Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Friday, August 5, 2016

Is the US ballot question getting too heavy?

The logic behind Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech, President Obama’s ex-cathedra observations, and a wave of conscience-stricken conservatives all claiming that Donald Trump is “unfit” for high office is too depressing to voice on mainstream television.

So hide the children: this year’s presidential election is too dangerous to be close. Indeed, the democracy-wary founding fathers may have been right: today, with all its awesome power and global obligations, maybe America shouldn’t be using the popular ballot to select its party candidates and elect its Commander in Chief.

The Khan family took the high ground and played it safe, simply questioning Trump’s knowledge of the US Constitution. The Clinton campaign, however, has gone much further, declaring that Trump is irredeemably, “temperamentally” unfit; that by his tweets alone, it’s evident that if we gave him the power he might blow us up.

The crazy guy is saying it would be nice to get along with Putin; the sane lady is claiming that she can save Estonia and, as well, has the right fingers to rest near the Red Button. Republican leaders in positions of trust are being told to put America First and ease the way for another Clinton Presidency.

As a small Canadian talker, not a fighter, I’m temperamentally unfit to cheer for a bully. And Trump baldly presents himself as that. Likewise, however, I suspect that Americans don’t welcome--three months before the big day, before even a candidates debate has been held--being instructed that ‘civilization as we know it’ will be on the ballot this November.

The election probably will stay unpredictable for weeks to come because in the land of the free there are millions of independent voters who don’t like to be hurried.

You have to trust insiders to trust what they tell you: what they think is cooking deep inside the heads of the two leading candidates.

In a popular incumbent’s year, the insiders can scare you silly. Think of Mitt Romney. Before he challenged President Barack Obama, he was widely recognized as the progressive, Republican policy-wonk that authored Obamacare.  By Election Day 2010, he was a tin man who’d like to disenfranchise the poorer 47percent of Americans.

Or more to the point, remember liberal Senator Ted Kennedy’s pal, conservative Senator Barry Goldwater? Goldwater was trounced in a landslide by Lyndon Johnson’s anti-nuke campaign in 1964, just month’s before LBJ’s massive escalation of American military participation in Vietnam’s civil war.


Events can be hard on voter expectations. Close elections, however, haven’t yet put America’s direct democracy in fatal disrepute.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Conservative Party in WASP retreat?

Under cover of his own mediocrity, Peter Mackay remains free to ponder whether once again to be an A-team candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, or to remain a passionate family man. Who would disrupt his musings by questioning his sparse declarations? Such as: “We mustn’t live in an echo-chamber and his “We must be more inclusive”? With over 10 years of high-profile success of similar vacuities, he knows he can keep pondering for months. The Mackay family chalice of high expectations is still filled to the brim.

So, without an A-team candidate” like Mackay to overheat our thinking or an identifiable Republican Party ideology left to contaminate Canadian discussion, let’s look at what the declared aspirants and others are already contributing to the renewal of the Conservative opposition in Canada. 

Excepting the gregarious Maxime Bernier, a Quebecois with a libertarian rather than a red-Tory touch, the other Harper Government candidates are struggling to connect empathetically to all those Conservatives who didn’t go to Trinity College, join the Albany Club in their 20s, or read Disraeli before they read Lincoln and the National Review.

The popular meme of the moment is: inclusiveness.  

“Inclusiveness” is a bloodless reference to a life-or-death fact. In order to rattle and then beat any majority government, its opposition must grow large enough to win the next election. The word inclusiveness should die of boredom. But the Tories still need a lot more of that growth stuff.

Nevertheless, what’s creeping back into conservative politics in Stephen Harper’s wake may not be the inclusive parties of Diefenbaker and the Preston Mannings, but the ethnically distinct party of that honorable gentleman Arthur Meighen, with its hamlets of self-regarding Anglophiles scattered across the old Dominion of Canada.

Harper conservatives paid their respects symbolically to the British connection while pursuing a dogged, American-inspired neo-liberal agenda. They took risks to secure a closer partnership with the whole EU, not its second-largest member.

They marketed polar democracy and laissez-faire American materialism, not the superiority of the Westminster model, to win over a decent share of first-generation new Canadians. Also, they declared that the Quebecois are a “nation within an independent Canada,” finally closing a gulf between Conservatives and Quebec dating back over 100 years.

Harper was most certainly the most American Conservative Prime Minister in history. While he got little in return from Barack Obama, his relative lack of interest in the United Kingdom further moved the Conservative Party away from its rather unlovable ethnic base.

In that context, the nostalgic outbursts of support for Brexit by the former Conservative Speaker of the House of Commons and potential A-Team leadership candidate Andrew Scheeras well as Harper’s articulate former minister of Finance Joe Oliverare bone-headed.

Both op-ed pieces in the National Post could have been written by the London pamphleteers in the “Rule Britannia” campaign against the “centralizing, bloated, unaccountable machinery of the their democratic partners in the EU. They argue the UK can again enjoy the same “sovereign” hygienic distance from its neighbors that their forefathers legislated for Canada nearly 150 years ago.

Nostalgic Tories in Canada and in the UK dream that their countries can flourish as eminent Commonwealth powers by trading, but not become politically entangled in the supposedly unreliable, inferior, and giant federations next door.

Advocates of the American version of 19th-century nationalism are called isolationists. Their counterparts in Canada were known—and, if they keep it up, will be seen again—as the Crown loyalists. You, of course, remember the stereotype: fervent British Subjects who were raised to fear Catholics and Germans, and despise Jews, Muslims, Eastern Europeans, the French, and the Italians. 

They were the good people who fought the currents of liberal history for two centuries. Unfortunately, whether called isolationists” or loyalists, they’re recognized by others—those millions of voters who came here from republics not enthralled by the glories of Great Britain—for their awkward, superior ways and their lack of respect for how others do politics.

They still club, but they don’t govern.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Justin Trudeau’s emotionalism

At the Auschwitz Museum last week, Justin Trudeau wrote the following in the book of remembrance: Tolerance is never sufficient. Humanity must learn to love our differences.

While the CBC reported that his visit to the evil center of the Holocaust operation was private, I assume his words were intended to contribute to our thinking about how to be more civilized.

They convey the same intimate, awkward portentousness of Neil Armstrong’s utterances when he stepped onto the moon. And that’s appropriate: the Holocaust continues to force us to think harder than any of the relics of the space race.

Trudeau’s gravitas isn’t my problem.

Now that I’ve had that recommended consultation muffin, my sugar count is as high as GQ’s regard for the virtues of our new prime minister. Still, while my timing is way ahead of the zeitgeist, I’d like to throw out a few teensy misgivings about what he wrote so carefully.

Justin Trudeau’s proposition that tolerance needs to be bolstered by “love for our differences” is just not smart. And the task of being smarter about humanity, to my mind, is the imperative of remembrance.  

Canadians quite openly believe that they are more tolerant than, well, all their neighbors. But we also agree that tolerance is not enough when thinking about the safety of minorities. So, yes, his first sentence can be endorsed by all of us.

However, long ago, certainly in the West, we accepted that “love” is not reliable; its not what drives powerful institutions, and its not the business of politics.

“Love” is hard to find, but cheap in public discourse. Remember, bishops instructed the faithful to love the heretics; they were burning on stakes in public squares.

“Black lives matter!” isn’t looking for love, but justice—equal treatment that can be seen, measured, and rigorously enforced in courts.

We can celebrate—and advertise—our diversity in Canada because minorities are safe here. They are safe because tolerance, consistent with universal liberal values, has been codified into our laws and enshrined in our Constitution.

It’s ironic that Justin Trudeau, proud spokesman for Charter Canadian liberalism, would invoke a sentiment to secure social justice.

His family and party get to brag about our enshrined Charter of Rights because Pierre Trudeau, and his indispensable conservative allies, rejected tradition and sentiment as adequate guarantors of minority rights in Canada.

Their opponents didn’t claim to be defending a less liberal society. They claimed that British Common Law and our liberal-minded self-regard, our love of our differences, was enough.


They lost the argument.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Brexit villains: old ideas and bad men

Historians and long-view intellectuals teach us about our giants. And audiences in the tens of thousands listen to them. This year has already produced villainous buffoons of historic proportions, on both sides of the Atlantic. David Brooks provides a handy list of Englishmen to complement every thinking Englishman’s choice of Manhattan’s Donald Trump.

Playing with the fatal flaws of David Cameron and Trump—one’s disastrously obsessive calculations and the other’s terrifying crowd-pleasing impulses—confirms that entertainment can be educational. Otherwise entertainment would’ve already destroyed our species.

Also, of course, getting personal can win elections and does assist voters in selecting whom they want to lead from the menu they’re offered on Election Day. Focusing on the individual is fine for partisans and their Facebook chorus. But it’s for the moment and not obliged to tell the whole story. We leave that work to trusted historians.

History’s professional storytellers do influence us, but they too consistently emphasize the players, not the ideas that keep holding us back. They warn us that history repeats itself because humans don’t learn from their mistakes. They too are human.

Historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a highly influential blockbuster The Guns of August about the leadership that launched the First World War. Following her lead, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Margaret Macmillan and other esteemed scholars have also produced highly influential books on the prejudices, secret demons, and follies of the leaders at Versailles, the launch of two world wars and the second Iraq War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, and the Great Recession of 2008.

Bad things happen when the bad guys get power.

We’ve all grown up to despise the carelessness of the aristocrats that launched the First World War. Yet we know relatively little about the power of the popular convictions—especially, a righteous nationalism—that they relied on to keep the slaughter grinding on for four years.

We read widely—including the gossip of maids and former employees, psychobabble, and the hunches of speech and body language experts—to get a fix on the temperament of the next man or first woman to carry America’s nuclear Red Button around for the next four years. However, the climate of laissez-faire tolerance toward the existence of that insane Red Button receives only passing notice.

Observers spot crypto-fascist flashes in the words of the Brexit leaders and the tweets of Donald Trump. Further, they see their wins as evidence of a raging, hurting middle class, brutalized by globalization. Yet not one of these demagogues has demonstrated excessive passion, either right or left, for exercising state power. At the same time, we also know that real family incomes are up and that government spending as a share of GDP is today approximately what it was back in 1970—when Reagan was a governor, and Margaret Thatcher a backbencher.


Be hard on politicians, by all means. However, worrying that today’s clowns are working up to match the monsters of the 1930s is a waste of time. Let’s be harder on the old abstractions they’re playing with. How nationalist emotions, unbounded by external entanglements, can be both self-destructive and dangerous.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Promoting ‘sovereignty’ and free trade. Honestly?

At vast expense to the British people, we are relearning that: (1) English politicians can be as bad as Greeks and (2) fear mongering doesn’t intimidate people when they’re sure they can’t possibly lose what they have.

It takes some time to get back into your comfort zone after witnessing a fatal crash on freeway 401. Brexit voters in the UK will be reemploying their pragmatic, conservative virtues in short order. What’s less obvious is the capacity of liberal intellectuals, in these fleeting moments of sober second thought, to do an effective job of advancing our liberal order.  

You think I’m unfair? Have you yet heard legacy-building Barack Obama and liberal-to-her-tiptoes Hillary Clinton, or neo-cons such as Jason Kenney and Paul Ryan acknowledge, in concrete terms, that trade between Canada and the US is still far too limited? That nationalism and vested interests have kept us decades behind free traders in Europe, including both sides of the mess in England? 

We hear century-tested platitudes about both visions—of my “special country and our globe. But we hear little recognition that they are in conflict, except to boast that we’re better than The Donald. The problem for free traders is simple: nationalism has the upper hand. Indeed, it has had the run of the house for years—to the point today that free traders are reluctant to even acknowledge that their worldview is in conflict with nationalism’s favorite euphemism “sovereignty.”

Andrew Coyne used his front-page lede in Monday’s National Post to make that mellow assertion:

A nation is no less sovereign within open borders than closed. It is as much an exercise of sovereignty to permit the free movement of goods, capital and labour across our borders as it is to restrict them. 

“And yet, in the modern history of the world, that is not how these freedoms have been advanced. Rather, governments have sought to bind each other to do so by treaty. Or rather, governments have sought to be so bound. Instead of persuading voters that open borders are in their own interest, they have told them they have no choice: the leaders, as much as the voters.

“This approach — compulsory freedom — had the virtue, from the leaders’ point of view, of releasing them from all responsibility, or indeed logical consistency. They could be for free trade, but also against it. Do not blame me, they could say to this or that domestic interest. If it were up to me, the borders would remain closed. But my hands are tied. We have a treaty.”

There’s nothing shaky about the proposition that your average two-faced politician is happy to hide behind formal treaties—as well as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, for that matter. However, the suggestion that trade treaties are negotiated to protect incumbent politicians rather than free up trade is farfetched.

Treaties exist because hundreds of years of commercial experience and political economy dictate that for trade to flourish, traders, risk-takers, and individuals must be given solid assurances that domestic politics—lawmakers—will be held in check, that politicians will surrender dejure and, ultimately, defacto relevant portions of their country’s sovereignty. No business nor rabid free-market think tank would ever simply trust that their future market preferences would invariably be popular and not excite the sleep of interfering politicians and their diligent public servants. 

Of course, the surrender of national independence in pursuit of the fruits of interdependence is uneven.

One trader today—the United States—can change its mind on NAFTA and could impose unilaterally US carbon tariffs, for instance; it has the benefit of being the world’s greatest consumer market. It’s not funny to hear Donald Trump or, daresay, Hillary Clinton promise to renegotiate NAFTA or the TPP, because they can.

The US is relatively free to put America First. Canada and the UK, however, are not free to rewrite the rules or stop relying on trade to sustain nearly half of their economies or shop around for another friendly giant next door.

Unless it enjoys imperial power, the more a country frees its citizens, public agencies, and businesses to participate as buyers and sellers in regional and international markets, the less free it is to change course. The nationalists know this. And buyers and sellers rely on this.

In the 60s, promising, in a treaty, to provide long-term reliable supplies of water to adjacent American communities and farms financed half a dozen hydro dams in British Columbia. The Columbia River treaty has been tweaked, but can never simply run out and leave Canada free to manage those dams any damn way it wants. Similarly, long-term electricity supplies to New York by Quebec Hydro or, conceivably, by Ontario’s OPG could never be terminated without mutual agreement. As a beef exporter, Canada’s health regulations must always be credible in the US, with or without formal agreements. In the sovereign” spheres of fiscal and monetary policy, Canada has thousands of public service economists and limited freedom. Interest-rate policy, sin taxes on tobacco and alcohol, wealth taxes, corporate taxes, and even income tax rates must only be fiddled within a band of policies and dominant expectations on the big side of our leaky North American economy.

It’s an immodest, magical leap of faith to believe that yesterday’s choices are reversible simply because we’re sovereign.”  And being seen as such doesn’t help sell the overriding benefits of free trade.


Happy Canada!