is a product of her fierce loyalty and attachments to place. In any case, Alaska is a destination of choice for the Leaving It All Behind type of person, no? She can be forgiven her parochial character, except of course that her political ambitions now seem to call for something else.

As for her lack of bookish knowledge — this too is attractive to many. Simple folk live chiefly among simple folk. The formally unlearned will help you dig out of the storm, comfort you in your grief, watch your children grow up. One type of person who may be expected to admire Sarah Palin is the ordinary folk who has precious few dealings with the sophisticated, and, when it comes to that, is always the social inferior being sold a bill of goods. Who can blame the common person for mistrust and acrimony when it comes to the polished bullshit of the Academy?

If only Sarah Palin were the honest, plain speaking person she is held to be. Then at least those in agreement with her could reasonably expect to be delivered the goods, as promised. There is good evidence suggesting the sort of President she would be, and it is not encouraging, even if you happen to agree with her.

Let’s begin by noting the means by which she rose so suddenly to prominence in American politics. (This is the “more on that presently” bit.) John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, in their book Game Change, explain that the discovery of Palin was the result of campaign manager Rick Davis’s Google search conducted with the keywords Republican women. McCain’s campaign manager was looking for a religious conservative woman and found an interview on YouTube between Charlie Rose and Sarah Palin. This makes Palin not only the first female Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, but perhaps the first Google-sourced one also. It furthermore suggests the niche she was chosen to exploit — the evangelical faith-based niche, to be precise.

The 2012 Sarah Palin will be much more fact- and speaking point-crammed than the 2008 version, and indeed is so already. The country bumpkin will have been mostly engineered out of her “optics,” kept at hand for select occasions only. What is most remarkable about her political history is not her ignorance, but her obsession with loyalty and her vindictiveness when loyalty appears to her insufficient. Her aborted term as Governor shows that vendettas, political purges, abuses of power, and dissembling along the way to skirt the matter of ethics, are features of her political style. Her dirty political alliance with husband and knee-breaker Todd (the subject of Stephen Branchflower’s report, which found Palin “abused her power by violating Alaska Statute 39.52.11(a) of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act.”) rather suggests that other horrible couple, the Clintons. Remember that you heard it here first.

The surface Palin — bumbling, ever-hopeful, plain speaking, America and gun loving — evokes Ronald Reagan, but in her political style she is much more reminiscent of Richard Nixon. (How uncanny it is, then, that she has come under the tutelage of former Nixon aide Fred Malek.) A power abusing, document hiding paranoic, she is always in a dirty personal fight. Her office in Alaska was routinely set upon the work of disposing of enemies. And when the racket is brought into the open air, as it was with Troopergate, out comes the smiling empty-headed Reaganesque Palin to say that guilt is innocence.

It stands that a certain kind of voter will find much to recommend Palin. She was chosen, and probably well-chosen, for a market. She is the candidate, not so much of the female Republican or even the Conservative per se, but the voter who above all else wills to believe. To believe that tax cuts and less government will yield a powerful America, to believe that folksy goshdarn populism is sufficient to overcome foes at home and abroad, to believe in the surface appearance of things and in what one is told if it is flattering to the ear, to believe that faith will improve the human lot whereas science is to be mistrusted, to believe that deeply political persons can at the same time be rogues and Washington outsiders, and to believe that the sacrifice of a man-god has paid a blood debt and that, as a consequence, death is an illusion and the faithful shall rise again to enjoy life forever and ever, amen.

Society and the Individual: Liberals vs Conservatives in North America

If you ask me, What is today the fundamental difference between a liberal and a conservative?, I would suggest that the liberal and conservative differ over the individual’s relation to society. This is an old distinction, and no doubt you’ve heard it before. Still, it’s useful to regard a lesson long ago learned.

Let’s begin with the contemporary or neoconservative position, from which we shall depart to consider historical and geographical variations. You’ll recall Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that there is no such thing as society; there are only individuals. At its simplest, this assertion tells us society is an abstraction. There is no concrete object to which a person may point and say, There is society. To speak of society, in other words, is to speak of something that exists only in the mind. Society is a mental construct. Thatcher however was not interested in philosophical matters. Her statement reflects a fundamental and practical current conservative principle, that the basis of the good society is the good behaviour of the individual. I shall define ‘good’ presently. For the conservative, society is the word we apply to aggregated individuals. From this follows certain conclusions. The acts of government ought to be limited in such a manner that the individual is free. For the conservative wants to promote the free, responsible, and productive citizen. To achieve this end certain preconditions are necessary. There must be stability and order, so that the individual is protected from the harmful actions of others; this calls forth the rule of law. The rule of law, set forth and enforced by the state, must be as extensive as is necessary for order, and as limited as necessary for responsible individual freedom. Law-bound individual freedom and responsibility constitute the basis of conservative society. The end of conservative political philosophy is the free but responsible individual.

Conservatives have tended to approach the public good through the back door of pessimism. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in his political treatise Leviathan, put the conservative case for the rule of law nicely. He argued that people are by nature selfish and acquisitive and that unless law constrains them they will engage in “a war of all against all,” each person struggling against all others for personal advantage. His chief concern was that acquisitiveness would lead, in a lawless society, to theft of private property. And indeed, for both liberal and conservative one of the chief purposes of the state is to protect the rights of those with property against those who do not have property. But for now we should note that the basic fact of life for Hobbes was that it is, in its natural state, “nasty, brutish and short.” The good society, which for many conservatives means above all else a lawful and orderly one, must overcome human nature with force or the threat of force. Conservatives, in other words, have a rather pessimistic view of human nature and the potential of human beings to evolve. Thus, the conservative does not speak so much of ‘social problems’ as of individual crimes and failures of character. The conservative may prefer to treat homelessness as a criminal matter and urge the passing of laws to clean the streets of the Undesirable. Poverty may be seen as a failure of the individual, in which case the solution is to provide incentives and disincentives to the poor. The good society comes about when the individual obeys the law, acts responsibly, and takes advantage of the system’s incentives. Conservative government is limited in its scope to securing the optimal conditions for individual advancement, and the individual is limited only by the rule of law and by economic incentives and disincentives. Conservatism is the philosophy of conservation in the sense that it regards the natural world as static: human nature does not change, and so neither do the basic laws of society and economics. This does not constitute a denial of the need for reform; rather, reform is seen as a gradual accommodation of changing social conditions to fundamental economic laws. The best of all possible worlds will come about not because of reform, per se, but because individuals act freely within the channels established by law and convention.

Some of what I have said needs clarification, for the conservatism I am describing is an abstraction. We may distinguish between many particular kinds of conservatism, for instances, contemporary American or classical British conservatism. There are variations both of geography and history, and even within a specific time and place we should expect a diversity of thought. The Progressive Conservatism of Benjamin Disraeli and the Social Darwinism of Charles Sumner are both placed under the heading Conservative, yet in many ways these philosophies are at odds. Furthermore, classical British conservatism is closer in many ways to modern American liberalism than it is to British neoconservatism. Classical British conservatism tended toward a collectivist view of society and perceived individualism as a challenge to the ‘social contract.’ In general however conservatism is the ideology of natural law, and its prescription for the public good is the strong interventionist state, at least where individual moral conduct is concerned.

Classical British and American liberals, unlike their modern counterparts, were the advocates of “laissez-faire”, that is, the theory that individuals ought to be left alone in their market dealings. This is usually thought of today as a conservative position, but it was not originally so. Classical liberalism and laissez-faire were based upon a profound mistrust of the state, for liberals felt the state if unchecked would lead to autocracy. The British liberals who established the United States of America opposed the absolute powers of the Monarch as well as the exploitative arrangements of mercantilism. Liberals sought in its place constitutional government and limited democratic representation. We should note that not all classical liberals were democrats, and that none of them proposed universal suffrage. Representational democracy at most meant that owners of property (that is, the white, male bourgeoisie) and not the nobility should be in charge. In some limited ways, liberals and conservatives have exchanged positions on the question of state intervention, and this exchange tells us important things about the respective ideologies. ‘Laissez-faire’ meant something other to the market anarchist Adam Smith than it does to the contemporary corporate CEO who calls for wholesale deregulation. Unfortunately, our technical terms have not kept up with historical changes. I shall return to the matter of these changes a bit later. Right now, I shall try to articulate the liberal principles which have obtained over time.

We begin with the classical liberal view, which remains to this day, that human nature is contextual and that it may and does evolve over time. The liberal may not even believe in a human nature as such, but rather may argue that people will behave differently in differing contexts. In short, human nature is culture; it is a social creation. This explains the liberal interest in social reform. Liberals often see crime, for instance, as social in nature, by which they mean to say that the individual is not the sole cause of his or her behaviour. The root of crime is felt to be the prevailing social conditions, and social reform is typically the proposed solution. Imprison all the criminals you wish, the liberal will say, and you will still have crime and criminals as long as the social conditions obtain. Indeed, the penal system shall only make crime worse (prison is simply another culture informing, or misinforming, the indivdual). The source of the crime is external to the individual. The liberal would likely regard Hobbes’s description of savage nature, and the theory of the state to which it leads, as inappropriate to the modern society. Classical liberals and conservatives disagreed not only generally about the use of state power, but specifically over the punitive functions of the state. Capital punishment was seen as especially repugnant by liberals because it gave to the state the ultimate right: to intervene into a human life itself. The liberal view of capital punishment was based upon a mistrust of the state in combination with an optimistic approach to the good society, which claimed that social reform can better lead to harmony than can punishment or threats of punishment.

You’ll recall that I have set two matters aside for later comment. The first was the observation that conservatives (and often liberals) argue that one of the chief purposes of the state is to protect the rights of those with property against those who do not have property. The second was the observation that ‘in some limited ways,’ liberals and conservatives have exchanged positions on the matter of intervention. I claimed that this exchange – which I shall substantiate – tells us important things about the respective ideologies. I shall now say what I mean by all this.

The rights of private property are thought to be important for a number of reasons. Plunder is not consistent with the good society. There must be some means by which to prevent or at least discourage robbery and other forms of injustice. In the absence of such means, we would likely see the war of all against all described by Hobbes. Without state protection of private property, the economic system would be sustained only by the private use of force. This was indeed the case before the emergence of the constitutional state. The rich hired private armies to protect their economic privileges. Later, the owners of private property (who came to be called capitalists) found it advantageous to exchange their private armies for state armies. They lost private control of their soldiers but gained also, for the costs of maintaining an army were passed to the state. The result was that the costs of protecting private property could be broadly distributed among the social classes; they would no longer be confined to the capitalist class. Security of private property rights gave investors the confidence they needed to conduct business activity. Again, without state-supported private property rights, either private provisions for these rights must be made or else the capitalist economic system must collapse. From this fact emerged the capitalist state.

The preceding paragraph establishes the terrain on which liberals and conservatives have both agreed and fought many battles. Some classical British conservatives argued that private property carried with it not only privileges but responsibilities. Their ideology was rooted in the fact of the Monarchy and in the “organic” conception of society, the view that society was an organism in which all parts depended upon one another for their survival. This view balanced (at least in theory) privileges and responsibilities. Classical British conservatism was paternalistic, by which I mean it regarded individuals as bound to one another in the manner of a family. Corporeal metaphors were also common; hence, the nation was like a body and the king was like the head of that body. As a result of a mixing of metaphors, we today speak of the head of a family. Classical conservatives did not challenge the authority of the Family Head, but neither did they believe that the strong could use their strength in any manner whatsoever. Classical conservatism was profoundly moral, profoundly rooted in the idea of a natural moral law. We may note in passing that contemporary conservatives tend to have kept the classical notion of a natural moral order while discarding or underemphasizing the classical belief in the organic society; in other words, they have privatized natural law. Classical liberals, as we have seen, rejected not only natural law – they believed law is rational and created by ‘Man’ – but the paternal model of social relations as well. Their hatred of the Monarchy led them to reject the ‘strong state.’ The paternalistic state seemed to the classical liberal synonymous with tyranny. The conflict between classical liberals and classical conservatives was thus over the nature and responsibilities of the state, at the heart of which stood the individual. Both argued in a specific manner for limited government, and yet there was disagreement over the character of the ideal state. Although it is a gross simplification to say that liberals feared tyranny and conservatives lawlessness, nonetheless debates regarding the role of government tended to concern these and related themes.

I now return to historical change. The social and economic influence of the modern industrial corporation had been anticipated both by classical liberals and conservatives, yet it is largely this development which led to the modernization of these ideologies. Liberals had always argued that government must be kept as limited as possible to leave larger scope for the individual. Conservatives however felt that the state had a responsibility to keep human nature in check, especially when it threatened the propertied minority. Even today conservatives call for less government and more state power, that is, more police, more military expenditure, more and tougher laws, more prisons. In other words, classical conservatives were the supporters of the activist state and classical liberals were opponents of big, tyrannical government. (By the middle of the 20th century this had reversed somewhat, as liberals called for an interventionist foreign policy and conservatives argued the isolationist position.) Gradually, however, the capitalist economic system produced considerable concentrations of private wealth and economic power. This was defended by the Social Darwinists, who saw wealth as an expression of moral and biological superiority. For classical liberals, however, the notion of unimpeded individuals meeting face to face in the free market to compete with one another as buyers and as sellers was becoming outmoded. Classical liberals such as Thomas Jefferson had been deeply suspicious of the moneyed incorporations (what we today would call corporations) and believed they would distort the economic system and make a mockery of democracy. Jefferson considered the private business corporation as an aristocratic instrument, a way of establishing and extending private privilege at public expense. The economic man of classical theory was now forced to contend with the economic corporation of modern reality, both as a buyer of goods and as a seller of labour. In this exchange, the corporation could exercise many unfair advantages. The transformation took many decades, but by the middle of the 20th century many liberals had abandoned laissez-faire in favour of a limited activist state. They reasoned that since the conditions of the economy had changed, the conditions of government must change also. The New Deal was essentially a conservative impulse, being an attempt to keep the capitalist economic system from collapse. Government was called upon to restore balance and health to the economy. Notice however that the state has also been used by liberals to protect the individual from the potentially tyrannical power of the private corporation.

Conservatives took a differing course during the development of the private corporation. Generally, they were supportive of the judicial decisions which constituted private corporations as legal persons. Three strains of conservative thought informed this support. The first was the conservative faith in the rule of law, the second was the idea that especial responsibilities are conferred upon the powerful, and the third was that the economy is grounded in the law-abiding individual. Conservatives advocated the entrenchment of property rights in law as a necessary precondition to economic development, and they furthermore assumed that from these rights would follow responsibility. The same laws which constrained the citizen would constrain the investor. ‘Corporate’ laws were unnecessary since the corporation, like society, did not exist; the corporation was only an abstracted manner of speaking about individuals engaged together in a co-ordinated business effort. The incentives and disincentives necessary to guide the corporation were already in place at the level of the individual economic agent. This was enough assurance for most conservatives.

Liberals may agree that ‘society’ is a fiction, a thing invented, without conceding the conservative position that it does not exist. The point for them is that it is a practical fiction. Consider public investment. An individual citizen cannot alone cause a highway to be built, but a society can. Government is the instrument by which individual contributions are mobilized in the service of social ends. While it is true that society is an abstraction, it is not the case that it is merely the sum of its parts. We shall discover the same if we regard the private corporation. Here also we find an institution designed to mobilize resources toward a collective end. Not only is the private corporation not the sum of its parts, it is designed not to be and derives its utilities precisely from this fact. The corporation is an autonomous instrument in the sense that it supersedes its constituent individuals; it is a legal fiction endowed with certain rights and privileges, among them being immortality. Indeed, the corporation came into being as a way to obviate the legal, economic, and social limitations faced by the individual investor. In this sense a corporation does for capital what a union does for labour. Both would be quite pointless inventions if they were only a collection of individuals and not a legal fiction endowed with special properties. And the same, liberals argue, is true of social institutions and the society which it serves. Society is more than the sum of the individuals from which it is abstracted, and only with the broad view that the concept of society offers can grand projects in the public interest be launched.

Well, a conservative may say, that’s precisely the problem with society. Modern liberalism is based on the false assumption that things can be made better with a little manipulation at the top, that is, at the level of big government. Conservatives prefer to let individuals manage reform themselves, by creating the conditions in which they can exercise their law-bound freedom. In practice, this means state intervention in order to present the individual with incentives and disincentives. Conservatives do not accept the proposition that society (or racism, sexism, exploitation, structural poverty, and so on) is to blame for dysfunctional behaviour. They admit certain disadvantages, such as physical and mental disability. Beyond this they regard the individual as alone responsible for his or her fate. Liberals, conservatives may argue, are wrong on a number of points, but these especially: they are wrong about ‘victims of society,’ they are wrong about human nature, and because of this they are wrong about reform.

As always there is today disagreement about the role and nature of the government. Liberals insist that government is too much involved in helping the rich, and conservatives insist that government is (in the words of the 1995 Common Sense Revolution website) “a captive to big special interests,” meaning people on welfare, the homeless, feminists, and unions. It is interesting to note that both sides are engaged in a battle on behalf of social and economic justice. For one side justice means advancing the rights of people of colour, for the other it means income tax cuts. We should note that both sides feel the injustice deeply; neither is, I think, insincere. And contemporary government is complex enough that both sides can support their case. For when we talk about ‘the government’ we are talking about a motley collection of interrelated but also contesting arrangements. One part of government saves the taxpayer money by firing staff or causing others to, and another promptly spends that taxpayer money helping these folks find jobs elsewhere. One part of government indeed serves the rich, and others serve the so-called special interests. Then there are the many other parts of government serving other ends and getting in the way too. In a diverse society with many competing interests, we should expect just such an arrangement. The behaviour of modern democratic governments reflects the complexity and conflicts of the modern world. This does not mean that a particular government cannot lean either in the direction of liberalism or of conservatism. The point is, government is heterogeneous, and there will always be contradictory efforts within a representative democratic government itself. Even within a single ministry, you will find that public policy often discloses the apparent illogic of contradictory mandates. Once we understand the heterogeneous nature of representative democratic government, we are better able to explain the endurance of the debate between conservatives and liberals. Each group describes an aspect of political reality. And that reality as a whole is diverse and complex enough to render each perspective compelling.

Does this mean that liberalism and conservatism are both equally correct? This is a difficult question to answer. Consider the competing views of human nature. The conservative has little patience for the liberal view that criminal behaviour should be regarded as a symptom of a deeper social problem. The liberal tends to believe that criminal behaviour can be prevented, or at least lessened, with an improvement in social conditions. Even the notion of crime puts the liberal ill-at-ease, for much of what is criminalized by the conservative – poverty, homelessness, unemployment – is felt by the liberal to be no fault of the individual. The conservative usually doubts that crime is produced by ‘the system’ or by society; instead, crime is seen as a matter of individual character. Who is correct? The liberal can reasonably argue that in a perfect society, one without social inequality and injustice, there would be no crime. But of course this is a circular argument, for a perfect society presupposes the absence of crime. In any case, there is no empirical basis for the liberal claim because there is no perfect society for us to observe. The conservative can reasonably argue that crime is a failure of character, for one’s character is always one’s character, whether it was shaped by individual will or by social conditions, or more likely, by both. The conservative social and economic systems are based upon the Hobbessian belief that individuals are selfish and acquisitive; since the systems are designed to reward these traits, they tend to produce them. Is Economic Man thus an expression of human nature, or is he a self-fulfilled prophecy? The world as it is does not allow us to test theories of human nature under the controlled conditions of a laboratory. All we have is the messiness of the world as it is. Human nature and human culture are integrated one into another. Perhaps no political philosophy has adequately represented the complexity of this integration, and perhaps no political philosophy ever will. It is precisely the limitations of political ideologies that has ensured their survival as ideologies, that is, as systems of ideas. The limited nature of our political ideologies is not likely soon to change. [-January 1999]