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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Time to revisit an old article: "Stephen Harper: A former libertarian who's become just another statist politician"

At what may prove to be the dusk of the Harper era, it's time to revisit an article written at its dawn.

On the eve of Stephen Harper's first minority government in January 2006, Martin Masse, the publisher of the bilingual libertarian newsletter Quebecois Libre, wrote an article in which he predicted that despite the wishful projections of Harper's libertarian and conservative supporters, Harper would in fact govern much like a Liberal.

In the mid-1990s Masse was an organizer for the Quebec wing of the Reform Party of Canada and he was the official contact for Stephen Harper's campaign for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance in 2001-2002. It's worth quoting substantial parts of the conclusion of his piece:

The Stephen Harper that I knew would certainly not be at ease defending the program rolled out by the Conservative Party during this campaign. Between the moment he left as Reform Party MP in 1997 and his return to politics, we got together a few times in Montreal. He was then head of the National Citizens Coalition, a lobby group whose motto was “More freedom through less government.” It would be hard to describe the libertarian ideal more succinctly.

We discussed politics and philosophy. At that time, Harper was a big fan of QL. I nearly fell out of my chair one day when he told me how he found very interesting my article in issue no 53 of the magazine, the one discussing the “five essential libertarian attitudes”. Not only had I forgotten the issue number, but I could not remember one or two of the five attitudes in question!

Stephen Harper preferred to describe himself as a classical liberal rather than as a libertarian, a term which he found too ideological. He has no interest in anarcho-capitalism, but he seemed to be at ease with the idea that the state should be restricted to a few essential functions (security, defense, justice, foreign affairs, etc.) and that government interventionism should be reduced to a minimum. The NCC had no literature in French and no presence in Quebec, and he proposed to hire me to set up a Quebec wing, using the QL network of readers and sympathizers as a foundation. The project never went through because of strategic differences and his return to politics.

During the leadership campaign of the Canadian Alliance in the fall of 2001 and winter of 2002, I was the official “contact” of the Stephen Harper campaign in Quebec. When I realized the lack of interest of the leader and his entourage in investing in Quebec and developing an organization here, I decided to stop wasting my time and did not stay involved after his election.

Harper is guilty of the same sin as Ronald Reagan and most other conservative politicians; he claims to believe in shrinking the size of government but has always acted to increase the size of government. As Sheldon Richman explained:

Ronald Reagan's faithful followers claim he has used his skills as the Great Communicator to reverse the growth of Leviathan and inaugurate a new era of liberty and free markets. Reagan himself said, "It is time to check and reverse the growth of government."

Yet after nearly eight years of Reaganism, the clamor for more government intervention in the economy was so formidable that Reagan abandoned the free-market position and acquiesced in further crippling of the economy and our liberties. In fact, the number of free-market achievements by the administration are so few that they can be counted on one hand—with fingers left over.

Those who defend Stephen Harper on libertarian or small-government conservative grounds are likewise deceiving themselves. His policy of "incrementalism" has never achieved any of its stated conservative or libertarian goals. For those who see Big Government and the social welfare state as overgrown, Harper will never by anything more than a "lesser of evils."

In the final section, Masse explains why any minor cuts that Stephen Harper has made to government are outweighed by his many increases in spending and state power–he had abandoned his belief in limiting the size of the state by the time he became Prime Minister. Already by 2006, Harper no longer spoke like the free-market economist he once was:

All the same, the Stephen Harper of 2002 still had libertarian instincts. His first priority was to reduce the fiscal burden – to a rate lower than the Americans! (See “How to get Canada back on track.”) Today, he promises to reduce the GST by two percent, which will only have a marginal effect on Canadians’ disposable income.

The Stephen Harper that I knew would never defend the bankrupt health care system that we have in Canada. Today he defends the government monopoly and promises to oppose any move towards a two-tier system, which makes him essentially a socialist politician like the other federal party leaders. When the complete Conservative platform was announced – full of promises to spend and support all sorts of groups and special interests – their finance critic Monte Solberg assured everybody that “Spending continues to go up. There will be no cuts… We will protect the social safety net.” The Conservative plan is, essentially, a continuation of the status quo. The federal state will not be put on a diet.

Here is what we got today, a party leader and prime minister who was the most libertarian politician one could imagine getting in this position, taking into account the fact that our movement still has a rather marginal influence. This Conservative government will likely govern just like the old Progressive-Conservatives (that Harper and his Reform friends quit at the end of the 1980s because it was too centrist and beholden to special interests) would have. It might even do worse than the government of Jean Chrétien between 1993 and 2002, when Paul Martin put some order into public finance, eliminated the deficit, contained spending and lowered income taxes. Other than his promise to withdraw from the Kyoto accord and abolish the gun registry, Stephen Harper’s program has practically nothing to distinguish it from a libertarian perspective than the one the Liberals proposed.

Masse takes Harper's conversion as yet another piece of evidence against democracy itself:

As I have written many times in QL, partisan politics is a waste of time for people who really want to reduce the size of the state. Democracy is a collectivist system whose fundamental logic rests on buying the support of political clients with the big pot of other people’s money that constitutes the government’s treasury. Either we refuse to play the game and stay on the margins; or we absolutely want power, and have to abandon our libertarian principles and adopt an opportunistic attitude. The solution is to work to delegitimize the state from the outside, not to try to reduce it from the inside, which is bound to fail.

Harper badly wanted to become prime minister and did an excellent campaign to get there. The downside is that he has now become just another irrelevant statist politician, who at best will keep the federal government more or less as it is, and at worst will increase it as did the right-wing statist George W. Bush. The Liberal vermin certainly deserved to be defeated. But if Stephen Harper, a former reader of this magazine, can’t do better, what more can we hope to achieve through political means?

Read the whole article here.

Martin Masse wrote for the Western Standard about who he would vote for in the 2008 US Election and we mentioned his piece about the US's $700 billion bank bailout package as implementation of the fifth plank of Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto.

I've written recently here about the conflict between democracy and liberalism as has Omar Abu Hatem.

Posted by Kalim Kassam on November 30, 2008 in Canadian Conservative Politics | Permalink


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If anyone thinks that a libertarian can use the current Canadian political system to successfully roll back leviathan they are naive in the extreme. There aren't even enough conservatives (a coalition of fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, populists and foreign affairs hawks) to gain a majority in the Nanny-Welfare state of Canada. Small c core conservative support in Canada is at most, around one in three voters. If Harper hadn't adopted liberal platforms he wouldn't have attained even the minority government position that he "enjoys". The Libertarians attracted one in seventeen hundred votes, less than one one-hundredth the support of the Greens (one in fourteen). However successful libertarians have been at influencing conservatives at the caucus level, they have an incredibly long row to hoe to arouse any political interest from voters.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2008-11-30 11:27:48 PM

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