Bernier’s bad bet

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

Maxime Bernier is taking a gamble. He believes that there is a large, disenfranchised voting bloc in Canada on which he can capitalise to form a new party that, he says, will focus on smaller, constitutional government that respects taxpayers and opposes economic favouritism—though he’s spent more time in the news for culture warring.

His gamble seems to be that the anti-immigration and anti-political correctness crowds to whom he’s been throwing bones will (a) make up a part, but not the basis, of his political coalition, and (b) be willing to make concessions on these issues to support a core mission of smaller, constitutionally restrained government.

Unfortunately for Bernier, if he’s sincere that this is his goal he’s made his gamble based on an out-of-date understanding of politics in Western countries. The political climate in which this was likely to succeed—the one in which Bernier has spent his political career—is changing.

Stephen Davies at the Institute for Economic Affairs offers a compelling explanation for this change, which he calls a realignment. I first read about it on his Facebook page here and here, and he expands on it in this interview:

Davies’ thesis is this: The essential disagreement since about the 1970s has been about two issues: (1) How extensive should the economic role of government be? and (2) Should the government support and sustain a particular set of moral values? In other words, it’s been about fiscal restraint and social paternalism. In Western countries, most people ended up aligned with one of two camps: a fiscally restrained, socially paternalistic coalition (very broadly, “right-wing”) or an economically interventionist, socially liberal coalition (equally broadly, “left-wing”).

This left some people without an obvious home. “Consistent libertarians”, who want no government intervention anywhere, and “consistent authoritarians”, who think greater government control is necessary for both the economic and personal spheres, have always seemed a bit like square pegs in round holes no matter where they end up. Likewise, people whose main issues weren’t essential to the divide, like immigration or the environment, weren’t motivated by the main issues that differentiated left from right.

The left/right alignment on fiscal restraint/paternalistic grounds persisted for as long as those disagreements were live debates. But today they’re reasonably settled. The importance of the market in economic organisation and the rights of individuals to choose their lifestyles are generally (not universally, but that’s neither attainable nor necessary) accepted.

Bernier seems to have interpreted this broad agreement as an opportunity to run on a platform that is grounded in fiscal restraint and small government—issues on which everyone agrees! A few years ago many libertarians were also excited by this possibility, declaring this political reconciliation around fiscal and social freedom the dawn of the “libertarian moment“.

Libertarians have been forced to concede that their celebration of the libertarian moment was premature. Few foresaw that we’d win the battles on economic regulation and the freedom to love whom you choose only to have to re-fight the battles on trade and multiculturalism we thought long-won.

Davies has an explanation for the shifting goalposts of public debate. When people broadly agree on issues that used to form the political divide, he says, they’ll stop debating those issues and start debating unresolved and therefore still politically live issues.

If Davies is right, regardless of Bernier’s wishes one way or the other*, the motivating factor for alignment on the right won’t be around the small government idea Bernier insists is his cause célèbre, but around national identity (against “forced integration” and “demographic change”) and national boldness (against political correctness and perceived weak leadership). This makes immigration much more important, and small government less important, than some of Bernier’s followers seem willing to admit.

Bernier is making an appeal to disenfranchised voters who feel like the mainstream parties don’t represent them. But with a broad agreement around market economies and social freedoms across all parties, the most disenfranchised voters on Canada’s political right aren’t small-government free traders, but traditionalist populists. The defining issues that have emerged for this group are a combination of economic protectionism, cultural conservatism and traditionalism, and an assertion of national-self interest that’s seen as opposed to globalism/internationalism.

The left, on the other hand, is in disarray. They have so far been unable to find a new, coherent coalition in opposition to what the right is offering. What might be emerging is a split between moderate pro-market, pro-trade, pro-globalist liberals and the more radical left, who (though they are loath to admit it) share many policy positions with Trump. The disarray all around will likely take a few election cycles to shake out.

Davies makes a compelling case that the days of small, constitutionally restrained government as the main issue motivating someone to choose one party or another are over. That could mean Bernier and his free-market supporters are lining up to be Exhibit A for what can happen to libertarians who refuse to adapt to a world where Big Government is no longer the Big Battle.


*I’m pessimistic about Bernier’s motivations when it comes to immigration and cosmopolitanism. But if Davies is right, Bernier’s in trouble even if he’s being dragged, kicking and screaming, into participating in the culture war and anti-immigration sentiment that have got him so much attention.