"Demise of the Tory Tradition"  May 17, 1997, p. J5
Conservatives have forgotten their debt to the poor

For the Calgary Herald

It was a sad day in Canadian history when the Progressive Conservative party was eclipsed in favor of the Reform party. One cannot expect Canadians to be aware of the tragedy because the Progressive Conservatives themselves can hardly remember what their party stood for or how dramatically its philosophy differed from that of Reform.

Nothing illustrates the presence of this historical amnesia more than the anxiety on the part of both Progressive Conservatives and Reformers that two right-wing parties are more than Canada needs. Their fear is that the two parties will split the right-wing vote and allow the Liberals to gain more seats, even in Alberta.

If the Progressive Conservatives are foolish enough to think that Reform is but a mirror image, then they deserves to be wiped off Canada's political map. The philosophical differences between these two parties were profound, and it is a pity that the Progressive Conservatives are no longer aware of this.

The Progressive Conservative party has its origins in the British Tory tradition. Tories were old-style conservatives who did not buy into the liberal project of creating a society where inequality would be a result of talent and not birth. They regarded this ideal with skepticism and resigned themselves to the fact that there will always be inequality of opportunity that is a result of social class, wealth, and family background. Social inequalities are therefore a function of the accidents of birth and fortune, not merit.

For Tories, the idea that the social hierarchy is a reflection of natural inequalities is laughable precisely because all the talents and potentialities of nature are worthless in the absence of socially-acquired opportunities for their development. What nature provides is mere potentialities and not full-blown capacities. This is why the more privileged owe society a debt. This is the meaning of noblesse oblige. It is not a question of charity: it is a debt.

Although its origins date back to the 17th century, the Tory tradition was shaped by the work of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who supported the Reform Bill of 1867 that gave working class males the vote, made trade unions legal and upheld the right of workers to strike. The British Tories forged an alliance between the aristocracy and the working classes that was meant to protect both from the rising capitalist middle classes. This conservatism with a heart was the dominant form of conservatism in England and Canada until Margaret Thatcher in 1979 allied conservatism with corporate interests, and Brian Mulroney followed suit here in 1984. This was the beginning of the demise of the Tory tradition in favor of the neoconservatism of the Reform party.

Neoconservatives assume that everyone who is rich must be clever and industrious.

Neoconservatism is an American import that combines the worst of liberalism with the worst of conservatism. Far from endorsing the sobriety of the conservative view of social inequality, neoconservatism is a passionate exponent of liberal mythology. It pretends that liberal ideals have been actualized and that social inequalities are indeed a reflection of natural talents. The founding father of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, is convinced that there is a nearly perfect correspondence between the bell curve of income and the bell curve of talent in America.

Bluntly put, neoconservatives assume that everyone who is rich must be clever and industrious, while everyone who is poor must be Lazy and stupid. The unfortunate have only themselves to blame, and the fortunate, having acquired their fortunes by their own efforts owe nothing to the society that made their achievements possible. The wedding of liberal mythology and neoconservative pretensions fuels the discontent at the heart of liberal society. Neoconservatism rejects all liberal efforts to make equality of opportunity a reality, because it is convinced that it already is. This explains its hostility towards the social welfare state and its alliance with corporate Capitalism.

The neoconservative philosophy becomes particularly pernicious when it allies itself with sociobiology as a means of explaining social inequalities. But this deadly fascination with biology will not buy votes in a multiracial country like Canada, and it is judiciously softened by the Reform party with an emphasis on charity as the virtue that will flower once the social welfare estate is dismantled. Friedrich Hayek, the neoclassical economist and guru of neoconservatives in Canada and the United States, is the architect of this idea.

However, it seems to me that understanding the relationship between the privileged and the underprivileged in terms of charity misses the mark. It assumes that the talents with which we are endowed by nature are more than mere potentialities that must be cultivated in a social setting in which not everyone will have equal opportunities. We need to be reminded by Tories that the relation between the haves and the have-nots is not a question of charity, but a matter of justice; that what is owed to the poor is not a gift but a debt. But alas, the days of Joe Clark and Robert Stanfield are long gone.

(Shadia B. Drury is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.)