Preston Manning, leader of the Reform Party, Canada’s official opposition party, wants to dethrone the ruling Liberal Party in the next election. However, Manning’s party is branded “right-wing” — a label not sufficiently popular with Canadian voters. Furthermore, the “right-wing” vote is split between the Progressive Conservatives (Tories) and Reformers.
Manning’s solution? Unite the anti-Liberal vote. How? No, not by uniting the right or by persuading more Canadians to embrace right-wing ideas. Rather, by destroying the right-wing label in the name of creating a United Alternative.
In a full-page article (Calgary Herald — June 19, 1998), Preston Manning (along with Reformer Andre Turcotte) outlined Reform’s United Alternative philosophy. It begins by attacking the current method of politically categorizing people along the left-right axis. According to Manning, it’s a “one-dimensional” axis — a “flat-Earth model” — yet we live in a “3-D” world. His main argument amounts to: since many Canadians are not sure where they fit on this axis it should be discarded.
True — many Canadians aren’t exactly sure where they fit on the left-right axis. However, that’s no reason to discard it.
The proper criterion defining right versus left is individual rights versus collectivism. Does the individual own his life and property or do they belong to the collective — the tribe, “society,” the state? Should the government protect each individual’s right to life, liberty, private property and the pursuit of happiness, or should the government subordinate the individual to the needs, desires and demands of whoever gains political power and claims to represent the collective? This is the fundamental issue in politics.
What we have today is a precarious and unstable mixture of these opposite principles — a chaotic political system driven by warring pressure groups seeking special government favors and handouts at others’ expense. (See: Individual Rights Key To Restoring National Unity )
There are several reasons why Canadians don’t know where they fit on the left-right axis.
First, Canadians are exposed mostly to collectivist ideas, and in general do not understand what individual rights mean, what they rest on, or what their protection leads to. (See: Protection of Individual Rights is Good Government)
Second, leftists/collectivists have successfully packaged, as a smear tactic, anarchists, fascists, military dictators, etc. — people who violate individual rights — on the right along with principled defenders of individual rights, thereby exacerbating the confusion. (See: Bury the “Extremism” Smear at Barry Goldwater’s Funeral)
Third, many people do not think in principles; they choose political positions on specific issues in a compartmentalized fashion, leading to a hash of contradictions. A lawyer (or dentist) might believe government should collectivize/socialize medicine but not his profession. A businessman (and his employees) might believe government should subsidize his industry but not other industries. A factory worker might demand more “free” government services and less taxes — as if the two were disconnected.
Manning, rather than confront the contradictions and confusions with clear and logical definitions, principles and arguments, proposes to replace the uni-axis left-right model with a new tri-axis model.
The first axis Manning calls “the governance axis,” which pertains to the “principles of governmental decision making — ranging from ‘collective interests to individual autonomy.'” This sounds like the “old” left-right axis.
A second axis, the “decision-making axis,” defines the way “Canadians interact with their government on a scale ranging from ‘participatory to hierarchical decision making.'” A third axis is given no name but pertains to “national unity” and the division of powers between federal and provincial governments. These last two axes deal with the process by which laws are made — a derivative issue — not the substance of laws.
What Manning is doing is obliterating the crucial distinction between political process and political principles. Regardless of how laws are made, or which government (federal or provincial) makes them, the left-right issue of whether individual rights should be protected or not is still the fundamental issue in politics.
To illustrate this, consider a hypothetical country where slavery exists to some degree; the slaves have some — not full — rights protection which keeps shifting over time. The Anti-Slavery Party regards slavery as evil and wants to dethrone the ruling Semi-Slavery Party. However, while some voters want to abolish slavery entirely, the majority aren’t quite sure where they fit on the freedom-slavery axis.
Rather than take a principled approach of rationally persuading the “moderates” that slavery is evil and should be abolished, the leader of the Anti-Slavery Party proposes a United Alternative approach in order to shift the debate away from this “one-dimensional” focus on principles and towards the process by which laws are made.
The implicit message is that the Anti-Slavery Party is willing to embrace slavery as long as the majority agrees on the process by which slavery is institutionalized. In other words, the principle that slavery is evil is abandoned.
If this “3-D” approach attracts new voters it’s because they believe they will be able to preserve slavery in some form. In other words, the Anti-Slavery Party is — whether it admits it or not — attempting to win votes by abandoning its principles. This is the philosophy of pragmatism — of sacrificing principles to popularity. While this pragmatist strategy might garnish more votes (temporarily) for the Anti-Slavery Party, the principle of individual rights is abandoned.
This, in essence, is what Preston Manning is doing (whether he knows/admits it or not) with his United Alternative and his attack on the left-right model: abandoning Reform’s principles for votes.
Granted, Reform hasn’t consistently defended individual rights (or attacked collectivism) on principle — which is its major weakness. However, Reform has implicitly championed individual rights by opposing Big Government, high taxes, skyrocketing debt and the lax treatment of criminals — which is why many of those who currently support Reform do so.
To abandon right-wing principles in the name of short-term political gain is socially destructive because it will drive the country back to the left, back towards the immoral and destructive idea that the individual is sacrificial fodder for the collective. Furthermore it is politically suicidal — the Tories tried it and virtually self-destructed.
The Reform Party, rather than discard the left-right model, should embrace it and insist on its proper definition. Rather that obscure its right-wing principles to attract more votes, it should strengthen its principles by clarifying their meaning and defending them with logical rigor, consistency and pride. True and good political principles, properly defended, will win out eventually. Canada desperately needs them.
Glenn Woiceshyn is a freelance writer, residing in Calgary. This article can be found on-line at at http://www.capitalism.org/glennw.
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