Manifesto of a Classical Liberal-slash-Populist

When politicians become book authors, they frequently write an autobiography or a polemic, but Right Here, Right Now by Stephen Harper is neither. The former Canadian Prime Minister takes on the political question of the moment, exploring the rise of populism in the Western democracies.

Harper sets the tone in his prologue, writing that globalization has been successful for much for the world’s people but not so much for North America. Immigration and free trade are the two features of the globalization era he takes on in detail, offering a basis by which to assess both of these vital issues as they have played out in liberal democracies.

During his political career (he was Prime Minister from 2006 to 2015), Harper evidently sought to conserve the economic component of classical liberalism in Canada, his understanding having been shaped by his study of authors like F.A. Hayek. His recent work is a wider contemporary assessment taking in Canada, the United States, and the West as a whole. Indeed at the core of Harper’s approach to politics—and the reviews of the book have largely missed this— is an interesting intellectual tradition.

The Conservative Versus the Ideologue

With echoes of Voegelin scholar Barry Cooper, a votary of the so-called Calgary School (where Harper was a student), the former Prime Minister writes that abstract ideas underpinning conservatism ignore conservatism’s required rootedness in real world experience rather than abstract first principles. The warning has echoes of The Conservative Mind (1953), where Russell Kirk inveighed against economists “who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs.”

Recounting and honoring the legacy of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in this book, Harper sees both leaders as philosophical conservatives, not ideologues.

Populist movements today express some legitimate grievances, according to Harper, and respond to failures of policymakers who stuck too abstractly to a defense of the free movement of goods, services—and people. Nevertheless, he seeks to balance the grievances with ideas that responsible leaders might use to harness populism into a healthy consensus. The balance he would strike characterizes markets not as the problem but as part of the solution—but without exalting markets as the entire solution, which error he says conservatives have made.

Thus he does not agree with market libertarianism as an ideology. For him, conservatism is a way of thinking, not a school or single line of thought. He writes: “Populist conservatism is not rooted in abstract first principles, but real-world experience applied to the needs of regular people. In fact, this is not a branch of conservatism at all; this is the essence of conservatism.”

While Harper espouses common sense over abstraction, there are first principles in the conservatism he calls for that have existed over time, rooted in the real world. He appears loath to recognize that affirming a set of first principles in itself does not make one an ideologue. After all, Thatcher set forth the following principle in her 1987 Conservative Party speech in Blackpool: “It is our passionate belief that free enterprise and competition are the engines of prosperity and the guardians of liberty.” Nor did Harper’s other role model, Reagan, treat abstract thinking and experience as mutually exclusive. “The principles of conservatism are sound,” said Reagan, “because they are based on what men and women have discovered through experience in not just one generation or a dozen, but in all the combined experience of mankind.”

Harper argues that many conservatives have fallen victim to market dogmatism, with the implications including bad trade deals and immigration rules (or the breakdown thereof) that have been met with widespread criticism and populist electoral opponents promising reform. “Capitalism has become an end rather than a means,” he laments. “Markets have ceased to be viewed as a tool to solve problems and instead are described as moral objectives in themselves.”

It is worth noting that McGill University’s William Watson, reviewing Right Here, Right Now in the business section of Canada’s National Post, cautions that the book does not place effective boundaries on government intervention. Watson says Harper underplays the fact that markets are more than a tool but in fact an institutional embodiment of freedom. The balance, arguably, is one of avoiding the materialism that positions markets above all else with a view that sees markets as subservient to higher ends, even if not relying solely or even primarily on the force of government to achieve those ends.

Harper is in fact trying to find such a balance, at a time of stiff challenges to free market proponents in defending the conservative (as in, classically liberal) approach to political economy. President Reagan, by Harper’s account, was himself striking such a balance, for “the Great Communicator did not measure his economic success by ever more market efficiency, by stock market indices, corporate endorsements or even specific tax rates. He talked about economic opportunity, entrepreneurial freedom, good wages, better jobs and families having money to spend.”

On trade with China, Harper does not see a complete two-way relationship, but simply a one-way series of mass purchases on the part of U.S. consumers. It is, he says, insufficient to constitute a trade relationship, and it represents profiteering by an undemocratic rival of the United States—a rival with no intention of reforming in ways many believed it would when China entered the World Trade Organization. Harper writes that for Beijing, “the purpose of market-driven reforms has always been to reinforce the power of its communist government.”

Harper is no Trump, but he does seek to point out that as Prime Minister he foresaw many of the issues Trump did—and as a result was able to steer Canadian politics into a healthy populism of support for his policies. The argument, for some, is a stretch. Nevertheless, it does not detract from the core ideas in the book.

The author embraces the traditional arguments for free trade and explicates a few of them in brief. He boasts that Canada had been a signatory to five trade deals before he took office in 2006, but by the time he left in 2015 it was party to 51 of them.

He uses his aversion to abstractions to establish that he upholds trade outcomes, not principles, as the guide for political leaders and thus brings consistency to his particular defense of free trade. Trade may benefit countries, but not everyone in those countries, especially when the relationship is a one-way street. Harper asserts that it is on this basis that he declined to enter into free trade talks with China: “Canada is simply not in a position to get a good deal bargaining one-on-one with the People’s Republic.”

Interestingly the USMCA , the rewrite of NAFTA that has just been negotiated (but not yet ratified by the countries’ respective legislatures), requires, at the insistence of the Trump administration, that Canada and Mexico to hold to the line Harper drew as leader of Canada.

On taxation, he not only advocates that the tax base be broad to gain political support and to boost the middle class; he details why he believes the Republican Party in the United States has fallen short, while offering an alternative that he says led to Canada’s having the wealthiest middle-class in the world toward the end of his decade-long tenure.

“Anywhere” Versus “Somewhere”

In sociological terms, and in line with other recent commentators, Harper sees an increasing divide between those who live “anywhere” and those who live “somewhere.” The former are usually at home with globalism. Drawing on the work of David Goodhart, Harper suggests that some of the urban and university-educated professionals in Western countries have become genuinely globally oriented in their careers and personal lives. Not a problem inherently, but problematic when in the process citizens are no longer committed to a sense of place.

Those in the “somewhere” category, in contrast, still rely on the institutions of place, institutions which commonsense conservatives have celebrated over economic and political abstractions: family ties, community, faith associations, civil society, and a commitment to a community and country. All of which  are important in a free economy, as noted by several free market proponents, including Harper.

For the “somewheres” in the United States and other Western countries, immigration is a hot-button issue. Canada, though, has been the exception—it is, Harper points out, the only country where a large portion of new arrivals vote center-Right. He accounts for the difference by drawing contrasts: Canada welcomes people with a view to their eventual citizenship (becoming “somewhere”) and on the basis of skills needed for a country’s interests. American and Western European immigration rules are not, by and large, skills-based, a partial explanation for why Canada has not seen the scale of opposition to immigration experienced elsewhere.

The book includes a dedicated chapter on the meaning of citizenship and another affirming the national state and the forms that a healthy commitment to it should take. Harper recognizes humanitarian considerations in immigration policy, adding that the refugees taken in by thousands of welcoming Canadian families who open their doors annually—supported by charities and faith-based associations—fare far better economically and socially than refugees who enter Canada solely reliant on government-sponsored programs.

In that regard he would correct the populists of the Right. When it comes to the jobs such populists would like to protect, he is more sympathetic. For many proponents of the free market, Harper’s defense of supply management in Canada’s dairy industry is deeply contentious. As reviewer Watson put it, in the review to which I alluded above, “By what calculus do you decide some markets are working and should be left alone?” In other words, what considerations guide, or should guide, intervention in the economy? What considerations set outer limits on such intervention—and how are such limits discernable without veering into abstractions?

Get Back on Track . . . Or Else

Right Here, Right Now, while characterized by inconsistencies measured against free market ideas, nevertheless harkens to a classical liberal tradition in North America of ordered liberty worth conserving. It is a rallying cry for a departure from dogma, if our politics are to be rescued  from the excesses of populism. Stephen Harper believes that if his fellow conservatives fail to get back to a conservatism free of abstractions, what awaits is a left-wing populism. As he puts it: “The alternative to not getting conservatism back on track is much worse than anything about Trump.”


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