On hypocritical politicians
This column by Andrew Coyne is very good. You should read it.
Coyne’s thesis, I think, is this: Canadian conservatism is really a mixture of different groups, including libertarians, fiscal conservatives, and social conservatives. These groups don’t have a lot in common, but they can, under the right circumstances, put aside their differences to support a political party. Right now, that party is the Conservative Party of Canada. That party, however, isn’t giving the different groups in the coalition anything in exchange for their support. Eventually, this will destabilize the coalition of different groups that makes up the conservative movement. Or at least, it should.
Social conservatives aren’t getting any new restrictions on abortion.
Libertarians aren’t getting fewer regulations or a smaller government.
Fiscal conservatives aren’t getting a balanced budget.
In fact, if one had to pick the one salient idea still holding the different conservative groups together, it would be this: the alternatives — including the dreaded Coalition of Opposition Parties — would be worse.
There is that, and then there is Stephen Harper himself.
Because my guess is that many conservatives still believe that, deep down, Stephen Harper is still one of them. They believe that he believes in their ideas, and will implement them when the time is right.
When the time is right. When he can. When the Conservative majority is big enough. When the opposition is even more divided than it is now.
Then, and only then — the budget will be balanced, economic regulations will be eased, and abortion will be restricted. Maybe we’ll even get some privatization in health care!
I think I know why social conservatives persist in trusting Stephen Harper, while forgiving his mistakes. All social conservatives believe two things about morality: that it is objective, and that it is difficult. The world makes it hard to do the right thing. Because of this, hypocrisy is easier to forgive and more challenging to identify. What looks like hypocrisy on the surface may just be weakness of will, a failing we all experience at one time or another. And it can be overcome, especially with the support of one’s community.
Thus, the Prime Minister, or any politician, should receive the benefit of the doubt. He will get it right eventually. When the time is right.
What I do not understand is why mature libertarians would grant the Conservatives this kind of leeway.
Let me describe the mature libertarian. The mature libertarian does not think of his government as one big, unitary thing that can easily be opposed. He does see a difference between the government of a liberal democracy and, say, the Nazis. If he were going to pick a label for his government, the first word on his lips would be “incompetent” and not “evil.”
He recognizes that the government is made up of different kinds of individuals, just like any other organization. Some of them are crusaders, trying to “make the world a better place,” according to their own ideologies. Some are schemers looking to line their own pockets. Some are addicted to the status boost that comes from being a politician. Some have been in politics so long they wouldn’t be good at anything else.
Some are just morons.
What the mature libertarian also knows is that this diversity doesn’t really matter. Not in a liberal democracy.
It doesn’t matter because any politician — crusader, schemer, status-seeker, seat-filler, or moron — has to play by the same set of rules in order to be politically successful. And the rules aren’t that complicated. Even a moron can realize that he’ll have to buy off certain interest groups to gain their support. Even a crusader must eventually recognize that compromising with the enemy is an essential political skill. A seat-filler from a rural riding won’t be filling his seat for long if he doesn’t invite the dairy farmers to join him at the table.
Politicians understand this. They may even understand it better than libertarians.
Stephen Harper grasps it better than almost anyone. I don’t know if he’s a crusader, bent on turning Canada into a libertarian paradise (or, as the left seems to believe, the Republic of Gilead) or a status seeker who loves the prestige of his position. But I don’t need to know. Because whatever his other motivations, what he really wants is to win the next election.
In this sense, mature libertarians and social conservatives should agree on the inevitability of political hypocrisy. It will happen. Only the left seems to believe otherwise.
But unlike social conservatives, I do not believe libertarians have any room to forgive politicians for their sins. So-cons have the hope that, one day, Stephen Harper will be able to rise above his circumstances and bring about the policies they desire. They believe this because, while they believe in weakness of will, they also believe that weakness can be overcome. Forgiveness is motivation to try again, to be better, to finally do what is right.
For libertarians, political hypocrisy is not just inevitable, but insurmountable. We are, or should be, like atheists who have finally come to grips with the fact that evil will often triumph and never be punished. There is no possibility of grace in our view, no divine intervention that can prod the conscience of a politician until he does what is right, instead of what is merely expedient. There is nothing outside the system to do any prodding.
Only the voters. And if enough of them were libertarian, we wouldn’t need to hope for libertarian politicians. If people were libertarian, libertarian politicians would not be necessary; because they are not, no libertarian politician is possible.
Thus, forgiveness and continued community support is pointless, because it will not produce the change we seek. The hypocritical politician is simply an excellent example of his kind, in the way that ebola is an excellent example of a deadly disease.
What, then, can we say about Stephen Harper? He is very good at failing to live up to the standards he at one time avowed. He is an excellent politician. And for precisely that reason, he cannot be forgiven.