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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Meet the New Liberals

Just like the old ones, except their campaign signs are blue. 

Every time I think Prime Minister Stephen Harper has strayed away from conservatism as far as he possibly can, he continues to surprise me.

In his most recent baffling decision, he has engaged in a very public war of words with the Fraser Institute.

Hold your horses. The Canadian think tank that champions the free market, smaller government and lower taxes? Yep, that one.

An Institute report released last week examined the Conservatives’ $47.2-billion “Economic Action Plan,” and whether it had been beneficial to the Canadian economy.

Long time readers will recall that this time last year Mr Harper, while visiting a Manning Institute confab, flipped the bird to Canadian classical liberals and libertarians. Basically, argued the sage of Leaside, the financial crash of 2008 was the fault of the market, and we free market types had just better grow up and accept that government is good for us, like castor oil and broccoli. I have two theories on the Prime Minister. The first, which is probably the most widely subscribed to, holds that Stephen Harper sold his soul for political power. Better to rule in Ottawa than rant in Calgary. In my more annoyed moments I lean toward this theory. With calmer reflection another theory becomes more plausible, the Prime Minister of Canada wasn't the libertarian firebrand everyone thought he was. He is, and has always been, a middle of the road conservative, with a soupcon of libertarian ideas. 

He doesn't like government, granted, but also doesn't see a private sector alternative as being either practical or politically viable. Maybe a more market based approach to health care would work, but most Canadians are used to the current system and some people might be left without coverage, so stick with the devil you know. The same thought process applies to scores of other public policy issues. To those ears, then, the case for minimal government sounds like so much utopian nonsense, so lets move on. All this is fine, as far as it goes, but it also means conceding the moral and intellectual high ground to the advocates of big government. Then you're left haggling over details. 

Maybe you won't launch a vast new government program, but you're also not getting rid of the old ones or trimming their size, except in dire fiscal circumstances. This isn't prudent compromise with political reality, it's negotiated surrender with statism. Political cycle after cycle, decade after decade, the government gets bigger and more intrusive. Real change becomes harder to imagine, much less accomplish, when the public sector overwhelms the private and we become Greece with snow, or worse. We are approaching in Canada, though the Americans are likely to beat us to it, a sort of reverse feudalism. The original feudal system had hundreds, or even thousands, of serfs financing the lifestyle of a single lord and his family. The many sacrificed to the few. The progressive income tax has reversed the process, a small elite pay for the entitlements of the many. Once the critical mass of the electorate are net beneficiaries of state largesse, the political options narrow considerably. A politician has to convince voters to give up their freebies, all so taxes can be lowered on the more productive - i.e. the rich. It's not an impossible pitch - Ron Paul is still in Congress - but it becomes increasingly a niche one. Here and there in a large transcontinental nation the payers outnumber the takers, but these are isolated pockets. Over time they become politically irrelevant. 

Posted by Richard Anderson on April 6, 2010 | Permalink

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