Mr. Coyne’s world(view)

February 7th, 2009
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Andrew Coyne is one of the most entertaining and, when he decides to loosen up, one of the funniest opinion writers in an often bleak Canadian literary landscape. He often argues eloquently from what could be described as the right side of the political spectrum.

No surprise that his front page story in MacLean’s, announcing the death of conservatism in Canada, would cause a few waves. Let’s look at that piece first.

Despite the shocking headline, the arguments are delivered quite soberly, with a whiff of world-weary ennui. At bottom he makes an interesting utilitarian argument, that a greater good (for the country and/or conservatism) would derive from the Prime Minister standing on principle and risking the fall of the government, rather than pushing a budget with significant deficit spending.

This idea certainly provides a little mag-selling controversy. But I have a hard time believing he really thinks Liberal governments would, on balance, govern more satisfactorily than Conservative ones. One needs only think of the Trudeau or Chretien/Martin years. A period that triggered numerous heated Coyne columns, including almost Biblical wrath when Paul Martin ignored no-confidence motions in the House of Commons and just carried on governing.

Now, Coyne suggests that it is unlikely that the new spending trend will be reversed. Cutting back has proven a challenge to most governments, although the Liberals did (mostly by off-loading onto the provinces) bring federal spending into line in the 90s – with the conservative Reformers pushing them. So perhaps he is again arguing that it’s less likely a Conservative government would do that. He spends a long time describing the unprecedented nature of the deficit. The government has clearly decided that the world economic situation is, if not unprecedented, then extremely serious. That, and Canada’s political landscape, causes them to undertake such “unprecedented” action. Again, one can only imagine the Liberals and/or NDP going further. Lastly, he states that the government has “rule(d) out of bounds any serious discussion of alternatives”. To my knowledge, no one is ruling out discussion of anything, the government’s just decided this will be the course of action until the situation changes. I’d say a far stronger argument is that it’s the hysteria gripping elites throughout the industrialized world that has forced the hand of the government in Canada, where massive extraordinary spending is probably the least needed but just as loudly demanded.

Coyne’s displeasure focuses primarily on the gap between what the Conservatives could do, if they wanted to (or he might say, had the guts to), and what they are actually doing. The practical situation remains however that, unless he thinks a less “stimulating” budget could pass the House, the government would actually fall and the budget-making would be left to the Left. And could that possibly result in less spending than we have?

His conclusion seems to be that the best possible government would be a more conservative one, the second best a Liberal government with a “principled” Conservative opposition and the third the current government. In reply I am tempted to quote William F. Buckley who, on the subject of compromising one’s principles in the face of electoral reality, said that he would “vote for the furthest right option that could be elected”. The operative word is “elected”. Count on Mr. Buckley to get to the nub of it, in this case the fact that a conservative program cannot be implemented if one is not in power.

Coyne’s article has caused some buzz, and he seems keen to write more on the topic. His recent blog entry is rather interesting. In it he denies much interest in the Conservative Party as such, stating “It’s less an ideology than a grab-bag of habits and emotional leanings, not least deep nervoses (sic) and resentments of a party that has lost too many elections.” Presumably it would have fewer “nervoses” if it stood on principle and let itself be turfed out of office more often.

He then goes on to describe his own preferred political program, essentially a libertarian one, and laments that no party is actually proposing this agenda (and several others he mentions). He finishes by saying that Canadians might be interested in this “Andrew Coyne Program” (my term). Well they might, but that’s where the dirty work starts. You need not only to propose the program but convince others who (surprise!) don’t agree with all of it, to support you. Then you have to sell it across enough of the country, accommodating regional compromises to the program, to get elected or at least form a significant parliamentary block. Then what is left of your “program”?

But unless you roll up your sleeves and actually engage in politics, the likelihood of the “Andrew Coyne Program” ever being implemented is negligible. I know, I went to a few Libertarian Party meetings in the 1980s. Interestingly, as some of you may know, William F. Buckley actually ran for mayor of New York (ironically for the “Conservative Party”) because he considered the Republican candidate too soft. He lost but didn’t let it get to him. Maybe Mr. Coyne should consider that. There are more improbable things than a journo getting elected to office. Peter Kent managed it, even if Peter Worthington didn’t. Others waited for Senatorial or G-G appointments.

Finally, there are more than a few hints that Andrew Coyne has invested some emotional capital in the Conservative Party, which he feels he’s now lost. The evidence is in his continued deriding of Stephen Harper. Harper, he says, has “utterly had his way (with the party), abandoned everything the party ever stood for.” That would be the “grab-bag of habits and emotional leanings”. This is on top of his anti-Harper screed that he wrote last September (which I commented on here).

OK, so he thinks Stephen Harper is a sell-out. Fine. Short of overturning the entire political system (been there, done that), one has to look at alternatives. Do I think some configuration of the Liberal-Left will govern better? I respectfully say no.

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By John Weissenberger and George Koch