Globe and Mail, Oct. 24, 2003

The rise of libertarian conservatism


Let's talk about the death of communitarian conservatism. But first, the news.

There is word that the National Management Committee of the Progressive Conservative Party, when it meets tomorrow, will finesse the problem of dissolving the grand old party without violating its constitution.

Conservative opponents of the proposed merger of the Tory and Alliance parties have demanded that the party adhere to the spirit and the letter of its constitution by holding a proper, delegated national meeting to ratify dissolution. Unless two-thirds of the delegates, elected from all 301 ridings, supported the motion, the proposed union would be off.

But a formal national meeting would be horrifically expensive for a party that is, in a word, broke. And besides, such conventions can get out of hand, with independent and ex-officio delegates (riding presidents, senators, former MPs and the like) making things unpredictable.

By way of compromise, the three-dozen or so members of the management committee are expected to approve a proposal to hold a dozen or more regional meetings. Each riding will elect delegates to attend the appropriate meeting. The accumulated results from the meetings will count as the final vote.

"This stuff has been reviewed by a bevy of lawyers," said one highly placed source, so the chances of a successful legal challenge from anti-merger activist David Orchard are slim. The committee will also likely allow new members to join the party and vote for delegates right up until the end of November. All of this bodes well for the pro-merger forces when the final votes are tallied.

Meanwhile, the leadership race continues to evolve toward a confrontation between Alliance Leader Stephen Harper and former Ontario premier Mike Harris, both of whom are expected to officially enter the race by mid-November. Tory leader Peter MacKay is mulling over whether it's worth a run in an almost-certainly-losing cause. Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison and Calgary businessman Jim Prentice are also testing support, though their prospects are, to be charitable, dim.

In all of these names, there is not to be found a single champion from the Progressive wing of the party, confirming that this merger truly is a friendly takeover of the Tories by the Alliance. And this truly does spell the end of communitarian conservatism in this country.

Red Tories, we sometimes call them. They share with democratic socialists the belief that government must, first and foremost, ensure the health of the community. The best way to do this, they think, is to prevent excessive disparities in wealth, and to limit the ability of the private sector to act capriciously when those actions affect jobs, neighbourhoods or the environment.

Communitarian conservatives differ from democratic socialists in their (reluctant) willingness to leave the private sector alone, as long as it doesn't bother anybody, and their sentimental affection for the traditions and institutions that shape the country. While socialists are genuinely egalitarian, Red Tories accept egalitarian measures from a sense of noblesse oblige.

Neither the communitarian conservatives nor the democratic socialists have any time for libertarians, who celebrate equality of opportunity over uniformity of result, and who place the individual and his or her rights at the centre of the political universe.

Both Stephen Harper and Mike Harris are firm libertarians. Mr. Harris is even more libertarian than Mr. Harper, in that the former premier keeps his distance from social conservatives: He believes the state should have as little place as possible in either the bedrooms or the boardrooms of the nation. Mr. Harper, on the other hand, gives a sympathetic ear to those economic libertarian/social conservatives who want freedom to do what they want, while bossing you around. Scott Brison and Jim Prentice both display economic and social libertarian tendencies. No one has, as yet, gotten around to asking Mr. MacKay what he believes.

Given the nature of the candidates, it's safe to predict the Conservative Party of Canada will be decidedly libertarian in outlook, which is why NDP Leader Jack Layton is urging Red Tories to join the NDP.

All things considered, it would make a good home for most of them. And they would be good for the NDP, tempering its social-justice excesses and its fear of the invisible market hand.

Of course, Red Tories who can't abide the dour utopianism of the NDP can always admit defeat and turn to the Liberals.

And what do Liberals believe in? They believe in whatever it takes.

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