Western Standard

The Shotgun Blog

« BC Civil Liberties Association decries “shameful banning” of anti-war British MP on national security grounds | Main | David Beito to speak at Institute for Liberal Studies' Social Policy Seminar tomorrow »

Friday, March 20, 2009

Stephen Harper vs. libertarians, the continuing saga

Mike Brock, Janet Neilson, and Gerry Nicholls all commented on Stephen Harper's recent speech at the Manning Centre conservative get-together. They are, like most libertarians, upset with Harper for calling out libertarians, insisting that Harper-style conservatism is significantly different from libertarianism, and then getting a whole bunch of stuff wrong about the libertarian view of the relationship between personal responsibility and liberty.

I might add a few other complaints.

For one, it's surprising that Harper would categorize his conservatism as an amalgam of three fundamental "pillars" -- Freedom, Faith, and Family. It's surprising because it's not clear exactly what Harper means by these three pillars. Are they intended to be sources of influence for public policy? If so, it's hard to see how Harper's Conservatives have kept in line with those three pillars. Just what policies have the Harper Tories pushed that promote any of those three?

Are they specifically political pillars, or is Harper mixing political principles with cultural principles? If they're intended as a mixture, then I just don't see what his beef is with libertarians. Libertarianism is not a cultural view, it's a specifically political philosophy. It does not tell us what sort of culture we ought to have beyond a culture of freedom. What it tells us is that the government ought to be small, and its functions severely limited. It does not tell us whether or not we ought to have large or small families, prefer Mozart to Beethoven, or be Catholic or Protestant.

Broader cultural views are captured not by a political philosophy, but by a social philosophy. It may turn out to be the case that conservatism, as Harper understands it, is simultaneously a view about culture and a view about political institutions, but there is no conflict between a libertarian who endorses Harper's social planks, while insisting that the best way to accomplish those cultural goals -- the goals of encouraging and promoting faith and family -- is through a libertarian government, a government restricted to protecting our lives, liberties, and property.

I've met a sizable group of people who endorse libertarian institutions because they believe that those institutions will bolster faith and family. And small wonder. The seeming job of governments has been, in the West, and over the last 30 or 40 years, to get busy with social engineering. More often than not, churches and families have had to fight governments and government policies. Private religious schools have all sorts of problems, as do churches or religious organizations who do not want to have to rent out their property to groups they disagree with. And if you want to express a religiously-informed point of view, keep one eye on the Human Rights Commissions.

In short, there are those who realize that government is no friend to the religious, that it is no friend to families, that it is no friend to the goals of social conservatism. Matthew Johnston, our publisher, is a perfect example of a libertarian who endorses strong families, tight-knit communities, and public decency. Shotgun blogger Isaac Morehouse is another example of a socially conservative libertarian.

Indeed, the Acton Institute is a perfect example of a U.S.-based libertarian public policy think tank that focuses on faith and family. Its full name is the Acton Institute for the study of religion and liberty. Take a look at their core principles here, especially these three:

Social Nature of the Person - Although persons find ultimate fulfillment only in communion with God, one essential aspect of the development of persons is our social nature and capacity to act for disinterested ends. The person is fulfilled by interacting with other persons and by participating in moral goods. There are voluntary relations of exchange, such as market transactions that realize economic value. These transactions may give rise to moral value as well. There are also voluntary relations of mutual dependence, such as promises, friendships, marriages, and the family, which are moral goods. These, too, may have other sorts of value, such as religious, economic, aesthetic, and so on.

Sin: Although human beings in their created nature are good, in their current state, they are fallen and corrupted by sin. The reality of sin makes the state necessary to restrain evil. The ubiquity of sin, however, requires that the state be limited in its power and jurisdiction. The persistent reality of sin requires that we be skeptical of all utopian "solutions" to social ills such as poverty and injustice.

Priority of Culture - Liberty flourishes in a society supported by a moral culture that embraces the truth about the transcendent origin and destiny of the human person. This moral culture leads to harmony and to the proper ordering of society. While the various institutions within the political, economic, and other spheres are important, the family is the primary inculcator of the moral culture in a society.

Which just goes to show you that Harper is terribly confused, muddled, and, well, just plain wrong. Is Harper under the impression that individual liberty will lead to a mass abandonment of churches, a mass disintegration of society, the end of the nuclear family? Does he believe that we need government programs to ensure warm bodies in pews, the continuation of two parent families and so on? What does it say about certain institutions if they can't make it without government support? And what does it tell us about Harper's support for "Faith" and "Family"?

Libertarians are angry with Harper because he hasn't made the government smaller, hasn't cut taxes aggressively enough, and has seen fit to spend a boatload of money on a "stimulus" package that conservatives in the U.S. are decrying. Libertarians have been angry with Harper for the same reasons that fiscal conservatives have been angry with Harper. Why single out the libertarians? Why not just say, "the modern Conservative Party does not have room for fiscal conservatives who prefer Hayek and Friedman to John Maynard Keynes"?

It's true that libertarians would also like the government to stop the useless, wasteful, and socialist war on drugs. But this has never been the primary complaint of libertarians. The primary complaint has been economic, not social. And it has more to do with insisting that Harper live up to what he used to say he believed (he told me at a National Citizens Coalition dinner honouring him with the Colin M. Brown Medal of Freedom that he considered himself a "classical liberal," which is just a synonym for libertarian).

Andrew Coyne was right. We have very good reason to despise politics, and to hate what it does to people who become politicians. Stephen Harper used to be a libertarian. But, without explanation, he's decided he isn't one any longer, and he's decided to pick a fight with libertarians. So be it, I guess. But, at the very least, we can ask Harper to get libertarianism right, rather than attack the strawman he's set up for himself.

Posted by P.M. Jaworski on March 20, 2009 in Libertarianism | Permalink


Well said.

I value morality, tradition, family, faith, charity and other such nice things. In fact, I value them so much I don't want the government to touch 'em.

You can't promote "moral values" at the point of a gun. If it ain't voluntary, it ain't right. If it is voluntary, it may not be right either, but if I want to convince someone of that I've gotta do it peacefully.

If you think the only way to support an idea is to mandate it, you're terribly, terribly mistaken and doing your idea no favors.

Only in a free-market of ideas do people have the ability to truly discover truth. Let 'em.

Posted by: IMM | 2009-03-20 3:31:37 PM

>most libertarians, upset with Harper for calling out libertarians, insisting that Harper-style conservatism is significantly different from libertarianism, .. tells us is that the government ought to be small, and its functions severely limited.

>it's surprising that Harper would categorize his conservatism as an amalgam of three fundamental "pillars" -- Freedom, Faith, and Family.




Harper’s definition of freedom seems to be a religious police state, and it does not matter if you cheat, lie, steal, abuse others, are an alcoholic as long as you are married. It also it seems does not matter if you practice your religion too, as long as you have one.. I am surprised that the religious fundamentalists are not loudly objecting to this Harper distortion too...

Posted by: thenonconformer | 2009-03-20 11:07:21 PM

Harper is as usual a hypocrite. Considering his background and his previous campaign platforms he has done a complete 180 and is now merely another political puppet. But that isn't a personal attack on Harper. I'm sure like many politicians he started out with the best of intentions. The problem here is the system itself. With only two mainstream parties to choose from we don't have real democracy and even if we did, democracy is still mob rule.
Its good to see that the Libertarians are getting on his nerves, it means we're being noticed.
And a friend of mine who was at the Manning Institute for this gathering personally signed up one of the candidates for leader of the Ontarion conservative party with a Libertarian membership.
He also tells me that there is huge dissent within the CPC. Things are looking up! :)

Posted by: JC | 2009-03-21 8:28:30 AM

Actually, P.M., given what I've read on the Shotgun, it is not all that hard to dismiss libertarians as utopian neo-anarchists. Their writings betray an almost childlike ignorance of reality, but they couch them in a compelling message of personal freedom and accountability (without mentioning how society might enforce that accountability), and so believe that their message is somehow compatible with contemporary society.

Libertarians should do what the Amish do: Form their own community in a rural setting somewhere and and stay below the political radar.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-03-21 8:37:59 AM

The problem, JC, is ultimately with the voters. Just as drug violence is ultimately the responsibility of the user who buys illegal drugs, the problem with democratic governments is ultimately the voters who put them in power.

The problem is that people are petty, small, parochial, and selfish, Many have axes to grind, and many are not honest enough with themselves to face an unpleasant truth (hence their preference for candidates who lie). And then there are a few who will vote for a candidate who promises help for their single cause célèbre regardless of how destructive his other policies may be. Since these people tend to favour no political party in particular, they become the all-important "swing voters" in close elections, and their favours are competed for fiercely.

Anyone entering public life either already knows these rules, or soon learns them. And anyone who wants to stay in public life has to play by them. We can blame the politicians for selling what they sell, but only the voters are to blame for what they choose to buy.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-03-21 8:43:42 AM

That should read, "people are petty, small, parochial, selfish, and full of fear."

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-03-21 8:45:23 AM

"We can blame the politicians for selling what they sell, but only the voters are to blame for what they choose to buy."

Here is the polarity in your thinking that I have difficulty accepting as a legitimate consequence of your convictions, rather than of your nominal assertions.

You are blaming the politicians and the voters as though they really belonged to exclusive entities. As though each voted with the collusion of no other voters, for a politician whose positions they themselves define. That is how they could be blamed alone. But they are not alone and, indeed, cannot and have never been.

Is it a conceit of yours, to be responsible for your success as though you pulled yourself by the bootstraps up into virtue? Or is it a contempt for others, a contempt you keep narrow so that the inevitable spill-over is not seen as intentional? In either case, your antipathy for libertarians does not disguise your close philosophical alignment with them.

Posted by: Timothy Zak | 2009-03-22 9:46:24 PM


Posted by: DymnSoamn | 2009-03-23 8:11:53 AM

Hi Timothy,

1. The comparative ease (or unease) with which you can accept something is not an argument.

2. Not at all. Ultimately it is the individual who chooses to run for office, and the individual who casts the ballot in secret. In fact, the ballot is secret for the very reason that it does make it possible for the voter to act alone. And limits on financial backing are supposed to make politicians more independent.

3. Where did this come from? And what makes you think that belief in the value of hard work is a conceit? As for libertarianism, it's a matter of degrees: I share some of their basic philosophy, but not their undiluted ideology. I'm too cynical to embrace such utopianism; I'm more of a Machiavellian.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-03-23 8:43:17 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.