CANADA AND AMERICA: LIBERAL AND CONSERVATIVE?
We often hear about Canada being a more ‘Liberal’ country and America a more ‘Conservative’ one. But what do these labels really mean? Generally we think of liberal as being an ideology that is more group-centred, espousing ideas such as more government intervention in such areas as health care, education, social services, the environment, etc. When we think of conservative, we generally think of an ideology which is more individualistic, leaving people to fend more for themselves, with fewer government services, but lower taxes to let them take more initiative to make themselves more prosperous.
However, if one looks back several hundred years, the labels were at one time inverted. Back in the Middle Ages, the system known today as feudalism is now considered by most political scientists to be a classic example of a Conservative society, as defined by the famous Irish-born, British political philosopher Edmund Burke. Burke defined this type of society as an inherently group-centred one, with the King and his ministers forming one group, the clergy another, the peasants, merchants, and tradesmen completing the picture. According to this model, everything was supposed to function perfectly, because every group had certain rights and responsibilities towards itself and to the others.
However, as we all know, this was not always the case. Each group bickered with each other, and those with more power often abused of it. Also, as Kings and Queens opened up new civilizations for business in the New World, vast amounts of new wealth began to be created by a new class of common property owners, (as opposed to the nobility). So the feudal system broke down, the countryside emptied out into the cities, and massive social problems emerged as cities became overcrowded, filthy, and racked by civil unrest caused by poverty and disease.
This caused a new group of people to emerge. They called themselves Liberals. They believed in the fundamental and inalienable rights and freedoms of man, and his right to by able to freely express them and to be able to earn a living decently, free from the tyranny of the state, squalor, or both.
In countries such as France and America, this ideology took root, and flourished. In Britain, in the 1600s, a similar movement nearly toppled the Monarchy, but eventually a compromise was reached, and a system known as Constitutional Monarchy came into being, which is still in use in Britain, as well as Canada, and over 30 other countries worldwide.
So essentially, liberalism began as an individualistic ideology, and conservatism, a group-centred one. But how did this get switched around? Simple. After liberals took power throughout the western world, they became unto themselves the dominant class of property owners. They built factories and mills, and employed thousands of workers for very little pay in often horrific working conditions. By the middle of the 1800s, many had had enough, including one man in what is today Germany. His name was Karl Marx. He saw the factory workers in his country being mistreated by the proponents of liberal-democratic ideology, and decided to do something about it. He wrote a document called the Communist Manifesto, and, with his friend Friederich Engels, a series of books called Das Kapital. Both of these documents were critical of liberalism and free enterprise, and espoused a new group-centred ideology called Communism, whereby the workers would take over the government, by force if necessary, and they, through the Communist Party, would run everything, in the name of the people.
This ideology took root in Russia in 1917, and soon began spreading throughout the world. Liberals everywhere began fearing that liberal democracy would be overthrown by Communism and they would lose all their money, factories, and property. So, in the interests of practicality, liberals everywhere began becoming more and more group-oriented. They started espousing more policies like better working conditions in the factories, health and safety benefits, pensions, etc… This was in the hope that Communism would not take root.
However, when Communism in Russia started to get weaker when President Ronald Reagan came to power, liberal-democratic business interests and politicians began to lobby to have some of these benefits that had earlier come into force, taken away, because the west was now having to compete with Japan and China, who paid their workers much less, and had fewer health and pension benefits. Furthermore, we were getting closer and closer to beating the Communist Russians in the arms race during the cold war, so their society, as an example of one to be emulated, was quickly falling into disrepute.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Communism also fell. People obtained more individual freedom, but group-centred ideas fell into disrepute, because they had been associated with the tyranny of Communism, which had been detrimental to people’s individual liberty.
So around the time of Ronald Reagan, the original individualistic ideas of liberalism, which had originated in the late 1700s, started to become popular again. People started to espouse once again the virtues of individual freedom and liberty, free from government control. Budgets for social programs were cut, etc…
A name had to be found for this ‘new’ ideology. They couldn’t call it liberalism, because that label was already taken by the ideology which espoused group-centred ideas! They couldn’t call it conservatism, because real old-fashioned conservatism was also group-centred. So they called it ‘Neo-Conservatism’. It was ‘Neo’ as in new, in the sense that it espoused ideas that had been out of fashion for many years, and ‘Conservative’ in the sense that it reposed on moral and family-centred ideas that were traditionalistic in the old-fashioned Judeo-Christian tradition. These people espoused ideas such as a staunchly Pro-Life stance on human reproduction, celibacy before marriage, etc…
So it is in this sense that what was once called ‘liberal’ is now called ‘conservative’. As for ‘Conservative’, being called ‘Liberal’, the explanation is very simple. The word conservative used to describe the aforementioned group-centred ideology of the middle Ages, but after the Russian Revolution, as mentioned earlier, group-centred ideas began to be labelled as ‘Liberal’, in light of liberal businessmen’s concern for their wealth being expropriated by Communists, hence their move to more group-centred principles.
So how does this apply to Canada and the United States? Essentially America has always been an individualistic country, and still is. The label to describe it has just changed. The ideology that founded America was liberalism, in the purest sense of the word. However, because of the process of economic and political ferment described above, it’s now described as a conservative country.
Canada, on the other hand, has always been a more group-centred country, and still is. It’s just that the label has changed. Our country, from the English-speaking side at least, was founded by the Loyalists, the losers of the American Revolution. They were essentially Conservatives in the true group-centred definition of the word, being inheritors of old-world Burkian Tory aristocratic principles from England, as described above. Our country however changed label to Liberal, when the business class started adopting more modern-day group-centred ideas borrowed from the Communists at the beginning of the 1900s. So essentially we remained a group-centred country, but our label changed from conservative to liberal.
Funny how history works. No wonder people say that conservative and liberal resemble each other! That’s because throughout history, they have been inextricably intertwined in the vortex of the relationship of the individual human being with his or her group, or society. These two factors, ultimately, are inextricable, and therefore we should realize that, in the grand scheme of things, liberals and conservatives are all brothers and sisters, working for the common purpose of bettering the society in which we live, and should therefore learn to appreciate and respect each others similarities and differences of opinion.
After all, we’re all in the same boat, so let’s learn to pull together!