With Ontario’s provincial, and now Canada’s federal budget tabled, there is the inexorable rush of commentary, lobbyist posturing, and interest group press releases. At least some of those will fit into the mould of what many have come to call social conservative. But this federal budget, in particular, has needled out some fault lines between social conservatives. Some are happy, and some are certainly not. Why?
The term social conservative is beginning to lose integrity in Canada, if it ever had any. In many ways, like evangelical and conservative, it’s a term which is coloured almost beyond utility by the American context. None of these labels mean the same things across the border. Or across many borders, as The Economist wrote recently about Rick Santorum’s social conservatism.
The Economist argues, for example, that moral permissiveness on the part of the state does not necessarily correlate with the collapse of social virtue, especially trust. Volunteerism, self-organization, and charity of all kinds can thrive in a society in which the state has thin or permissive moral law.
Mind you, this is not especially new, since it has only been quite recent in the history of the state, itself a rather new invention, that its mantle has come to include concern for this broad array of social and cultural issues. The state has grown in size and scale, as increasing aspects of human welfare have come to be demanded of it. In Canada, we tend to demand more pragmatic, economic results from our government, though far less moral leadership. In America, the reverse tends to be true. Both of those things profoundly change the type and expression of conservatism, social or otherwise.
That difference goes a long way to explaining why Canadians are polling with more conservative attitudes than ever, but with a significant rift between those preferences and what they expect to see legislated. It would be fair to say that Canada has more distinction than America between personal conviction and public policy.
Certainly this government would agree, having followed the polls immaculately on this count. It works to cultivate a relatively stable, managerial personality, while being totally hands off moral issues. Gay marriage, euthanasia, legalized prostitution and of course legalized heroin may all well have happened by the time this Conservative government retires.
It sounds like a total route of social conservatism.
Unless by social conservatism we mean simply private moral persuasion, apparently most Canadians are in fact social conservatives. But if we mean a legislated series of moral objectives, then social conservatism in Canada is an endangered species, if not totally dead. And passing with it are strong moral arguments of many kinds that might exceed a prudent, managerial approach to federal politics.
Canada has travelled a long way from the ancient Greeks. They called the end of politics justice; our 24-7 pundits call the end of politics budgets.
Which seems to poll well. For many of Canada’s social conservatives, which is to say for most Canadians, a government that keeps its head down and the GDP up hits us right where we’re at.