The following essay is part of Northern Dawn’s Symposium for Canada’s 150th anniversary. The theme is Canada: Who Are We? We hope these studies of Canada’s heritage will inspire readers to consider its future, and the broader civilization of which it is a part. Those who rule must know what they are ruling.
The following essay is by Cole Dutton. Cole blogs at The Dominion Standard about a variety of traditionalist and conservative themes.
The traditionalist Canadian often faces a certain type of assertion roughly analogous to ‘why is that the role of the government?’ Or ‘the government deserves no part in that.’ Now, aside from market considerations, it becomes very difficult to respond to such assertions in a succinct and cogent fashion. It is the aim then of this piece to take a glance backwards at Canada and its liberal political discourse and contrast it with the principal notion of intellectual and political conservatism: the assertion that government for conservatives has an end or purpose specific to it. This position enables one to see the importance of government in asking the critical question fielded by Northern Dawn in response to Canada 150. And that question is ‘who are we?’
From this observation, it behoves the conservative to counter that the government plays a larger role than the electoral apparatus, the law, or social services. In contrast to both the classically liberal perspective and the egalitarian doctrines, the conservative considers neither freedom nor equality substantive when comprehending the fullness of government. This position is one of government as a necessary and positive institution in society. The government, in this case, has drifted from its appropriate purpose and lost its orientation. This change has come at the expense of the well-being of society and the free individual.
The chief problem of Canadian politics is identical to the one that has infested and metastasized across the western world. Erik Kuenhelt-Leddihn termed it the choice between Calvin or Rousseau. The western world chose Rousseau and a vision of mankind’s goodness that led western man to see the state as a little more than an instrument. This modern western man perceives the state as something that is not its own organism, and intertwined with the soul of the civil society as Roger Scruton imagined it. Rather, his view of the state presupposes two particular principles: first, that mankind is by nature good; second, that even when it is self-evident that the individual is not by nature good, democratic elevation of the majority is a capable antidote to the ills of the individual.
The position then becomes one of man as corrupted creature. However, in response the modern mind imagines that the herd is wise; to the modern western man, good men will always outnumber the bad (as if the bad were not the same men as the good). The modern vision of man’s corruption is not corruption in the sense of the metaphysical. It is not the corruption of the mind referenced by Susan Schreiner in her masterful study of reformation intellectual history entitled Are You Alone Wise? Nor is it the corruption encapsulated in the story of Genesis. It is the corruption of man by inadequate political and social systems. These systems operate in a systematic fashion upon the individual character. This is the liberal and socialistic paradigm. A paradigm that consists of the argument that material and social conditions govern the quality of the individual and find expression in social pathology. This diagnostic view paves the way for immediate prognostication and remediation. The government then becomes the engine of reform and revolution. The state exists as merely a tool to remake the society. This liberal state stands independent of the institutions of government, in the name of the artificial and elevated virtues of equality and liberty.
This is problematic for a simple reason: upholding liberty and equality as the paramount virtues necessitates the obliteration of other virtues in kind. This elevation comes at the expense of justice, piety, obligation, and temperance in particular. For they demand the destruction of distinction and the levelling of value to embolden those who engage in vices condemned by historical and traditional norms. Given these basic claims, the liberal and egalitarian transformation of the social fabric of Canada makes sense. The extirpation of the history of Canada creates incredible problems. This arises because the system of authority embodied by the current state destroys the basis for civil society: tradition. In the same fashion, this movement also undermines the promogulated norms that legitimise the authority of the state.
Yet, this has not stopped the chattering classes of Canada, particularly the liberal party, from innumerable crimes against the nation. These acts consist of eliminating the Royal designation from numerous institutions. The list in no particular chronology and only in part reads as follows. The Liberal Party adopted a new flag, and the Alberta NDP attacked Catholic schools on the issue of LGBT rights. The Liberal Party weakened the already feeble Senate; it also established a vacuous national anthem in O’Canada; meanwhile, it aimed to destroy our first past the post system. Various groups have also agitated on behalf of a narrative of aboriginal genocide. The liberal party continues to claim Canada had a multicultural history of mass migration; Justin Trudeau asserted Canada is a post national state (itself a contradiction in terms); and lastly, Pierre Trudeau and his Liberal Party wrote a charter which undermines the principles of Parliamentary supremacy and the validity of the king in Parliament.
How then may conservatives challenge the position of the government as utility? How can they obstruct the tendency of the modern western mind to engage in instrumental thinking at the expense of the soul of civil society and the state? The answer demands a clear statement of what conservatives in Canada ought to imagine as an ideal understanding of the government. By understanding the purpose of government, Canadian conservatives can direct their policy proposals toward doing justice to who we are.
From this position, the argument is that government exists as the proper and capable trustee of the soul of civil society. The distinct communities, institutions, families, faith, and modes of living which allow the emergence of the fully distinct and free individual compose the soul of civil society. Philosopher John Kekes terms the same soul the pluralism of tradition. This pluralism of traditions provides a framework, unconscious to most and embodied in natural prejudice, that enables individuals to interact with each other in a coherent and predictable fashion. This predictable engagement is necessary for the exercise freedom without sin both against the future and the past. Kekes states, ‘when individuals form their conceptions of a good life, what they are to a very large extent doing is deciding which traditions they should participate in. The decisions may reflect thoughtful choices, thoughtless conformity to familiar patterns, or something in between.’ This same pluralism of traditions allows numerous historically couched visions of the constitution of good government to attempt to address the demands of human nature in varying ways while adhering to the same objective realities of the human condition.
Working from Edmund Burke’s fundamental political axiom: mere ‘renters’ cannot fulfil true government. Instead, the government must be a compact between ‘not only . . . those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.’ Government, given that it cannot exist solely for those interests currently embodied in the present generation, is not an instrument of the political class or of the demos; it is a being itself with a life of its own and duties appropriate to it. In fact, it is the only body in existence that can take the soul of the people and instantiate it beyond the limits of generation and time. To abrogate this principle is to not only attack our ancestry, but to attack future generations who may have no trust that their land, people, institutions, and faith will be safeguarded in the future. It is to put ourselves and the present in the position of supremacy and shackle those to come. Tradition defines the framework for social relations and answers to the questions of how best to live. In this way, it becomes imperative for the conservative theory of government to steward custom and history both so that the present may benefit from them as well as the future. This is the first principle of conservative government, but not the last.
The final and most important principle in a conservative theory of government is its stance against evil. Of course, asserting the existence of evil, especially for the modern mind, is begging the question. When we cannot agree on the basic constitution of evil in the world, we do not have a failure of philosophy or theology, but a reflection of the moral vacuity of our present condition. Regardless, for my purposes here it is enough to concede the existence of evil, and leave the definitions to the philosophers and theologians.
It’s important to recognise that evil did not play a minor role in constitutional theorising in the past. Even in the humanist epoch of the Renaissance the force that is evil was acknowledged. Recognition of evil had a strong theological founding located in the scepticism of medieval theorists. Renaissance thinkers recognised the instability and frailty in mankind. Dante Alighieri noted in his De Monarchia ‘higher natur[ed]’ men must leave behind a legacy to posterity. However, if there is a higher nature there must be a lower something not admitted in our modern discourse. Marsilius of Padua spoke likewise in his support for a plurality of governing institutions; he states that he is dealing with a fallen man, when he argues “and [if Adam] had remained in this state [of innocence], the institution or differentiation of civil functions would not have been necessary.’ Modern man does not make the same theological claims, but he need not abandon the assumption of evil and the need to respond to it. For the government, itself stands ready as an arbitrator to do justice between victim and perpetrator.
This is where government’s moral role enters the political calculus. Liberals, secularists, and socialists think that the purview of the state should be limited to ambivalence regarding right conduct. The state instead should direct its sympathy toward the individual. This individual himself is a product of conditions, not natural frailty. This position is evident in the abject surrender in the Omar Khadr settlement. There is no judgment of evil in this instance. The rights of the individual, in this case, Khadr came without duties. For Khadr being born on Canadian soil entitled him to all the rights and protections of the liberal state without any necessary obligations in return. Meanwhile, the state itself could not condemn such an individual if he was by nature good. Likewise, the state abandoned its moral imperative or more likely lost confidence in it. A conservative state then is one that is sure of its moral position, recognises the evil in man, and buttresses itself and the society against such evils. It is a state that demands of its participants something in return beyond taxes and offers more than freedom. David Lowenthal speaks to the need of free societies to affect the morality of their civil life, and though his examples pertain to America they are apt here as well:
…for men to live together as a civilised nation devoted to their common freedom rather than as a loose collection of individuals devoted to their own pleasures, moral virtues are necessary. . . . Only in free societies does what pleases most individuals—whether it is consistent with sustaining the regime or inconsistent with it—make a crucial difference to their destinies. Only free societies require of all their members the moral dispositions and capacities that make cooperation in self-government possible.
Freedom is empty without good people. In turn, the state in its active prevention of evil brings about the condition for good lives while not permitting evil to flourish in its name.
To pull the threads together, it is worth examining another claim from Kekes that necessarily arouses the consternation of the liberal modern man. To Kekes, autonomy is an inadequate political end in part because by loosening the fetters on the good, we likewise loosen the fetters on the evil. It is only possible to admit absolutes of liberty when we surrender the moral imperative to prevent evil. This is not the only problem the liberal or egalitarian mind faces because the conservative vision of government, in its stewardship of history and tradition, limits the potential of government to act as an emancipatory engine. A vision of Canada as a specific state, character, and history is a necessary leash on the attack dog of liberalism. Therefore, to the modern mind, virtue and the past must both kneel before the modern man. The modern mind does not care to answer the question ‘who are we?’ because the answer is always ‘I am only who I am and who I am is my present consciousness and no more.’ They reject the a priori concepts and the antecedent reality in which they emerged because to be beholden to the past is limiting to the autonomous individual and the levelling projects of the egalitarians.
In response, Canadians can answer the question ‘who are we’ by building a government that lets those answers emerge through the civil society of which it is the transgenerational expression. By acting as custodians of our inheritance while building and enforcing a moral framework accommodating the reality of evil, conservative government can protect the social fabric. This social fabric enables the soul of civil society to respond to the question proposed.
 Erik Von Ritter Kuehnelt-Leddihn, “The Western Dilemma: Calvin or Rousseau?” Modern Age, Winter 1971, 45-46, 48.  Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism, 3rd ed. (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine Press, 2014), 40.  Kuehnelt-Leddihn, “The Western Dilemma: Calvin or Rousseau?” 52.  John Kekes, “A Case for Conservatism,” The Good Society 8, no. 2 (1998): 5.  Kekes, “A Case for Conservatism,” 6.  Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France: and on the proceedings in certain societies in London relative to that event, ed. Conor Cruise O’Brien (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 194.  Dante Alighieri, De Monarchia, Trans. Prue Shaw (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 3.  Marsilius Of Padua, The Defender of the Peace, trans. Annabel Brett (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 31.  David Lowenthal, No Liberty for License: the forgotten logic of the first amendment (Dallas, Tex: Spence Publishing Company, 1997), 91, 102.  John Kekes, A Case for Conservatism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 81, 86-88.