Many social conservatives, particularly those in pro-life and anti-euthanasia circles, believe the Harper government gives scant attention to issues they consider important and conclude there is little reason for them to support the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC). Yet, there are strong reasons for social conservatives to not give up on the Harper government and, indeed, to fully support it. In what follows, I will flesh out the social conservative vision, specifying both what it opposes and what it promotes, and then assess what has been done over the past three years in furtherance of it, taking due account of the fact that Harper’s is a minority government.
What is the social conservative vision?
Many Canadians associate the “social conservative” label with a narrowly focused political attitude defined almost solely in terms of opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia. “People clinging to their guns and Bibles,” as President Obama suggested during his 2008 presidential campaign. Whatever the definition, the basic idea is that social conservatives are a weird group of loudmouth simpletons, long on religion and short on reason who seek to impose their moral views on society. This perception is widely shared by our media, as attested to by a 2002 Maclean’s front-page characterization of Stockwell Day as “scary.” It is also shared by a majority of Canadian academics who would view any debate with a social conservative as beneath their dignity.
The notion that social conservatism is but a remnant of religious bigotry is a very effective strategy because it sets the burden of “disproof” on conservatives while implicitly suggesting that only liberals and socialists can speak a language consistent with “public rationality.” Yet, social conservatism is based on certain broad principles that, until a few decades ago, were widely shared by Canadians, to the point where they were generally taken for granted by most elected officials. Given the deep transformation in Canadian political culture largely ushered in by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms over the past 25 years, a quick review of those principles seems warranted.
In the words of Roger Scruton, conservatism essentially involves “loving the world as it is,” being sensitive to what has been handed over by our forefathers. It is based on a sense of amity toward the community, rather than a desire to remake it according to purely intellectual constructs. This attitude of receptivity toward the experience of earlier generations reflects the view that there is a “hard-core” human nature that cannot be tampered with and by which cultures, in spite of their diversity and constant evolution, can be judged. While recognizing that our common understanding of human nature evolves over time, social conservatives thus acknowledge that there is something unchanging in that nature.
Post-modern or egalitarian liberals, libertarians and socialists take a different view of human nature, which they understand as a more or less malleable reality that can be perfected by a so-called progressive accumulation of scientific knowledge. By denying a permanent or unchanging human nature, non-conservatives make the traditional distinction between culture and nature increasingly irrelevant. This has led to an increasing mental confusion about the nature of man, as evidenced by the fact that as much as half the books published on scientific topics today are about human psychology. Yet, there is no area of science where there is less of a consensus and less certainty than human psychology. Despite a century of scientific analysis, modern man knows himself less well than in earlier, less self-centered times. The more we look at ourselves, the less we understand.
Social conservatives are countercultural in that they believe, at a minimum, there is an objective order of universals that defines the nature of things, including human nature. What they seek to conserve are those institutions that reflect this objective order. When a society deviates from this order, conservatives feel the need to “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop,’” as long-time editor of National Review William F. Buckley once put it.
All of the main ideas associated with social conservatism derive from this view of human nature. For example, social conservatives value tradition, understood not as a fixation on the past, but rather as the accumulated wisdom of earlier generations. Between the dictates of custom and the fashionable opinions of the day, the former enjoy a presumption in their favour. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “tradition is only democracy extended through time … trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record.” If there is a permanency in human nature, as social conservatives believe, long-standing practices and institutions, precisely because they have survived the test of time, should be regarded as most likely appropriate to that nature. This does not mean that innovations should be viewed as unnecessary or undesirable: As the great conservative thinker Edmund Burke put it, “a State without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” However, change should be viewed with caution, as it often entails unintended consequences. One may recall, for example, how no-fault divorce was supposed to have no impact on the rate of divorce, but it then caused the latter to skyrocket in the months and years following its introduction in 1969.
Because they value tradition, social conservatives also value the principle of authority. If long-standing practices and institutions have survived the test of time, they should enjoy a moral authority that untested practices or ideas do not have. This authority extends to institutions such as the Church, family and state.
Social conservatives are generally supportive of the free market economy based on private property because they firmly believe that, although it results in a certain degree of economic inequality, it is the system most consistent with human freedom and dignity and allows for greater overall prosperity and creativity. While acknowledging that men are inclined to be greedy, social conservatism also assumes that they can see beyond their own immediate interest and seek ways of reconciling the latter and the interests of society as a whole. As such, it is fully consistent with Adam Smith’s view that an ethical economy is required to ensure fairness for all. Like libertarians and unlike socialists, social conservatives believe that economics has its own laws that must be allowed to function freely, but, unlike libertarians, they also believe that capitalism must be subject to rules that reflect the requirements of the moral life.
That being said, social conservatives also believe that there are natural ties between human beings that run far deeper than contractual ties arising out of economic activity. This distinguishes them from liberals (à la John Rawls) and libertarians (à la Robert Nozick or Ayn Rand), who tend to reduce all human relations to contractual arrangements. Chief among these natural ties are those that make up the family – an institution that social conservatives view as fundamental because, among other things, it is the one in which our social nature is first experienced and developed. It is within the family that one learns social responsibility and solidarity. The family is an institution where each person is treated “as an end and never as a means.” The purpose of the family is not only to beget children, it is to give a moral and spiritual formation that will maintain and enrich the intellectual and cultural capital of civilization. Raising a family requires that parents sacrifice some of their personal desires or preferences for the sake of their children, and such self-sacrifice, although not without some real cost, produces greater inner satisfaction than would
have been possible without it. The family is the school where we learn that we have obligations we never anticipated and needs that cannot always be satisfied. It is where we experience that life is bigger than we are and that there is merit in putting the interests of others ahead of our own. That is why social conservatives believe the family enjoys a certain priority over society and over the state.
The family is the stumbling block that prevents any long-term alliance between libertarians and social conservatives. If one assumes that the family is not a human invention but a natural institution, then one is led to the realization that one’s most fundamental obligations in life result, not from some free choice, but rather from one’s very nature, and that human happiness is the unforeseen consequence of accepting those obligations and of living according to one’s nature. In such a case, one is likely to take a conservative approach to public policies, particularly those pertaining to the family. If, however, one believes that one is bound solely by obligations one explicitly accepts and that happiness consists of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, then a liberal or a libertarian approach to public policies and the family seems eminently sensible.
To summarize, social conservatives focus on what is permanent in human nature, emphasize the importance of tradition, trust in a market economy and put the family ahead of the state.
The anti-conservative fallacy: On “legislating morality”
Many liberals and libertarians accuse social conservatives of seeking to enforce a religious ethic through state power. In Canada, the best illustration of this criticism was provided by no less than the Supreme Court. In a 7-2 decision rendered in 2005 in the now infamous Labaye case involving clubs featuring group sex and partner-swapping, the Court held such activities not to be in violation of the Criminal Code because “over time, courts increasingly came to recognize that morals and taste were subjective, arbitrary and unworkable in the criminal context ….”
In making this statement, the Supreme Court in effect declared that enacted laws should be morally neutral. Yet, it is impossible to conceive of any law that does not have some kind of moral basis. Even a bad law has a moral basis, i.e., it is based on a false morality. A law devoid of some kind of moral rationale is inconceivable. For example, the law that imposes gasoline taxes assumes that people who drive around town ought to pay for doing so. The law that provides for a progressive income tax system assumes that some people ought to pay proportionately more than others for government services accessible to all. The law that sets speed limits is based on the moral idea that we ought to be concerned about the safety of other people on the road.
The notion that social conservatives seek to impose their values on the whole of society is not only contrary to reality, it is inherently inconsistent. Liberals and libertarians who, following John Rawls, believe that a political order can be established that is neutral between diverse moral and religious world views, are themselves non-neutral. Indeed, it is logically impossible to commit to neutralism without committing to a particular value such as social peace, tolerance, multiculturalism, individualism, etc. Any such commitment entails a violation of moral neutralism. The problem is not that moral neutralism is difficult to achieve, but rather that it is unachievable. And it is so because it is inconceivable. It is simply impossible to make statements about social life without expressing some preference about the criteria that should govern it.
Does that mean that, insofar as morality and the law are concerned, there is no choice other than being either a deluded fool or a bigot? The answer is no, subject to two provisos: a) enacted laws should be based on an objective moral order and b) the law should enforce morality only when the public interest is at stake. As regards the first point, the origin of enacted laws is the natural moral law, a concept first developed by Greek and Roman thinkers long before Christianity appeared. It is a non-sectarian defense of objective, universal moral principles. Judges can make decisions based on natural law because it is sustainable independently of any religious view. To refrain from killing, stealing or raping is not the expression of a “subjective, arbitrary and unworkable” preference, but a universal, objective moral law easily understood by people of all cultural backgrounds because it is rooted in an unchanging human nature.
One cannot deny that enacted laws have a moral grounding without tacitly denying that there exists a natural law. If we believe that the law is a purely human construct and nothing else, then what we have traditionally called justice can only be viewed as sheer arbitrariness. And every man and woman knows deep in his or her heart that cannot be so. Social conservatives believe that while there is a Christian attitude toward fellow citizens, there is no such thing as Christian law. However, all law must measure up to some moral standard.
The anti-conservative agenda: On “legislating secularism”
Liberals and libertarians oppose the social conservative vision not, as is often claimed, in the name of moral neutrality, but rather with a view to ushering in their own agenda, better known as secularism (not to be confused with secularity or separation of Church and state, which are concepts rooted in the Christian tradition). Secularists maintain that God can be reduced to a simple “hypothesis,” transcendence to a myth, reason to an instrument of the passions (“the slave of passion” as David Hume put it) and morality to an external and arbitrary constraint. In their eyes, human freedom has no limit except that which we wish to impose upon it, which means that, ultimately, there are no limits. From this perspective, natural law (Judeo-Christian morality) is merely an intellectual construct, freedom of consciences and the dignity of persons a defense mechanism against the power of human genius, religion the reflection of an immature humanity.
By refusing to recognize limits inherent in freedom, secularism leads to the destruction of all freedoms. Its political program is not limited to a few cosmetic reforms of existing institutions. Rather, it aims at the creation of an entirely new society in which the role of family and school, the distinction between the sexes, the role of religion in social life, sexual morality and, more generally, the understanding of good and evil are completely transformed or, in Nietzschean language, “revalued.” In other words, the aim is a complete emancipation of the individual from any moral code capable of restraining his impulses and desires. Man need no longer die to enter paradise because, thanks to the suppression by the new secular religion of all forms of discrimination inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition, Heaven and Earth can henceforth be considered as one and the same. In practice, this positivist notion of freedom translates into a reinterpretation of human rights whereby the latter are declared by some unelected bodies – usually of a judicial nature – to include a supposed right to abortion, which implies a denial of the right to life of unborn children, or a supposed right of homosexual couples to marry and adopt children, which implies the denial of a child’s right to a mother and father.
The end of all this is that, whereas liberals and socialists seek sexual freedom, economic regulation and big government, social conservatives seek sexual restraint, economic freedom and limited government, with libertarians seeking a halfway house of sexual freedom, economic freedom and limited government. People who understand freedom as being ordered to a life of personal commitment and responsibility are, at heart, social conservatives. People who seek freedom without commitment and responsibility are either socialist/liberal or libertarian, depending on how averse they are to paying taxes. Because they believe in personal freedom and responsibility, social conservatives seek to limit the role of government. In their view, Tacitus’s dictum that “the more corrupt the state, the more it legislates” requires an addendum: “The more it legislates, the more it destroys civil society and economic prosperity.”
Social conservatives and the Harper government
Until the beginning of the 1960s, Canadian political parties promoted ideas, particularly with respect to marriage and family, which were generally compatible with the social conservative vision, rooted as it is in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Over the past 40 years, however, they have gradually succumbed to the seductions of the media and academic elite and become agents of secularism. Although it has not always been so, the Liberal Party, the NDP and the Bloc Québécois today pursue political agendas that seek to erode the Judeo-Christian tradition, as evidenced by the zeal with which those parties defend policies that contradict the natural law and weaken religious freedom, freedom of expression, educational rights, marriage and the family. As for the Conservatives, it is an amalgam of diverse elements: libertarians, fiscal conservatives, provincial rights advocates and social conservatives.
What has the Harper government done to support the social conservative agenda? Two things come immediately to mind. First, the abolition of the Court Challenges Program, established under the Chrétien government to fund test cases by individuals and groups seeking to challenge federal laws and policies allegedly in violation of their constitutional equality rights. The program was used mainly, although not exclusively, by feminists and gays and lesbians to redress what they deemed to be unjust forms of discrimination.
The other major social conservative achievement of the Harper government is the $1,200 per year child-care allowance and the abandonment of the Liberal plan to set up a joint federal-provincial child-care system. This is no small accomplishment, as the child-care allowance benefits all families, including those having a stay-at-home parent, whereas the Liberal daycare model, inspired by the Quebec system, would have benefited only two-working-parent families and created a system where single-income families would have ended up subsidizing two-income families through the tax system. Why middle-income families with modest incomes and one parent at home should subsidize rich families with two parents working is a question that never seems to have been even pondered by our liberal and socialist ”thinkers.”
Thanks to the Harper government, Canada has also ceased to be a country with one of the lowest ages of consent for sexual activity in the Western world, the age limit having been raised last year from 14 to 16. The government has also consistently opposed the legalization of marijuana, and it supports firmer legislation for criminal offenders. Moreover, the Conservatives were the only party to take a firm stand against same-sex marriage.
It should be acknowledged that positive changes have also taken place in areas outside the social sphere. From the early 1960s on, Canadian military manpower kept dwindling and equipment stocks shrinking. To remedy the situation, the Harper government has improved recruitment and retention of military personnel and initiated the largest Canadian defence procurement policy since World War II. More generally, Canada’s involvement in the fight against international terrorism has been significantly enhanced, especially through the presence of our Armed Forces in Afghanistan
Of course, social conservatives unhappy with the Harper government are likely to point to other areas where little or no decisive action has been taken. The most important of these is undoubtedly same-sex marriage, where the Conservative MPs failed to put up as strong a fight as they might have. Similarly, one might well have expected the Harper government to oppose more firmly the hostility toward the Western heritage that underlies so much (although not all) of the trendy multiculturalism that now pervades all aspects of public life. Little has been done, for example, to ensure that Islamic immigrants integrate fully into Canadian culture and to make clear that if they do not want to integrate, they ought to move elsewhere and seek a country with social traditions more in tune with their beliefs and hopes – a policy many Islamic immigrants themselves agree with.
While there is certainly some legitimacy in such grievances, one cannot ignore the fact that the Harper government has been in a minority position and, perhaps more importantly, confronted until recently with very hostile media seeking every opportunity to make it appear extremist. Thus, it can be legitimately argued that the “soft” response of the Harper government on these issues has been based more on tactical prudential judgment than on a lack of commitment.
That said, the Conservatives remain the national party most capable of addressing the issues of particular concern to conservative-minded people. One of the most important of these is the interpretation given to human rights, particularly the rights to life, to freedom of expression and to freedom of conscience. As regards the right to life, Canadians must be reminded that whereas virtually all countries in North America and Europe impose some kind of procedural or time restraints on abortion, Canada has none whatsoever. As long as our children are in the womb, they are treated as market commodities.
As regards freedom of expression, there is a need to repeal certain forms of hate speech legislation. In a few decades, we have gone from a situation wherein homosexual acts were liable to criminal prosecution to one in which stating publicly that the homosexual lifestyle is not morally on par with traditional marriage is a crime. By any name, this is Thought Crime. As Orwell predicted, we have arrived at a situation in which “some [of us] are more equal than others.” At a minimum, a distinction must be made between homosexual persons, who are entitled to the same respect as others, and homosexual acts, that many religious and non-religious groups view critically. More generally, people should be free to state their views on the gay agenda without fear of having to appear before a Human Rights tribunal.
It is also imperative to mount some resistance to the growing pressures in support of legalizing euthanasia. Such legalization would be tantamount to giving government bureaucrats the power to determine who should live and who should not. If we do not see that as something worrisome, we might as well give up on any sense of individual responsibility. Given the increasing pressures exerted on medical practitioners to perform acts that they morally object to, freedom of consciences must also be reinforced.
Another issue of concern to social conservatives is the decline of marriage and family. In addition to being today’s major cause of social instability, family breakdown compromises civic freedom. A recent study by the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (IMFC) points out that the public cost of broken families in Canada is in the order of $7-billion annually.1 A substantial body of research clearly shows that children fare best in a home with married parents. The same research also shows that family breakdown leads to poverty and, more specifically, to the feminization of poverty. In other words, studies have confirmed what common sense has long taught us. One way of reducing family breakdown would be to encourage young couples to marry by making them more aware of the differences between marriage and common-law unions. Data from Statistics Canada indicate that common-law unions are much less likely to survive the test of time – by the age of 10, nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of children of common-law relations experience family breakdown.2
The best way to fight crime and poverty and increase the well-being of children is to strengthen the family. This can be done through various measures, the most important being doing away with unilateral divorce, also known as no-fault divorce. The full implications of easy divorce have never been publicly debated. “The divorce laws … were reformed by unrepresentative groups with very particular agendas of their own and which were not in step with public opinion,” writes Melanie Phillips in The Sex-Change Society: Feminised Britain and the Neutered Male, published in 1999. “Public attitudes were gradually dragged along behind laws that were generally understood at the time to mean something very different from what they subsequently came to represent.” The time has come for Canada to have a debate on marriage and divorce. Some recognition must be given to the view that marriage is more than a contract for mutual advantage, that it is a sacred union. Failing this, the family will continue to deteriorate and, with it, our social and cultural capital. The risk is that Canada might eventually find itself afflicted with the kind of rampant social decay experienced in the United Kingdom over the past 20 years and so shrewdly and sadly chronicled by the likes of Theodore Dalrymple and Melanie Philips. No country where nearly half of all marriages end up in divorce can expect a happy future.
Family taxation is another means of reinforcing the family unit. A little over 40 years ago, the famous Carter Report argued for equal treatment for families. Yet, today, a single-earner family pays much more tax than a two-earner family. This is an issue that should be addressed, and it can best be rectified by allowing families to split income more readily for tax purposes. Income splitting (or family taxation), alongside correcting for structural inequality, would help families immensely. The Harper government introduced legislation that allows for the splitting of retirement income. Moving a step further by allowing the splitting of work income would be of great help to families with a stay-at-home parent.
Finally, the government must acknowledge that there is a relationship between the protection of the family and criminal law. The way the law deals with prostitution, for example, can have a significant impact on family life. This is one of the reasons legalizing prostitution should be resisted. Jurisdictions that have legalized prostitution have found that the illegal side of the business, including human trafficking, tends to increase when prostitution is legalized.3
Turning back the clock?
The renewal of Canadian conservatism is a long-term project requiring a conversion of both hearts and minds. Some claim that holding such a project is delusional because it involves “turning back the clock.” In fairness, social conservatives do seek to “turn back the clock” because they believe that we are better served by the logic of past generations, i.e., tradition, than by that of utopian dreamers, i.e., ideologies. Why should that be delusional? C.S. Lewis once noted, “If you’re on the wrong road,
progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” One need not be an arch-conservative to realize that Canada, like most other Western countries, has been on the wrong road for quite some time and that our current social model is simply not viable in the long run. The breakdown of the family has led to a situation where our birth rate stands below the replacement level, which means that the ratio of non-dependent to dependent people will eventually lead to a collapse of our entire social security system. It takes families with more than one or two children to maintain a healthy economy and society. Conservatism is not an ideology because it assumes the existence of a permanent moral order. It does not invent values but seeks rather to rediscover the permanent human virtues without which, according to Alexis de Tocqueville, no democracy can survive.
Social conservatives focus on what is permanent in human nature, emphasize the importance of tradition, trust in a market economy and put the family ahead of the state. Social conservatives reject John Rawls’ notion that a political order can be established that is neutral between diverse moral and religious world views, as well as the concept of a specifically Christian law. They also believe that the origin of enacted laws is the natural moral law, a legal philosophy developed by Greek and Roman thinkers long before Christianity appeared on the historical scene. The Harper government has been reasonably supportive of a social conservative vision, as attested to by its implementation of the Child Care Allowance Program, the abolition of the Court Challenges Program and its balanced environmental policies. There seems little doubt that the CPC is the national party most capable of addressing other issues of particular concern to conservative-minded people, notably as regards the interpretation of freedom of expression and freedom of conscience, as well as the reinforcement of the traditional family through family taxation.
1 Rebecca Walberg and Andrea Mrozek, “Private Choices, Public Costs – How Failing Families Cost Us All,” Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, June 2009. Available at http://www.imfcanada.org/article_files/Cost%20of%20Family%20Breakdown%20finalHR.pdf.
2 Marcil-Gratton, Nicole, “Growing up with Mom and Dad? The Intricate Family Life Courses of Canadian Children,” The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, July 1998. Available at http://dsp-psd.pwgsc.gc.ca/Collection/Statcan/89-566-X/89-566-XIE1995001.pdf.
3 Helen Mees, “Does Legalizing Prostitution Work?” Policy Innovations, Carnegie Council, 2009. Available at http://www.policyinnovations.org/ideas/commentary/data/000107.