Saturday, August 4, 2012

How Canada Opted for Libertarian Socialism

By William Gairdner, March 28, 2012: 

This is an excerpt from Chapter One of The Trouble With Canada ... Still! (BPS Books, 2011)

        As it happened, in his very person Trudeau embodied the French and English styles described above, for he had a French-Canadian father, and a Scottish mother. Canadian scholars burn a lot of energy debating whether Trudeau was a “socialist” or a “libertarian” and assume the two things are contradictory. For he famously said that “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.” But he also entrenched coast-to-coast radical equalization policies in his Charter. Here was a man very comfortable with multiple mistresses, with legislating homosexual rights, and who, even as Prime Minister did not mind taking off his clothes and sunbathing nude in mixed company.[1] He was a flamboyant libertarian who imposed the most controlling and expensive Statist regime on Canada in its history.

         So was he a socialist or a libertarian?

         My answer:  he was a “libertarian socialist,” and we Canadians all now live under his libertarian socialists regime. But how? How can this circle be squared? These things are opposites, aren’t they? Not really. It’s just the two labels are applied to different things. Think of what is individual, private, and physical: your body. Then think of what is public and general: a service like health care, or education, or a language right. Trudeau’s Charter combined and enabled these two conflicting styles by encouraging the separation of the private body, from the public body.  He was a libertarian in that he believed matters of the private body are no one else’s business. But when it came to goods he felt we all deserve from the State? Why, then a powerful system for providing, equalizing, and controlling access to such goods must be set up, and this would be done through taxation and fiscal bribery of the provinces; that is, through shared-cost programs or grants financed by exorbitant levels of individual taxation and unconscionable borrowing.  But what kind of socialism was it? What kind of libertarianism?   
His Socialist Conviction

             Trudeau was trying, as mentioned, to spin the wheel slowly, so that without realizing the change of direction, a Canadian would find himself “disembarking at a different island than the one he thought he was sailing for.” Fundamentally, on the public level, all that he did was clearly and resolutely substitute the French-Statist style for the English-Liberty style at every opportunity. By the time he was finished, Canada had changed from a fiscally stable, low-debt, reasonably free, only mildly-socialized nation under limited government, to one bending under huge public debt, highly managerial, and much more thoroughly socialist in its fiscal and social commitments. In his first and only major book, Federalism and the French Canadians, Trudeau clearly outlined this plan for Canada. At the time, most leftists argued that socialism could not successfully be planted in a nation such as ours with an existing federal system because the powers of governance in such nations are already divided as between central and local jurisdictions, and this division of powers is entrenched forever in their constitutions. So the general conclusion was that Canada was not and never would be a candidate for socialism. But Trudeau disagreed. He spoke admiringly of "that superb strategist, Mao Tse-Tung" who argued that “planting socialism” in various regional strongholds was "the very best thing." Accordingly, Trudeau developed the argument that systems such as Canada’s, contrary to the advice of all the theorists, can indeed be made socialist, and that our British-style federal system "must be welcomed as a valuable tool which permits dynamic parties to plant socialist governments in certain provinces, from which the seeds of radicalism can slowly spread"[2]

 His Libertarian Conviction

                 Trudeau probably wrote as much about individual rights as about socialism, and most scholars, and the public in general continue to believe these two political philosophies are in clear contradiction. Certainly, in their party platforms, socialists and libertarians are sworn enemies. But as mentioned, Trudeau’s genius was to combine these contraries by splitting their domains between what is inside our skin, and what is outside it: private body, and public body; person and polis.  

        He was throwing the Canadian people a bone by reducing the larger realm of freedom to which they had been accustomed, to their persons and bodies. But all the “public” freedoms having to do with economics and trade, private property, education, provision of health care, welfare, and so on, would fall under Statist regulation. He knew that if he could leave us unfettered and free with respect to most of our personal bodily pleasures, we would be fooled into believing we were still free in all our former ways. But those were precisely the freedoms he despised: the bottom-up political, economic, and legislative realities essential to the creation of the British-style that produced what he called scornfully, our "checkerboard federalism." To him, Canada’s parliamentarians were “just nobodies,” and “a crummy lot” (this, he uttered publicly in 1969).  The British Style was a reality that stood in the way of his French-style plan for Statism. So the system had to be changed. Trudeau was Canada’s Procrustes, doing his utmost to make a one-size-fits-all political bed for Canadian citizens.  

          His libertarian ethic, which is based on the idea that liberty means doing whatever you want as long as you don’t harm anyone else, was absorbed from typical English individualist thinking that was radicalized by John Stuart Mill in his canonical booklet, On Liberty (1859). It is called Mill’s “Harm Principle,” and it neatly articulated Mill’s simplistic argument for the privatization of morality that it has by now become the standard reasoning in defence of personal moral autonomy all over the Western world. Prior to Mill, throughout our long Judeo-Christian tradition, morality – codes of right and wrong behavior - had always been considered a community good. Moral standards reflected common religious and community standards. The metaphor was that we all live under a common moral bubble wherein by means of conviction, belief, and debate we sustain a common set of shalls and shall-nots that defines us morally … who we are.  Mill argued instead that we each ought to live under our own private self-defined moral bubble, and be concerned for others only if we bump into them. Then we just apologize, or negotiate a solution to any harm done.

         Mill failed to see that if you are completely alone in the universe it is true that you can do whatever you want, and call it “morality” if you like. But because there are no other human beings in existence and you cannot therefore help or harm anyone else, you can also call it Winnie-the-Pooh. However, as soon as someone else exists in addition to yourself, you must take into consideration whether your actions will help them, or harm them, now, or in the future, directly or indirectly. Suddenly, what was a personal and private act, becomes public, and thus falls under the term “morality,” rightly considered. In his person and in his politics, Trudeau combined two conflicting styles: the personal libertarianism articulated by Mill, and the Statism of Rousseau.

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