Jeffrey Simpson wrote a column today on an issue that I think is of a paramount importance in Canadian politics – I’ve often said that the near-total collapse of the centre-right is the most important development in our political system over the past two decades. Unfortunately, the way that Simpson articulated the idea confused many people. First of all, he described it as “The Disappearance of the Moderate Conservative“, and second, he tied it to the unfortunate term “red Tory,” which is a complex political tradition that is not exactly relevant to the current set of issues.
The biggest problem has to do with the term “moderate,” because it suggests a person who takes a position between some set of extremes, and so if you think of the three political parties arranged on a left-to-right spectrum, a moderate conservative is just someone who is more like a liberal. This is not a helpful way of framing the debate (because conservatives just dismiss it, as the sound of a downtown Toronto media elite whining, “why isn’t everyone a liberal like me?”). I use the term “centre-right” because it’s a bit better at allowing me to define the political ideology directly in terms of the issue space (or the set of policy options), thereby providing a referent that is independent of the positions that the various political parties happen to take. I’ll explain how this works in a moment. On my analysis, though, Stephen Harper clearly comes out as an ideological extremist. However, the way that he has governed has been extremely moderate. In other words, despite having extremist views on a variety of questions, he has done very little to impose those views upon the country. This is mainly because he consistently assigns strategic concerns about getting re-elected priority over his political ideology.
You only have to compare the way the Harris government behaved in Ontario (a government that included Tony Clement, Jim Flaherty, John Baird, etc.) to the way the Harper government has behaved in Ottawa to see that they have been pulling their punches, and in this sense, have been moderate. This is in fact why so many Canadian conservatives find the Harper government so baffling (e.g. Andrew Coyne). It’s just not obvious what they’re trying to accomplish, other than getting re-elected forever. This is why Paul Wells could write a 400+ page book trying to unravel the mystery, ascribing to Harper what Coyne called “a vast, if incremental, efficacy: so incremental it eludes the naked eye.”
Let me take just one very specific example. Consider how the Cameron government in the U.K. reacted to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. They decided that this would be a good time to impose an austerity program, in order to achieve a long-term reduction in the size of the British welfare state. In other words, they decided to cut back on spending in the middle of a recession – pretty much the opposite of what textbook economics tells you to do. This was a highly ideological move, in the sense that they achieved their objective, but at enormous cost to the British economy. (They were willing to shrink the pie, just to reduce state spending as a fraction of that pie, which is to say, they assigned their own hostility to the state priority over the welfare of the population.)
What did the Harper government do? Despite all the blather about “austerity” from the left, the fact is that there has been no austerity in Canada. When the recession hit, Harper immediately announced a stimulus package, then proceeded to pump it for all it was worth. This was clearly a “moderate” course of action. An “extreme” course of action would have been to say “party’s over, we all need to tighten our belts” and then cut government spending. In the end, there wasn’t much difference between the way the Obama administration in the U.S. and the Harper government in Canada handled the great recession (even though the case for stimulus was weaker in Canada, since our banks were not compromised!).
This is why claiming that Harper is not “moderate” is more confusing than helpful (one can see some of that confusion playing out here). So let’s talk about what it means to be “centre-right.” In my way of thinking about things, the “centre” in Canadian politics (and in most mature liberal democracies) is defined by the view that the primary economic role of the state is to solve collective action problems, and therefore to increase social welfare in something approximating a win-win fashion. This is accomplished in some cases by regulating marketplace competition, in other cases by providing goods directly (security, infrastructure, insurance, etc.). For those who find this view surprising, I’ve defended it ad nauseum, starting here, here and here. If you look at any major government program and ask, “why is the state doing this?” you can almost always point to a market failure as the explanation. So then if you ask “what else, if anything, should the state be doing?” the answer is to look for other, unresolved market failures, and then think about how the state might act to correct those.
This “centrist” way of thinking is what defines much of the current mainstream policy space: environment and climate change, transportation, pharmaceuticals and childcare – all areas in which markets are currently not delivering great outcomes, and so people feel that social welfare could be enhanced through various forms of government initiative or intervention. What distinguishes centre-left from centre-right then, is that while both want to move into the space of social welfare gains, the left wants to do so in ways that are implicitly redistributive (in the sense that they generate outcomes that are more egalitarian than the pattern that would have resulted from market provision). The centre-right is equally committed to increasing social welfare, but has no objection to the market pattern of distribution, and so doesn’t want the programs to be redistributive, but rather more strictly market-simulating.
Just to make this concrete, consider an issue like urban transportation. Traffic congestion is obviously a collective action problem – access to (most) roads is free, and so there is overconsumption. People ignore the congestion externality they generate when they get into their car. The “centre-right” approach to this problem is to put a price on the use of roads – to impose tolls. The “centre-left” solution instead tends to focus on solutions that are financed out of general taxation, rather than user fees (such a providing subsidized public transportation), because then the state is able to both solve the problem, but do so in such a way that the benefits flow disproportionately to those who are worse off. What makes both of these positions centrist, however, is that 1. they both acknowledge that there is a collective action problem, and 2. they consider it appropriate to use the power of the state to resolve this collective action problem.
The positions that I consider more “ideological” are ones that involve using the power of the state to achieve outcomes that don’t involve solving collective action problems, but instead promoting some other value. The more this involves a sacrifice of social welfare, the more ideologically extreme I consider it to be. (This terminology is a bit tendentious, but bear with me.) So, for example, an ideological left-wing view is one that seeks to achieve pure redistribution – taking from the rich and giving to the poor – without any sort of “value added” beyond the redistribution. (I often use the differences between the Canada Pension Plan and the Old Age Security Plan to illustrate the distinction. The CPP is centrist, in that the government provides a valuable form of insurance in an area where there is significant market failure, and along the way does a bit of redistribution. OAS, by contrast, is left-wing, in that it mainly transfers money to elderly people who are poor, without any sort of insurance function. It is therefore straight-up redistributive.)
On the right wing, the ideological picture is a bit more confusing, because there are lots of different values that are taken to trump social welfare gains. Consider again transportation policy. Here the ideological right-wing position is one that is willing to suffer traffic congestion, in order to achieve some other value. There is, for instance, a libertarian view, which celebrates the freedom that the personal automobile provides, and therefore resists all forms of public transportation, and even road tolls, as limitations of this freedom. Thus the ideological extremist of the right will typically either refuse to acknowledge that there is a collective action problem, or else if he or she does acknowledge it, will say that it is not within the government’s power or mandate to do anything about it. (In the last provincial election campaign in Ontario, the Progressive Conservative Party adopted exactly such a position, which is one of the reasons that they lost.)
(A while back, I drew a little picture to illustrate the way I mentally picture the policy space. Although it’s a bit simplistic, since it only looks at the equality-efficiency dimension, it can be found here.)
With all that out of the way, let me then state my own view – and what Simpson was getting at – which is that the modern conservative movement has almost entirely squeezed out people with centre-right positions. They are not entirely absent. For instance, the current mayor of Toronto, John Tory, is clearly a centre-right politician (as witnessed by the fact that unlike virtually every conservative politician in the province, he is willing to acknowledge that traffic congestion is a serious problem). But if you look at the record of the Harper government in Ottawa, it is difficult to find a single issue on which they have taken a centrist, as opposed to an ideologically extreme, position. Consider the following examples:
1. Criminal justice. In terms of its legislative agenda, the Harper government has treated crime as the single most important issue facing the country. And yet their dominant priority clearly has not been to reduce crime, but rather to increase the retributiveness of the justice system. I’m not saying that in a polemical way – this has obviously been what they are doing. And I’m enough of a Kantian to think that retributiveness is important. But to incur major losses in social welfare (in particular, the costs of new prisons), without any projected benefits (e.g. reduced crime), is either highly ideological, or involves catering to a rather small interest group.
2. Climate change. Not to overstate the obvious here, but Harper has clearly passed on the opportunity to do something about the single greatest collective action problem of our time. The centre-right position on this issue is some sort of carbon-pricing scheme. It is very difficult to figure out what Harper is thinking – many conservatives have pointed out, quite rightly, that by refusing to do anything on this front, he is essentially handing over to the Liberals or the NDP the power to determine national policy, because the Conservatives cannot expect to be in power forever. My own speculation is that Harper still mentally associates control of greenhouse gas emissions with “socialism,” and so is ideologically opposed to any state action aimed at reducing emissions. It’s difficult to know though, since he has never given a forthright explanation of government policy on this question.
3. Tax cuts. Centre-right conservatives approve of efficient taxes like the GST (because they are relatively non-distortionary and have low compliance costs). Ideological conservatives, by contrast, often dislike efficient taxes, because they enhance public-sector efficiency, and thus expand the range of potentially beneficial state interventions in the economy. Let it never be forgotten that Harper cancelled a scheduled income tax cut (from the Martin government) in order to reduce the GST instead. Cynics will say this was all done for campaign purposes. I’m inclined to think that he genuinely wanted to make the tax system more inefficient, in order to make it more difficult for future governments to raise revenue.
4. Tax policy. The overall preference of centre-right conservatives is for the tax system as a whole to be efficient, with a so-called “clean base.” Harper has done more to “dirty” the base of the income tax system than any Prime Minister in recent memory, with all of the boutique deductions that have been introduced, as well as income-splitting. A cynic would say that the goal has been to pander to favoured constituencies. A more charitable interpretation is that they have been trying to tilt the income tax system in order to favour a particular moral ideal of the family, namely, the traditional family, in which the husband works, while the mother stays home, driving the kids to hockey practice. (Underlying it, in other words, is what political philosophers call a “perfectionist commitment” with respect to forms of family organization.)
5. International trade. So far, the government appears willing to scuttle a major international trade agreement (TPP) in order to protect the interests of a favoured constituency – dairy farmers – a position that has no principled basis, and in fact just reinforces a government-induced market failure.
6. Health care. The government appears to have no views at all on the state of the Canadian health care system. Perhaps this is because it is an area of provincial jurisdiction, and they believe in a principled approach to federalism. We have heard more from the Minister of Health about drug policy than we have about the performance of the rest of the health care system.
7. Infrastructure. The government appears to take the cynical view that infrastructure investments are all just “pork,” to be used to appease rent-seeking groups. As a result, there does not seem to be any interest in focusing funds in areas where they will produce significant welfare benefits, or serve to complement markets.
8. The child care benefit. The Harper government has also executed a couple of bizarre ideological inversions, that no one on the right seems to know what to do with. First among them is the decision to champion universal social programs (like the Universal Child Care Benefit) – a position that those of us who are older tend to associate with the government of Pierre Elliot Trudeau – while opposing means-testing (the position being championed by Justin Trudeau). Again, this inversion left people with traditional centre-right views confused, since means-testing is traditionally considered a sort of Thatcherite position. In any case, the child care benefit is exactly the sort of “leaky bucket” redistribution that centre-right economists abhor.
Try as I might, I can’t think of a single policy area in which the government has done anything that would qualify as “centre-right” – and lots of cases where they have passed on the opportunity, or else done things that constitute a rejection of such positions. Which I think is really too bad, because in the end, that’s the only thing that conservative governments are really good for. I mean, I hated Brian Mulroney as much as the next guy, but at the end of his mandate, I had to admit that, even though he had done nothing to improve the fairness of Canadian society, he had increased the efficiency of both the economy (with free trade) and the state (with the GST), creating very tangible benefits for Canadians over the course of subsequent years. With the Harper government, on the other hand, I look for the silver lining, and I find… nothing.
Finally, red Tories. Forget about red Tories. George Grant is dead, and so is the entire political-cultural sensibility that he was channeling. Anyone who is concerned about the rise of ideological extremism on the Canadian right (as I am), should be trying to embolden the centre-right. The mere fact that red Tories are called RED Tories means that they have no chance of being revived. You might as well call them “sell-out Tories” and lament their decline. It’s better just to state clearly what we really need in this country, which is conservatives who are willing to acknowledge the genuine problems that exist in Canada, and to think seriously and creatively about how government actors can use markets, or market-simulating mechanisms, to resolve those problems. This is what has gone missing in recent years.