It’s been more than 30 years since the end of the Cold War and American philosopher Francis Fukuyama’s famous prediction that human society had reached “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Well, It made sense at the time − with communism and the radical left everywhere in retreat and a growing recognition that liberal democratic values and free markets were raising the living standards of countless millions of people worldwide. After decades of ideological struggle between highly-interventionist governments and governments that favoured personal freedoms, it seemed the argument had finally been settled in favour of freedom.
As we approach the third decade of the 21st century that view seems shockingly naïve and somewhat embarrassing. Did we not notice how deeply entrenched leftist ideas had become in schools, universities and the public service? Perhaps so, but it was widely assumed that the benefits of liberal democracy and free markets were so blatantly obvious that the appeal of the failed leftist agenda would eventually wane over time.
Clearly, things have not turned out that way. Fukuyama’s “end-point” was in reality just the starting point for a new, broader assault on liberal-democratic values. So here we are again, up to our gumboots in the same ideological quagmire with the same leftwing, interventionist snake-oil of central planning and self-balancing budgets being sold to a new generation of voters. How and why this happened is the subject of a new book from Brian Lee Crowley, Gardeners versus Designers – Understanding the Great Fault Line in Canadian Politics.
Crowley, the managing director of Ottawa’s Macdonald-Laurier Institute is a long-time commentator on Canadian public policy, and the author of several previous books on politics and economics. The “great fault line” of the title is, of course, the increasingly acrimonious debate over such omnibus topics as debt financing, identity politics, history and the ever-expanding presence of government in our daily lives. Rather than decreasing over the past 30 years, the din of left-wing interventionism has increased to a level not seen young baby boomers were running around waving their copies of Mao’s Little Red Book on campus. And so the chasm grows.
Crowley is obviously not the first to tackle the subject from a broadly conservative perspective: both former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former Reform Party leader Preston Manning covered much the same ground in their most recent books. But Crowley is not a politician and he approaches his subject from a philosophical rather than partisan political viewpoint. To that end he eschews the conventional political labels of left and right – indeed, he makes hardly any mention of political parties – and prefers instead to use the somewhat awkward designations of “gardeners” and “designers” to distinguish between the two sides of this great political divide and their approach to governing.
“We fatally misunderstand our politics in Canada” he writes, “if we think that the main divide is that between the principal political parties, Grits versus Tories, say, or progressives versus reactionaries, as the left would like to frame it. Having misconceived the nature of what divides us politically, we then profess to find ourselves disappointed by the shallow nature of the political debate that results. This book calls on Canadians to reimagine this nation’s politics by sharply redefining the main fault line at the heart of our politics.”
Its easy to lose count of the number of writers who’ve bemoaned the straightjacket of traditional left-right political discussion, but Crowley is the first in recent memory to actually committed to using different terminology throughout an entire work. There are the inevitable references to left and right in the book, but in general he sticks with his “gardener” and “designer” metaphors. It takes some getting used to, and can seem a little forced at times, but you have to give him points for trying to redefine and refresh the usual political discussion.
My starting point for this redefinition is to point out that there are two main ways of thinking about any society from a political point of view. On the one hand there are people who conceive of society as a machine. A machine is invented by human beings following a carefully engineered plan. Every part has a purpose and a function that can only be understood and made to work by the folks who designed it in accordance with highly specialized expert knowledge. And like almost any machine, it can be made to do pretty much what you want. If you want it to speed up, you pull this lever; if you want it to use less fuel, you twiddle that dial. And if the machine gets old and clapped out you can replace it with a ‘new and improved’ model. In this view of politics, the key players are the engineers, the designers, the experts, who understand machines. When our social machine disappoints, they can always come up with something better, and in the meantime they can fiddle endlessly with the current model to get it to do what they think is best.
Crowley wrote this before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau starting talking about using the coronavirus pandemic as a reset for Canadian society − to “build back better” as the slogan now goes – but it seems quite clear our designing prime minister considers this a perfect opportunity to pull a few more levers and twiddle a few more dials. For his part, Crowley champions a less mechanistic, more organic approach to policy-making.
Canadian society is no machine, but rather a garden. The key characteristic of a garden, as any real gardener will tell you, is that no one is in charge. A garden is a co-operative effort among many different factors, like climate, predators, soil, nutrients and, of course, the efforts of gardeners. But unlike a machine, whose purpose was imagined by its designers and which is a servant of their will, gardens are made up of many disparate plants, each of which has its own energy, intelligence and will. Gardeners can help to create the conditions in which a garden flourishes but they cannot overmaster natural processes and they succeed best when they accept that each plant knows what conditions help to elicit its best self and no amount of gardening ‘expertise’ can shove nature aside. Gardeners can and do profoundly influence their garden, but they are the servants, not the boss, of what goes on there.
According to Crowley, designers believe society is a machine to be perfected, while gardeners understand that no one is really “in charge.”
There are echoes here of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s assertion, much misunderstood at the time, that “there is no such thing as society.” Thatcher was no anarchist of course, and neither is Crowley. But he believes, as she did, that nations are a complex web of individual needs and aspirations that can be hard to understand, let alone manage. After much trial and error, liberal democracies have developed what Crowley calls “grown institutions” that reflect that complexity and – by any reasonable measure – have provided greater individual freedom and more widespread prosperity than any system of government that has gone before. Crowley believes those institutions – democratic government, the rule of law, free markets and property rights − are worthy of deep respect, and indeed are vital to the preservation of the freedom and prosperity that makes the liberal democracies such magnets for immigration.
The progressive designer, by contrast, believes society is best understood as a collection of disparate identities − white, black, indigenous, gay, straight, oppressed and oppressor – that can be oiled and greased by benevolent governments to create a more equitable and harmonious machine. They tend to dismiss the history of liberal democracies and free markets as, for the most part, one of greed and exploitation: a zero-sum game in which success has come at the expense of the rest of humanity. Rather than being worthy of respect, our existing institutions are deeply flawed and in need of immediate and drastic improvement based on the latest expert advice.
Designers and Gardeners in action: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (left) wants to “build back better,” while former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (right) famously declared “there is no such thing as society.”
“The chief division between designers and gardeners is what they think human beings can and do know,” says Crowley. “If designers are right that political authorities can and do know more than everyone else then there is a strong case for the rest of us to defer to those authorities in the design of our institutions and society. By contrast, gardeners think that grown institutions embody more knowledge than anyone, including our political leaders, can ever hope to gather, let alone understand.”
That’s not an argument for doing nothing or preserving the status quo as gospel, but it does argue for some humility in crafting public policy. (Not exactly a hallmark of progressive thinking). Gardeners and designers agree that knowledge is power, says Crowley. They just disagree about what knowledge is, how it works, who has it, and most importantly: its limits. “Designers believe that… it is possible to achieve a comprehensive overview of human knowledge and that that overview can best be achieved by governments that use a vast, professional, knowledge-gathering and processing bureaucracy to acquire and analyze everything that is known. And since knowledge is the prerequisite for success in human affairs, a wise humanity hands over to government, at the apex of the knowledge hierarchy, the design, organization and execution of the most important and complex of human affairs. The gardener, by contrast, is keenly aware that knowledge is variegated and subtle. Far from being easily assembled in a god-like overview of the operation of society, much knowledge is irremediably locked in both nature and the minds and hearts of billions of people. Moreover, new knowledge about ourselves, about nature, and about society is constantly being discovered.”
He might have added that in a world of social media, the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, there is less and less agreement about what the truth is on any given subject. Everyone has an opinion (and the means of expressing it) and more and more it’s those opinions – regardless of any objective truth – that drive politics and public policy.
The later part of Crowley’s book applies these insights to a range of issues that have come to dominate current political debate in Canada: identity politics, reconciliation with indigenous peoples, natural resource development, public healthcare and that most vexed of issues, climate change. He doesn’t pretend to have definitive answers, but instead offers a framework for finding those answers. Take climate change for example.
For too long the debate has been monopolized by two parties. One has got religion, fervently believing in man-made climate change, and that only fundamental changes in human behaviour, as dictated by politicians guided by the advice of scientists, can stave off disaster. Their opponents argue that the science is uncertain, unsettled and inconclusive, and therefore that no action is warranted until we possess that missing certainty.
In fact they both have it wrong, argues Crowley. “They both make the mistake of believing that the answer, one way or the other, lies in certainty: that we can know what the climate is going to do and either do something or nothing in response. The reality is that long-range future energy, climate, economic, and other carbon-related environmental conditions are and will remain significantly uncertain, highly variable, and largely unpredictable.”
What we do know is that the world’s population has grown exponentially and energy demand has grown with it, driven by the choices made by billions of individuals in pursuit of their own needs and aspirations. So the approach to climate policy we actually need, says Crowley, is one that stops obsessing about what we should do and focusses on what we actually can do.
Crowley is not an opponent of what some call “climate action”: he believes climate changes are real (the historic and geological records are full of them) and he thinks most people are inclined to make changes that benefit the environment. The fundamental problem, he argues, is that any policy that demands individuals or society become poorer is doomed to failure.
“When the economy is shrinking rather than growing, people will fight to protect what they have, so any resources spent on mitigating the effects of climate change have to be taken from people whose knowledge generated that wealth and who had other plans for the money. Climate policy becomes a zero-sum game, so deepening social conflict will be the inevitable result. Paying for the costs of climate mitigation and improvement against a background of economic growth means that part of the growth can be used to pay the costs of climate change policy without it making anyone worse off. This is a far easier sell.”
Like many economists Crowley is not, in principle, opposed to carbon pricing: he argues a carbon tax provides a “generalized incentive” to use less fossil fuel. The problem is that making such a tax effective has proved elusive as governments are reluctant to impose a tax rate high enough to bring about the massive reductions in fossil fuel use they argue are necessary, and exemptions for favoured groups and industries abound. So rather than one big, punitive stick, Crowley says, what we really need is a variety of carrots: incentives that reward people and industries for reducing CO2 output and allow us to get more creative. ”Concentrate our scarce resources where they would maximize human well-being: on policies, technologies, and infrastructure that allow humanity to adapt successfully to uncertain climate conditions in the future, including by reducing and where possible eliminating the effects of human activities that are thought to contribute to the risk of climate change.”
This sounds reasonable as an alternative approach to climate policy, although the bigger problem may be that as with most major issues, the designers have already framed the debate to their advantage and reasonable is off the table. Crowley acknowledges as much. “So successful have they been in capturing the way we talk about politics that every party now campaigns on designer themes: who should get special tax breaks or credits, what groups should get special recognition, who has the better plan for implementing the Paris Accord, who is the best friend of abstract groups like the ‘middle class,’ who can create the most complete monopoly for the provision of public services like health care. As a result, Canada’s standard of living has been in decline relative to our peers, the rule of law is under great stress, and Canadian society is riven by conflict over who will control the machinery of the state and use it to reward those it favours at the expense of everyone else, all in the name of ‘progressive’ values.”
It all sounds pretty bleak, but Crowley offers an organic silver lining: Canada’s “mainstream is deeply imbued with gardener’s values,” he writes. “The fact that no political party has been able to articulate and defend it is the greatest reason for our divisive and fractured politics. And we must never lose sight of this Canadian mainstream because without it we are forced to fall back on superficialities such as diversity and multiculturalism and so forth as the explanation for what makes Canada great.”
It’s true that in Canada we talk endlessly about values, without being quite sure what they are. Elsewhere political leaders have been more specific – with mixed results. U.S. President Donald Trump was able to give at least the impression he understood mainstream values in 2016, whether he shares them or not. And British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won his majority by convincing many traditional Labour voters in central and northern England that he best represented what they view as core British values.
Here in Canada, the Trudeau’s government claims to be focused on the amorphously vague (and potentially all-encompassing) “middle class and those working hard to join it.” To this end, we now have an amusing catch-all ministry of Middle Class Prosperity. And in naming his shadow cabinet, Erin O’Toole, the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, recently announced that he will serve as his own critic for Middle Class Prosperity; thus recognizing the notion’s centrality to present-day politics, if not its absurdity.
Crowley’s point about the difficulties politicians of all stripes have had in clearly articulating values that unite rather than divide Canadian seems well made. In a time of regionalism, identity politics, and allegedly rampant inequality, what are our common values? What is it that binds us together as Canadians and makes this a country worth preserving? Throughout the book he makes a strong case for the “grown institutions” of liberal democracy being the glue that holds us together.
Yet in rallying Canadians in defense of those institutions – surely the purpose of the book – language is important, and referring to diversity and multiculturalism as “superficialities” seems unnecessarily provocative. There are a great many Canadians who regard diversity and multiculturalism as specifically Canadian values, in addition to the institutions Crowley prizes. The poor result of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party in the last election offers a poignant real-world example of what can happen if you take Crowley’s superficialities argument too far.
Nevertheless, there is much of value here, and the book could hardly be more timely. We stand at a moment in time when the paths marked by the designers and gardeners seem particularly clear and distinct. The Trudeau government, backed by the NDP in a minority government, appears determined to use a global health crisis as an excuse to tackle the unfairness and injustice they claim currently defines Canadian society. We can expect the machine that is Canada will soon be tweaked within an inch of its life. And this offers the Conservatives the opportunity to provide a credible alternative that aligns much more closely with gardening principles. O’Toole and the Conservatives could do far worse than to embrace Crowley’s belief that “Canadian society is not something to be fixed. It is the framework within which we all make a life for ourselves and it makes possible our freedom, our autonomy and our flowering. It is something to be enjoyed, and its logic extended to new and unforeseen circumstances.”
Paul Stanway is a veteran columnist, editor and author of several books on Canadian history; from 2007 to 2010 he served as Communications Director for former Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.