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Ordered Liberty: The Origins and Development of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Political Thought

Ordered Liberty: The Origins And Development Of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Political Thought

I. Introduction

The dust has finally settled following the 2015 federal election. A new government has been sworn in. Outgoing Parliamentarians have departed. A leadership race to select the permanent Official Opposition Leader will soon commence. A Speech from the Throne is expected for early December. Ottawa is gradually returning to post-election normalcy.

Yet, after nearly ten years as Prime Minister and more than twenty-five as a Parliamentarian and conservative thought leader, while Stephen Harper’s presence is missing, his ideas and influence endure. There is no question that Mr. Harper has left a durable mark on the Canadian conservative movement and federal public policy. As we will argue, he has changed Canada, and for the better.

Stephen Harper became Prime Minister in 2006 with the most developed and clear views about the role of government vis-à-vis the individual, family, and civil society of any Prime Minister since Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He had spent most of his adult life thinking about these issues and setting out his vision in clear and dispassionate speeches and writings over the course of several years. Indeed, one can argue that Mr. Harper was a conservative intellectual and policy thinker first and a politician second.

While his prime ministership involved the common trade-offs that any successful politician must make to grow and retain democratic support, there is no question that, over time, he slowly and methodically carried out his plan to reshape federal policy from the liberal technocratic consensus that had dictated the federal agenda for the previous decades.

It is worth emphasizing this point. Our argument is not that everything Harper did was directed in the first place by his intellectual view of the role of government vis-à-vis civil society. He was, after all, a politician who needed to win, and frequently did what was necessary to win.

Our argument is that Harper had the most well-developed view of government’s role since Pierre Trudeau and that understanding this worldview is critical to understanding his approach to federal politics and policy.

Harper did not seek power for power’s sake. He had a vision for Canada, a vision steeped in Canadian conservative history going back to Sir John A Macdonald, a vision that deeply informed his politics and his actions as Prime Minister.

At its core the intellectual basis of Mr. Harper’s agenda was a fusion of traditional conservatism (or as he often referred to it, Burkean conservatism) and classical liberalism that can be aptly described as “ordered liberty.”

His traditional conservatism was evident in his predisposition to “incrementalism” (a Burkean poise reflecting an epistemological modesty) and his policy agenda which saw a role for government to support key civil society institutions (such as marriage and the family) and socially-beneficial behaviours (such as educational attainment and personal savings), but did so by promoting choice rather than central planning and inflexible bureaucratic programs.

His classical liberalism came through in his relentless, though incremental, reduction in the overall tax burden, his focus on controlling discretionary federal spending, and a preference for incenting individual rather than collective action.

Indeed, Mr. Harper shifted the so-called “goal posts” of federal policy the furthest in modern Canadian political history and has created a solid intellectual foundation of ordered liberty from which future Conservative leaders can build.

This essay will contextualize Stephen Harper’s governing record in his ordered liberty philosophy as articulated over the course of his time in public life. It will draw from his speeches and writings to show his well-developed and clear conservative worldview on a range of subjects, including tax and fiscal policy, social policy, criminal justice, federalism, and restoring the country’s historical consciousness.

We will then show how Mr. Harper’s amalgam of traditional conservatism and classical liberalism came to be seen not just as a coherent intellectual framework but also as a basis for building a robust political coalition. His invocation of social conservatism, in particular, was part of a deliberate effort to build the movement’s political appeal and expand its network of supporters, activists, and ultimately voters.

We will then provide a case study of his key achievements over the course of his nearly ten years in office and the extent to which they complied with the ordered liberty worldview that he set out before becoming Prime Minister.

The paper will then conclude that future conservative leaders must draw from Mr. Harper’s worldview and policy record to achieve or match his level of success. It will argue that his conservative vision of a constructive, yet limited, state that supports key mediating institutions such as the family is not only the right political agenda for the Conservative Party, but the best policy programme for the country.

II. Harper’s Philosophy

II.I Introduction

“He would be flexible in method – surprisingly, almost maddeningly so at times – but he would never lose sight of the long game, which was to transform Canada, if it would let him, into a profoundly different place.”

– Paul Wells, Right Side Up (5).

This essay makes the case that Wells was exactly right, though we would argue that Harper transformed Canada into a profoundly “better” place. And we go deeper, arguing that he was motivated by a deeply Canadian conception of “ordered liberty” by which we mean an intellectual fusion of traditional conservatism and classical liberalism that finds a historical antecedent in Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.

This section traces the development of Harper’s conception of ordered liberty. His vision of conservatism was not formed following his election as Prime Minister in 2006. It has deep roots. We start with his early-life experiences including his transformational move from Toronto to Alberta that produced in him a deep antipathy to Pierre Elliot Trudeau and the prevailing views of the Liberal elite. This aversion ultimately drove him to Ottawa with Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government in the hopes of unwinding what he saw wrong with the previous Liberal regime. His subsequent disillusionment with Prime Minister Mulroney and the Progressive Conservative Party caused him to retreat to university to pursue training in economics, but also resulted in a parallel personal pursuit of reading the classics and discovering classical thinkers.

As his studies drew to a close he was attracted to Preston Manning and the Reform Party and was drawn into the creation and evolution of the party and eventually to stand for election and sit as a Member of Parliament from 1993 to 1997. His ongoing disillusionment with Manning’s populism led him to revive his thinking about what a “Taxpayers’ Party” ought to comprise and represent. But his time with the Reform Party also demonstrated to him that social conservatives should and would be a critical part of any future conservative coalition. Following his departure from public office in 1997, he spent more time thinking about how to construct a lasting winning political coalition that fused the various elements of his intellectual thinking. The best and earliest though far from the final expression of this fusion was a speech he gave to Civitas in 2003. It is not an exaggeration to say that that speech formed the intellectual foundation for his ten years as Prime Minister.

That intellectual foundation is what we and indeed, he would call “ordered liberty.” It is a fusion of traditional conservatism and classical liberalism. It is a deeply Canadian concept that finds its roots in Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.

II.II. Early Political Experiences

Stephen Harper grew up in the Leaside neighbourhood of Toronto. And since in Canada how you vote is quite often best determined by where you live, it is not entirely surprising that, to the extent he paid attention to politics as a youth, Harper was intrigued by Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s leadership and governing philosophy. He was even a member of the Young Liberals Club at his high school, Richview Collegiate Institute. William Johnson in Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada (19) suggests that Harper’s admiration for Trudeau stemmed from the latter’s fight with secessionists in Quebec, though that may be a retrospective reading as, at least in this respect, Harper’s admiration for Trudeau continued into his later years.

As he later wrote, Harper had an opportunity to have lunch with Trudeau in 1977 but “sudden and unexpected circumstances did not permit it to happen.” And while it may be interesting to wonder what might have been had the young Harper actually had that lunch with the then-Prime Minister, there is no denying the oversized impact that Trudeau had on his intellectual and political development Harper himself called Trudeau “a living legend, someone who had provoked both the loves and the hatreds of my political passions.” It is hard to imagine stronger words.

The biggest impact Trudeau had on Harper’s intellectual development occurred following Harper’s family move to Alberta. It was during this period that the Trudeau government launched its National Energy Program (NEP) to expand federal control over the energy sector. Harper witnessed first-hand the negative consequences of this centralizing market intervention. As he recalled in an essay following Trudeau’s death in 2000:

“By the time Mr. Trudeau embarked on the National Energy Program, I was living in the West. I witnessed first-hand the movement of an economy from historic boom to deep recession in a matter of months. A radical, interventionist blueprint of economic nationalism, the NEP caused the oil industry to flee, businesses to close, and the real-estate market to crash. The lives of honest, hard-working Albertans were upended, and I came to know many of those who lost their jobs and their homes[…].”

This experience left a lasting impression on Mr. Harper. Shortly after the imposition of the NEP, Harper enrolled at the University of Calgary to study economics. As he wrote in that same article, “In 1977, economics and finance didn’t much matter to me. Beginning with the NEP Mr. Trudeau would show me that they did matter[…].” In short, the NEP drove the young Harper to study economics.

It was during his student years that Harper abandoned his early Liberal allegiances and threw himself into organizing for the Progressive Conservative Party’s Jim Hawkes in the lead-up to the 1984 election, which ultimately saw the Progressive Conservatives assume political power from the Liberals. During the campaign, Mulroney’s message of economic and fiscal reform including reversing the NEP appealed to Harper’s burgeoning conservatism.

When the Tories were elected in September 1984, Harper had one more year of study to complete his economics degree. The first year of the Mulroney government was a buoyant one for Conservatives (and conservatives). They undid some of the big-government  excesses of the Trudeau era and were riding high in opinion polls. Public optimism was up.

Harper watched all this and wanted to be a greater part of it. So when he completed his degree he agreed to come to Ottawa to work for Hawkes. He would take his economic learning and his animus towards Trudeau’s brand of liberalism to Ottawa and help the country chart a better course.

But it was not to be. While Brian Mulroney’s government was more market-oriented than its predecessor, its willingness to put political considerations ahead of market or economic considerations soon disillusioned him.

As Hawkes later said:

“I think with Stephen, at that age, you had to look at an economic textbook, and in particular at the school of thought favourable to free enterprise. The rules or the findings related to the development of a free enterprise economy were the ideas he held dearest… that’s the way he looked at the world[…].” (qtd. in Johnson 36).

Harper’s reaction to the NEP and his economics training had pushed him towards the ideas of classical liberalism: open markets, free trade, and minimal government. He was hopeful that the Mulroney government would enact major free-market reforms. Hawkes was given responsibility to review the unemployment insurance program, and Harper plunged in. He came to believe that the necessary reforms to a program that essentially paid a large number of Canadians not to work were self-evident. As Hawkes has said, “He felt there should be clear-cut answers to problems. You should implement the best economic decision, and then it would work over time” (Ibid.).

But as the Mulroney government worked to find consensus on these things, the ideas Harper held dearest were frequently not the over-riding concern. “That whole experience, I think, disillusioned him,” Hawkes recalled. “So he left my office, I think, totally committed to pursuing a Ph.D. and teaching in a university as his primary career” (Ibid.).

It would not be the first time Harper left active politics to hone his thinking.

III.III. Intellectual Interregnum

Harper’s intellectual development at this point proceeded down two parallel tracks. On the one track were his graduate studies in economics with some of Canada’s foremost small-c conservative thinkers including Robert Mansell and Frank Atkins. His master’s thesis, entitled “The political business cycle and fiscal policy in Canada,” would blend his background in government and study of economics. The abstract starts and concludes as follows:

“This thesis investigates the premise that Keynesian fiscal policy is subject to the influence of political parameters that lessen the influence its effectiveness as a stabilization tool. The premise is founded upon the assumption that policymakers are motived by political goals, rather than the social optima assumed by traditional macroeconomic policy prescriptions[…]. Countercyclical and electoral elements emerge as the most important factors in explaining fiscal policy. While the electoral factor represents a major constraint upon the practice of appropriate fiscal policy, the results tend not to support the premise of deliberate electoral engineering predicted by the theory.”

In short, the multivariate analysis showed that electoral cycles in fact mattered, but not always in ways Harper had expected.

Harper’s frustration with politics, including his experience with Hawkes, is highlighted by this thesis. Harper’s time in Ottawa had been punctuated by disappointment in the tendency of politicians to compromise on matters of principles or to manipulate policy for political ends. He believed that there was or there ought to be a proper functioning of fiscal policy that could be dictated by theory and rationality. But politics and political actors frustrate this theoretical abstraction. He had seen it up close, and now his research backed it up.

One professor that had an oversized influence on Harper during this intellectual interregnum was Robert Mansell. As his biographer Johnson put it:

“Mansell had a concern that was close to Harper’s heart, from his aborted experience working with Jim Hawkes on the reform of unemployment insurance. Mansell was convinced that the programs that transferred wealth to the poorer provinces were so constructed that they had the perverse effect of maintaining poverty and dependency rather than creating prosperity” (60).

The idea that even well meaning government programs created disincentives or unintended consequences was an important part of the classical liberal tool kit. The dominance of unintended consequences should make one suspicious of large, sweeping and overarching government programs, to prefer incremental to radical change, and to favour less government to more.

In the acknowledgements section of his thesis paper, Harper makes it clear that his studies were not always his top priority. He writes that Frank Atkins, his supervisor, “went to considerable pains to keep on track a difficult student who frequently had other pressing priorities.”

Among those competing priorities was the second of the parallel tracks: a serious study of the classics of political economy and Harper’s increasing embrace of classical thought. The two tracks overlapped in a course on the history of philosophy that introduced him to the works of the great philosophers. But this was also a personal pursuit, a road travelled with his friend doing a Ph.D. in geology, John Weissenberger. The two of them began to read, talk about, and study thinkers such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Friedrich Hayek, David Hume, Edmond Burke, and Jeremy Bentham.

According to one biography, Harper and Weissenberger “pored over the 1944 classic work of Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, The Road To Serfdom […] reflecting on the Canadian economy in the 1980s, what Hayek had written made sense” (Johnson 46). They also studied Thatcher and Reagan both influenced by the thinking of Hayek and wondered why similar a conservative ascendancy had not occurred in Canada.

If you think this is fanciful post-hoc reconstruction of history, recall that it was this same drive that had Stephen Harper write a pre-history of the NHL while serving as Prime Minister. Stephen Harper is someone who, intellectually at least, can walk and chew gum. Indeed, he was deeply engaged in an intellectual inquiry at this time that would shape his own thinking about how the world works and how the conservative movement needed to present itself and its solutions to Canadians.

Tom Flanagan, a larger than life influence on Harper in subsequent years, also reports a Hayekian epiphany on his own intellectual development:

“Like many people of an academic bent, I went through various phases of political belief when I was young. I thought of myself as a conservative, liberal and social democrat at different times in my twenties and early thirties, until I encountered the works of Friedrich Hayek in 1977. Reading The Constitution of Liberty and later the three volumes of Law, Legislation and Liberty convinced me that Hayek was fundamentally right about his central concept of spontaneous order (Flanagan, Harper’s Team 1).”

In fact, if there was one thing that united many of Harper’s key advisors over the years, it was a fondness for Hayek. Though it is fair to say that his advisors typically held those beliefs tighter and closer than Harper did himself. Harper’s ideologies got tempered with time and experience as Prime Minister, not to mention the pressures of politics that require one to shave off some of those harder edges.

Most folks with a passing familiarity with Hayek tend to focus on his writings about the threat posed by scientific socialism to liberty. His famous essay entitled “Why I am not a Conservative” has led some to assume that Hayek was hostile to conservatism and thus an unlikely intellectual inspiration for a future conservative leader. But Flanagan and others have made a cogent argument that Hayekian thought is not hostile to traditional conservative conceptions of “prejudice” and gradual change and indeed shares in Burke’s predisposition to organic, spontaneous order and unwritten social rules. As Flanagan has written:

“A less widely recognized aspect of Hayek’s thought is his moral traditionalism. He saw the spontaneous order of society as a filter for separating the beneficial individual innovations out of what John Stuart Mill called the ‘experiment of living’ that all of us conduct. The results of this testing process are embodied in habits, traditions, customs, and conventions that can be followed without being rationally articulated (Harper’s Team 2).”

Thus Hayek brought together the two strands of modern conservatism, what Flanagan calls “economic or fiscal conservatism, and social or moral conservatism.” Indeed, a nuanced reading of Hayek showed the potential for congruity between the classical liberal and traditional conservative intellectual traditions that is worth briefly discussing to better understand Harper’s journey to a conception of ordered liberty.

Classical liberalism emerged in reaction to the collapse of feudalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was a worldview that rejected hereditary privilege and, in its place, set out a vision of natural rights and an emphasis on individual freedom in social, political, and economic life. The corollary was a vision of a limited, representative government bound by the rule of law and justice that sought to maximize freedom in all spheres, including the marketplace. Classical liberals believe that wealth is best created by the mutual cooperation of individuals through the spontaneous order of the free-market economy and that property, trade, and markets are the foundations of economic dynamism. This primacy placed on the individual and the presumption of freedom are its central principles.

Traditional conservatism also developed in the eighteenth century in response to the English Civil War and the French Revolution. It differed from classical liberalism in a number of important ways. Conservatism starts from the premise of a transcendental and enduring moral order that takes for granted that human nature is constant and there are permanent moral truths. Or as its primary proponent stated, “the principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged.” This means that virtue outweighs freedom as an animating principle and individuals are situated in a much larger human experience for which they represent a small and insignificant part. Similarly conservatives emphasize the importance of traditions and customs representing collective wisdom developed and tested over time to shape our inherited institutions and cultural norms. Or as Burke argued, “A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman.”

This gratitude for what we have inherited is reflected in an epistemological modesty and the “principle of prescription” whereby rights were granted in an evolutionary process over time rather than through a prepolitical process apprehended through the exercise of abstract reasoning. As Burke said, “power to be legitimate must be according to that eternal, immutable law, in which will and reason are the same.”

Conservatives share the classical liberals’ emphasis on private property as a bulwark against state coercion but do not place the same primacy on individualism or market economics. Instead conservatism values subsidiarity and the attachment to one’s family, community, and civil society. The preoccupation with order and virtue and a skepticism of the implicit benefits of progress are the key characteristics of traditional conservatism.

Hayek’s work in the twentieth century provided some basis for an intellectual consensus between the two schools of thought, particularly in the North American context. Hayek shared much of Burke’s worldview regarding the nature of society, the role of reason in human affairs, the proper role of government, and, to a certain extent, the nature of moral and legal rules. Yet he refused to self-designate as a conservative because conservatism was largely concerned with conserving the status quo and he wanted to change it in the direction of greater freedom. This formulation was appropriate for much of continental Europe where the inherited wisdom was largely illiberal. But North America is different. The inherited tradition is liberalism and, so for conservatives, the goal has been to protect and cultivate our classical liberal foundation. Hayek recognized that this reality differentiated North American conservatism and created common ground between classical liberals and conservatives.

Another model for amalgamating classical liberal and conservative thought was the fusionist school in modern American conservatism. By mid-twentieth century, classical liberals and traditional conservatives in the United States were engaged in deep and often detonative philosophical debates about first principles. These intellectual disputes often centered on the tension between freedom and order and liberty and virtue were fundamental to the movement’s coherence and ultimately its political success. As William F. Buckley Jr. once wrote: “the conservative movement in America has got to put its theoretical house in order.”

Fusionism became the intellectual glue that held classical liberalism and traditional conservatism together. The basic premise was that highest societal goal ought to be virtue, but true virtue could only be rooted in individualistic acts absent state coercion. Otherwise virtue became the prerogative of the state and susceptible to the shifting sands of technocracy. It was based on the concept that conditions for genuine virtue could only be founded in a political culture that respected and protected individualism. Freedom and tradition were thus not competing tensions, but rather the basis from which a modern liberal society would prosper and benefit from the voluntary exchange of resources and ideas. Virtue could only reside in the individual. The state ought to protect personal freedom, but otherwise leave virtue up to the individual, families, communities, and civic and religious organizations. Fusionism became a powerful converging idea that intellectualized modern American conservatism and brought the warring factions into a strong political coalition.

Harper may not have articulated a similar vision in the mid-1990s, but he had with the help of Weissenberger, Atkins and Mansell acquired all the intellectual tools to do so. Indeed, Flanagan had already begun to set out the prospects for a Canadian fusionist experience. As he wrote, these two groups ought to come together, if for nothing else, than to fight a “common enemy – the hypertrophic welfare state, dominated by a soi-disant progressive elite, that wishes to remake society according to its own rationalistic vision”. This so-called progressive elite would come to be documented in different works of Canadian history and political science. Historian Jack Granatstein called them “The Ottawa Men.” Doug Owram described them as “The Government Generation.” Most recently, Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson categorized their thinking as the “Laurentian Consensus.”

Or as Harper preferred: the Liberal elites who had dominated Canadian political life for much of the twentieth century. And he was about to embark on a path for which a central goal was to build a political movement and party that would upset that hegemony in the twenty-first century.

For it was not just intellectual pursuits that made Harper a “difficult student who frequently had other pressing priorities.” He was beginning to display a unique capacity to situate himself in the world of ideas and the political arena.

II.IV. Back to Politics

Another fan of Robert Mansell’s work was Preston Manning. And in addition to visiting the University of Calgary to talk with Mansell and his students during the mid-1980s, Manning was also contemplating what he called a Western Assembly on Canada’s Economic and Political Future planned for May 1987. In Manning’s own words:

“The common issue that brought us together was a feeling of being left out of our own country. We felt that the West’s constitutional concerns were never given the same priority by the national government as those of Quebec. Nor were the West’s economic aspirations ever given the same priority as those of southern Ontario. We believed the solution lay not in mere protest or threats of separation, but in developing a short list of constructive changes, that is, reforms, to the Canadian federal system and finding an appropriate political vehicle to promote that list in the federal political arena” (Manning, The New Canada i).

Mansell was among those who Manning wanted at the Assembly, but he had other commitments and suggested that Harper attend as his replacement. By that time the two men had gotten to know and respect each other through their mutual interactions with Mansell.

Harper was not part of the original Reform Association and so went to Vancouver as an observer. He brought with him an essay written with his friend John Weissenberger called “Political Reform and the Taxpayer.” In essence, it was an argument for a “Taxpayers’ Party” built on primarily classical liberal principles. It would be “a genuine conservative option […] which would represent the public interest of the taxpayer […] against the expenditure demands of special interest groups” (Qtd. in Flanagan, Wave 6).

The primary outcome of the Western Assembly was to plan a founding convention for a new political party. The Reform Party in Winnipeg in October 1987. Manning was suitably impressed with Harper that he gave him a key speaking role at the founding assembly.

Harper wrote a speech for the Winnipeg Convention entitled “Achieving Economic Justice in Confederation.” In that speech he tried to fuse two subjects: the sense of western grievance that was at the core of the Vancouver Assembly, and his own ideas for creating a “Taxpayers’ Party.” As part of the latter he said that the welfare state was not a “sacred trust” as Mulroney had been saying, but rather “the taxpayers’ burden.” As Flanagan wrote:

“Harper’s speech was a significant step towards creating a conservative western party, rather than the non-ideological party that Manning had said he wanted; yet Manning was quite taken with the speech, and he appointed Harper chief policy officer” (Wave 7).

Harper was twenty-eight years old.

But right from the outset, there was a critically important intellectual tension between the leader and his chief policy officer. Manning wanted a populist regional party that would evolve, eventually, into a populist party with national reach. All that was needed, in Flanagan’s words, was to wait for a populist wave that would carry the party to power. And if that did not happen within thirteen years, the experiment would be abandoned – as a result of a party sunset clause which Manning set for November 1, 2000.

“Steve Harper” ran for the Reform Party in Calgary West against his former boss Jim Hawkes in 1988. He lost by a wide margin and the party won no seats. But 1989 was a heady year for the Reform Party, seeing its first MP elected, Deborah Grey in March and its first Senator, Stan Waters, in November.

This “success” caused much introspection in the party and brought Harper and Manning’s disagreement over direction of the party out into the open. It is worth quoting Flanagan at length on this disagreement because it cast significant light on the trajectory of Harper’s political thought:

Both Preston Manning and Stephen Harper believed some change was necessary, but their views were very different, and the difference between them illustrates the internal tension between populism and conservatism that has marked the party’s history. In March 1989, Harper sent Manning a memo containing a root-and-branch critique of what he saw as Manning’s strategy, namely “that the Party should emphasize its geographic nature while downplaying its ideological content.’

As an alternative Harper proposed that the Reform Party could and should become “a modern Canadian version of the Thatcher-Reagan phenomenon.’ It should seek its core supporters in the private-sector middle class of Canada’s urban areas, offering these voters a market-oriented ideology. Building on that economic base, it “should tailor its broader, ‘social’ agenda to gain a sizeable chunk of the urban working class and rural sector ‘swing’ vote without alienating its urban private sector middle-class ‘core.’ The key is to emphasize moderate conservative social values consistent with the traditional family, the market economy and patriotism.”

Directly challenging Manning’s belief in the obsolescence of ideology, Harper argued: “The Reform Party must continue to be moderate in tone, but it is pointless to attempt to avoid the ‘Right’ label. Instead, the Party should shape the term and stress what it wants the term to mean, i.e. the ‘Economic Right,’ ‘Moderate Right,’ ‘Principled Right’” (Wave 14-15).

What is significant about this is Harper’s fusion for the first time of social and economic conservatism in the context of building a political coalition of the right. Harper was moving beyond the more pure classical liberal conception of a “Taxpayers’ Party” to a more robust and larger coalition of traditional conservatives and classical liberals. It is the beginning of Harper’s development of a philosophy of ordered liberty.

It is a concept with a rich Canadian history.

III.V. Ordered Liberty and Sir John A. Macdonald

Ordered liberty finds its roots in the British constitution and was the animating idea behind Sir John A. Macdonald’s political career, ultimately helping to shape the British North America Act. It is often forgotten that Canada’s founding political party was called the Liberal-Conservative Party. Macdonald’s early political vehicle was not just a coalition of moderate Reformers and Conservatives from Canada West and bleus from Canada East, but rather an intellectual union of conservatism and liberalism. And Macdonald, himself, came to personify this powerful synthesis of ideas.

Of course, Macdonald was the consummate politician. He was a nation builder who understood that compromise was integral to knitting together Canada’s vast geography and diverse population. But to assert, as some political scientists have, that he was devoid of first principles belies a more sophisticated reading of his intellectual and political sensibilities and the wellspring from which they sprung. He was hardly insulated from the rich political debates taking place in Europe and America. He borrowed from the liberal and conservative traditions and came to subscribe to a set of ideas that can best be described as “liberal-conservatism,” or what modern American conservatives call “fusionism.”

Macdonald’s liberalism was evident in his support for individual liberty and minority rights and his promotion of economic development and national progress. His support for French language and Catholic minority rights are well documented. Macdonald’s bicultural alliance with George-Etienne Cartier was more than just a political marriage of convenience. It reflected a commitment to the basic principle that individuals ought to be able to maintain their culture and worship according to their own beliefs. This is one of the reasons that University of Calgary scholar, Tim Anderson, has argued, “philosophically, Macdonald was a liberal.”

He also subscribed to liberalism’s predisposition to economic and social development and national progress. Macdonald’s nation-building experiment was, as one biographer has put it, “at its core an absurdly romantic project” (Richard Gwyn, Sir John A. 294). It required a large-scale ambition to achieve political reconciliation, populate the growing country, and promote economic opportunity. And Macdonald’s programme to see his vision come to fruition mostly reflected a classical liberal poise. The prevailing assumption was that government should be “unobtrusive and cheap” and economic individualism and private enterprise should be the primary sources of market decision-making and economic activity. His government was prepared to invest in public infrastructure to facilitate transportation and trade, but these interventions were about supporting the market economy rather than supplanting it. Macdonald’s abiding faith in markets and progress were signs of underlying liberalism. But his liberalism was tempered by conservatism.

There is no doubt that Macdonald had significant conservative sensibilities. Conservatism was the dominant ideology throughout most of Upper Canada during his formative years, and, for Macdonald, it can be argued, it was as a much a general weltanschauung as it was a practical programme of political ideas. The intellectual outcome was a liberalism suffused by conservatism that was concerned with, what one Macdonald scholar has called, “a virtuous and ordered liberty” (Rod Preece, “The Political Wisdom of Sir John A. Macdonald” 471).

Its implications for Macdonald’s political ideology and the Conservative Party can be seen in much of his political vision and record, including his critique of American frontier democracy. In general terms, his conservatism stood opposed to the egalitarian excesses of the Jacksonian experiment in the United States. He favoured, for instance, loyalty to the Crown, had a great respect for law and order, a hostility to the universal franchise, and an abiding skepticism about change as a virtue in its own right.

And, perhaps most importantly, according to Wilfrid Laurier University scholar Rod Preece, he thought that unfettered liberalism needed to be bridled by prudence and order. Liberty without order, Macdonald instinctively believed, “would disturb the integrating regularity of life; it would be mere license masquerading as liberty, destroying virtue, duty, and honour.” At its core, then, this concept of “ordered liberty” reflected the view that individual liberty ought to be pursued indeed, only could be pursued in a context of familial and social relationships, a legal and moral framework to restrain individual appetites, and common values and precepts that connect individuals and communities. Striking this balance between liberty and order came to shape Macdonald’s own worldview and would ultimately reflect itself in his government’s agenda.

Under Macdonald’s leadership, the Liberal-Conservative Party came to exteriorize his unique blend of liberal-conservatism. It was a successful formula that not only advanced the economic interests of the country, but also furthered the political imperatives of his party. Macdonald’s political views, it has been argued, came to bring expression to the aspirations of the new country. As historian John English put it: “the Conservative Party [became] the political embodiment of the spirit of 1867” (English, The Decline of Politics 331). The party’s diverse coalition of Upper Canada Tories, moderate Reformers, and traditionalist bleus exemplified the broad appeal of his national vision.

It ought to have been a powerful lesson for future Conservative leaders. Few heeded it. Stephen Harper ultimately saw its virtue and came to incorporate it into his political thinking.

II. VI. Toward a New Political Party

Following the election of Deborah Grey in 1989, Harper moved back to Ottawa to become her executive assistant and speechwriter. But his increasing conflicts with Manning resulted in his having smaller and smaller roles in the party. A key source of tension was over Manning’s treatment of the 1992 Charlottetown Accord referendum, which Harper strongly opposed, but toward which Manning was lukewarm and his increasingly influential advisor on such matters Rick Anderson supported.

Harper came close to not running for the Reform Party in 1993 as a result of ongoing disagreement with Manning and his advisors over the direction of the party. Yet his election and the subsequent four years in Ottawa cemented his cerebral and political reputation with not just his colleagues but also with much of establishment Ottawa.

As Wells writes, “all of these characteristics made Harper the first-call Reformer for most Ottawa reporters during the first Jean Chretien government. And when we called, Harper wasn’t stingy with his opinions” (Right Side 8). It was four years of training on how to operate in Ottawa, and he did so across from a master, Jean Chretien. Often, early in his term as leader when confronted with a thorny issue he would ask “What would Chretien do?” as a way to think through the right response.

During this period Harper also led the party’s response to the Quebec referendum, in no small measure because he was one of the few Reformers who could do an interview in French, yet another intellectual feat for someone born and raised in Leaside who then spent his adult life in Calgary. It was Harper’s approach to Quebec and his authorship of the Quebec Contingency Act in 1996 (Private Members Bill C-341),establishing conditions that would apply to a referendum regarding Quebec separation that became the foundation for Chretien’s Clarity Act of 2000. It was part of a two-pronged approach to address Quebec’s grievances. The other was a reaffirmation of classical federalism whereby all provinces, including Quebec, were given more power to enact (primarily) social policy.

But, ultimately, Harper’s disagreement with Manning’s populist direction for the party, led him to leave elected office in 1997 and instead he became the head of the National Citizens Coalition. In that capacity he was free from partisan restraints to comment on politics in Canada and set out his vision for a conservative alternative to the Liberal orthodoxy.

Harper returned to the theme of uniting social and economic conservatives with an essay he wrote with Tom Flanagan for Bill Gairdner’s edited compilation After Liberalism. In it he returns to the tension between “Burkean conservatives and classical liberals” stating that “whatever separated them was less than what united them, namely a preference for small government, open markets, the rule of law and opposition to governmental dirigisme” (Flanagan and Harper, “Conservative Politics in Canada” 175-7).

Harper’s conception of ordered liberty was beginning to take a more defined shape. But it also started to fuse with his ideas of what it would take to create a lasting political coalition. It became more than just a way to intellectually order his thinking but also became the basis for a coalition on which a strong, lasting small-c Conservative party could be constructed.

Its clearest statement came one year after he had won the Canadian Alliance leadership, but before he joined with Peter Mackay to create the Conservative Party of Canada. His private remarks to Civitas in 2003 were his most detailed and thoughtful expression of his emerging governing philosophy involving a fusion of tranditional (or as he called it Burkean) conservatism and classical liberalism. It is worth quoting significant portions of that speech at length with some guiding commentary.

Harper starts by aligning the political act of building a coalition with the intellectual act of constructing a consistent ideology.

What is the “conservative coalition” of ideas? Actually, conservatism and conservative parties, as we’ve known them over the decades, have always been coalitions. Though these coalitions are complex and continually shifting, two distinctive elements have long been identifiable […]. Properly speaking, they are called classical or enlightenment liberalism and classical or Burkean conservatism.

The one called “economic conservatism” does indeed come from classical liberalism. Its primary value is individual freedom, and to that end it stresses private enterprise, free trade, religious toleration, limited government and the rule of law.

The other philosophy is Burkean conservatism. Its primary value is social order. It stresses respect for custom and traditions (religious traditions above all), voluntary association, and personal self-restraint reinforced by moral and legal sanctions on behaviour.

Harper then reaches back to his intellectual interregnum of studying the classics and positions his thinking in intellectual and historical context.

The essence of this conservatism is, according to Russell Kirk “the preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity. Conservatives respect the wisdom of their ancestors; they are dubious of wholesale alteration. They think society is a spiritual reality, possessing an eternal life but a delicate constitution: it cannot be scrapped and recast as if it were a machine.”

In the nineteenth century these two political philosophies, classical liberalism and Burkean conservatism, formed the basis for distinct political parties that opposed one another. On the one side was a liberal party in the classical sense – rationalist, anti-clerical but not anti-religious, free trading, often republican, and usually internationalist. On the other side was an older conservative party – traditionalist, explicitly or implicitly denominational, economically protectionist, usually monarchist, and nationalistic.

In the twentieth century, these opposing forces came together as a result of two different forces: resistance to a common enemy; and commitment to ideas widely shared.

The common enemy was the rise of radical socialism in its various forms. In this context, Burkean conservatives and classical liberals discovered a commitment to a core of common ideas. Both groups favoured private property, small government and reliance on civil society rather than the state to resolve social dilemmas and to create social progress. Domestically, both groups resisted those who stood for public ownership, government interventionism, egalitarian redistribution and state sponsorship of secular humanist values. Internationally, they stood unequivocally against external enemies – fascism, communism and socialist totalitarianism in all its forms […].

He then returns back to aligning the building of a political coalition and the two strands of ordered liberty: Burkean conservatism (social conservatives) and classical liberalism (economic conservatives).

The truth is that strong economic and social conservatives are more often than not the same people, and not without reason. Except at the extremes of libertarianism and theocracy, the philosophical fusion has become deep and widespread. Social conservatives more often than not demand the government stop intervening in individual decisions, just as classical liberals often point to the religious roots of their focus on the individual. As American humorist P.J. O’Rourke has observed: “the great religions teach salvation as an individual matter. There are no group discounts in the Ten Commandments, Christ was not a committee, and Allah does not welcome believers into paradise saying, ‘you weren’t much good yourself, but you were standing near some good people.’”

O’Rourke also summarized the moral and civilizing importance of markets by reminding us that, “the rise of private enterprise and trade provided a means of achieving wealth and autonomy other than by killing people with broadswords.” Private enterprise and trade, as Adam Smith pointed out, can turn individual selfishness into useful social outcomes. In fact, the founder of classical liberal economics came to his theories as much by his study of moral philosophy as anything else.

Harper then goes on to suggest that conservatives need to increase their emphasis on the social conservative side. As a practical matter, this was a prudent calculation as the Reform and Alliance parties were largely a fusion of social conservatives and populists. But it was also a reaction to his experience in the Mulroney government, which was a fusion of economic conservatives and Quebec nationalists. So what Harper was hoping for was a construction of the primarily economic conservatives from the Progressive Conservative side of the coin with the primarily social conservatives from the Reform/Alliance side of the other coin.

And Harper does this by arguing that modern liberalism and the political parties it sustained had become relativistic and unprepared to censure social permissiveness and destructive behaviour, and that conservatives needed to appeal to those Canadians distressed by this development.

What this means for conservatives today is that we must rediscover the common cause and orient our coalition to the nature of the post-cold-war world […].

The real challenge is[…] the social agenda of the modern Left. Its system of moral relativism, moral neutrality and moral equivalency is beginning to dominate its intellectual debate and public policy objectives.

The clearest recent evidence of this phenomenon is in the international affairs in the emerging post-cold-war world – most obvious in the response of modern liberals to the war on terrorism. There is no doubt about the technical capacity of our society to fight this war. What is evident is the lack of desire of the modern liberals to fight […].

This is particularly striking given the nature of the enemy here, the Bin Ladens and the Husseins, individuals who embody in the extreme everything the Left purports to oppose – fundamentalism, fascistic nationalism, misogyny, bigotry.

Conservatives need to reassess our understanding of the modern Left. It has moved beyond old socialistic morality or even moral relativism to something much darker. It has become a moral nihilism – the rejection of any tradition or convention of morality, a post-Marxism with deep resentments, even hatreds, of the norms of free and democratic western civilization.

This descent into nihilism should not be surprising because moral relativism simply cannot be sustained as a guiding philosophy. It leads to silliness such as moral neutrality on the use of marijuana or harder drugs mixed with its random moral crusades on tobacco. It explains the lack of moral censure on personal foibles of all kinds, extending even criminal behaviour, with moral outrage at bourgeois society, which is then tangentially blamed for deviant behaviour. On the moral standing of the person, it leads to views which range from radical, responsibility-free individualism to tribalism in the form of group rights.

Conservatives have focused on the inconsistency in all of this. Yet it is actually disturbingly consistent. It is a rebellion against all forms of social norm and moral tradition in every aspect of life […].

Harper then moves on to how a modern conservative party must tread through the often-dangerous waters of social conservatism. His solution? Focus on values. He argues this is necessary because on many of the big economic questions, conservatives had been modestly successful in shaping a political consensus and the Liberal Party was increasingly accepting of market-based policy solutions.

In this environment, serious conservative parties simply cannot shy away from values questions. On a wide range of public policy questions, including foreign affairs and defence, criminal justice and corrections, family and child care, health care and social services, social values are increasingly the really big issues.

Take taxation for example. There are real limits to tax cutting if conservatives cannot dispute anything about how or why a government actually does what it does. If conservatives accept all legislated social liberalism with simply balanced budgets and corporate grants – as do some in business community – then there really are no differences between a conservative and a Paul Martin.

There is, of course, much more to be done in economic policy. We do need deeper and broader tax cuts, further reductions in debt, further deregulation and privatization, and especially the elimination of corporate subsidies and industrial development schemes. In large measure however, the public arguments for doing so have already been won. Conservatives have to be more than modern liberals in a hurry.

The truth of the matter is that the real agenda and the defining issues have shifted from economic issues to social values, so conservatives must do the same.

This is not as difficult as it sounds. It does not require a radical redefinition of conservatism, but rather a shifting of the balance between the economic and social conservative sides that have always been there.

In particular, Canadian conservatives need to rediscover the virtues of Burkean conservatism as a key component of that balance. Rediscovering this agenda, to paraphrase Ted Byfield, means not just worrying about what the state costs, but also worrying about what the state values.

For example, we need to rediscover Burkean or social conservatism because a growing body of evidence points to the damage the welfare state is having on our most important institutions, particularly the family. Conservatives have to give much higher place to confronting threats posed by modern liberals to this building block of our society.

We also need to rediscover Burkean conservatism because the emerging debates on foreign affairs should be fought on moral grounds. Current challenges in dealing with terrorism and its sponsors, as well as the emerging debate on the goals of the U.S. as the sole superpower, will be well served by conservative insights on preserving historic values and moral insights on right and wrong […].

And he concludes with some important warnings about the social conservative agenda. These are the seeds for Harper’s insistence that the party stay out of the abortion debate (for which there is no denominational consensus and for which too many pro-lifers took an “all or nothing” stance on the issue). On the positive side, Harper points out that cultivating an agenda compatible with social conservatism should bear fruit among the growing ethnic and immigrant communities.

Rebalancing the conservative agenda will require careful political judgment. First, the issues must be chosen carefully. For example, the social conservative issues we choose should not be denominational, but should unite social conservatives of different denominations and even different faiths. It also helps when social conservative concerns overlap those of people with a more libertarian orientation.

Second, we must realize that real gains are inevitably incremental. This, in my experience, is harder for social conservatives than for economic conservatives. The explicitly moral orientation of social conservatives make it difficult for many to accept the incremental approach. Yet, in democratic politics, any other approach will certainly fail. We should never accept the standard of just being “better than the Liberals” – people who advocate that standard seldom achieve it – but conservatives should be satisfied if the agenda is moving in the right direction, even if slowly.

Third, rebalancing mean there will be changes to the composition of the conservative coalition. We may not have all the same people we have had in the past. The new liberal corporatist agenda will appeal to some in the business community. We may lose some old “conservatives,” Red Tories like the David Orchards or the Joe Clarks.

This is not all bad. A more coherent coalition can take strong positions it wouldn’t otherwise be able to take… More importantly, a new approach can draw in new people. Many traditional Liberal voters, especially those from key ethnic and immigrant communities, will be attracted to a party with strong traditional views of values and family. This is similar to the phenomenon of the “Reagan Democrats” in the United States, who were so important in the development of that conservative coalition […].

The rediscovery of the conservative agenda requires us to maintain the coalition of ideas that is the heritage of enlightenment liberalism and Burkean conservatism. Yet contemporary reality requires us to reemphasize the Burkean tradition as a key part of our conservative agenda. In other words, while retaining a focus on economic issues we must give greater place to social values and social conservatism, broadly defined and properly understood.

The importance of this speech cannot be overstated. It not only represented the full evolution of Harper’s intellectual and political development. It was the first time that he had given it expression and he chose to do so to a meeting of the country’s leading conservative thinkers. It signaled his intellectual maturation and his emergence as the most important conservative in Canada.

Harper returned to these themes at the 2009 Manning Centre conference. He said: “Conservatism cannot be just about freedom. It must be about policies that help ensure freedom will lead to good choices, to responsible choices in the economy, to prosperous choices with wider benefits to all of us.” Family and faith two cornerstones of traditional conservatism were, in Harper’s articulation, critical to harnessing freedom and using it to virtuous ends. As he put it, “Freedom must be used well, and freedom can only be sustained if it is used well.”

And in a 2015 column to mark the two-hundredth anniversary of Macdonald’s birth, he wrote: “of the greatest importance for all of us, perhaps, was that Macdonald appropriated from the British constitution its conception of freedom, of “ordered liberty,” of the balancing of popular and minority rights, of (in terms of the era) equality before the law and governments responsible through the legislature to the voters.”

The emphasis on “enlightenment liberalism”, or classical liberalism, is deliberate. Harper was not embracing and never did embrace modern libertarianism. While he recognized common cause with libertarians on the role of markets and threat posed to economic freedom by socialism, he never did reconcile himself with the libertarian tendency towards social permissiveness and moral relativism, and the characterization of individuals as economic automatons without broader connections to one another in society. And, of course, his private remarks to the Manning Centre cautioned against an overemphasis on political or economic freedom not tempered by deeper values can lead to negative social and economic outcomes. This emphasis on conservatism on the use of the state to support the essential building block of families for instance would come to play a major role in his governance.

II. V. Summary

Our central argument is that Mr. Harper became Prime Minister in 2006 after more than thirty years of intellectual reflection and analysis. His role as the Reform Party’s founding policy chief, his time as a Member of Parliament and then as a conservative activist, and finally his experience in merging the Progressive Conservative Party and the Canadian Alliance provided considerable opportunity for trial and error and for him to refine different aspects of his worldview. The outcome was a fusionist conservatism rooted in the mainstream of Western political thought and Canada’s own political tradition but different than the prevailing liberal orthodoxy of his formative years and of federal policy and politics for much of the post-War World II era.

There is no doubt that Harper’s embrace of the “ordered liberty” composite is sincere. But it was more than just an intellectual evolution that led him in this direction. It was also a political assessment of what could ultimately form the basis of a lasting, stable conservative governing coalition. And he rightly came to believe that an agenda focused on marrying the best of classical liberalism reflected in its respect for the individual and commitment to economic and social dynamism and the foundations of Burkean conservatism manifested in its recognition of the long-term benefits of virtue and tradition was a winning political formula over the short- and long-term.

He did not immediately reach this conclusion. It was a long process of political introspection. He witnessed first-hand the limitations of the Progressive Conservative Party’s ideological flaccidity and overdependence on Quebec nationalism. He also had reservations about Preston Manning’s underlying populism because he believed that it was unstable and risked taking the party in unproductive directions. And he observed the prospect of long-term Liberal governance unrooted from any intellectual compass. The prognostications seem foolish in hindsight but it is easy to forget that, in the early 2000s, much of the punditocracy anticipated that Paul Martin would win the largest majority government in Canadian history and go on to serve as Prime Minister for the foreseeable future.

It was in this context that Harper came to see virtue in the powerful lesson of Macdonald’s fusionist record. Bringing Burke back into the fold of Canadian conservatism rooted its thinking and expanded its political appeal. By placing a greater emphasis on social values and social conservatism not defined by single issues, but rather a Burkean worldview that placed traditional institutions such as the family at the heart of its agenda conservatism could truly be a powerful political force that would contest and win more elections in the twenty-first century than it had in the twentieth.

But we should also repeat an earlier caveat. While we argue that Harper’s ordered liberty was a driving force in his politics and policy, it was not the sole or only force. Like any successful leader, Harper was influenced by the vagaries of political winds and expediency. He took advantage of his opponents’ weaknesses and his own strengths in ways that can hardly be argued were driven by intellectual considerations.

Yet, as we will now argue, in many important ways, his conception of ordered liberty drove much of his political and policy agenda. Indeed, understanding his conception of ordered liberty is critical to understanding his prime ministership and how he strove to transform Canada for the better.


Stephen Harper was elected Prime Minister after decades of serious intellectual inquiry and political calculation. The result of this effort was his fusionist conception of ordered liberty, bringing together the best traditions of traditional or Burkean conservatism and classical liberalism. This intellectual fusionism became the basis for his governing philosophy and much of what he accomplished as Prime Minister. It also served as the foundation of his political coalition. He saw in his vision of ordered liberty an opportunity to bring together voters across the conservative spectrum and to speak to non-ideologues, including new Canadians, in terms that spoke to their interests and concerns.

Indeed, we believe that to understand Stephen Harper’s political career, one must pay attention to his intellectual and political development and the primacy of his fusionist philosophy. Ordered liberty, in our view, is both the motivation and the reason that he changed Canada for the better.

We do not dispute that Harper was also motivated by the more base instincts of a successful politician. Yet on the big issues, he was motivated by his intellectual conception of ordered liberty.


Portions of this was originally published in Policy Options Politques on December 1, 2015.

Ken Boessenkool and Sean SpeerKen Boessenkool and Sean Speer

Ken Boessenkool and Sean Speer

Ken Boessenkool is a founding partner in Kool Topp & Guy Public Affairs and has published with the CD Howe Institute, AIMS, the Centre for the Study of State and Market at the University of Toronto, the Fraser Institute, Canada West Foundation and the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. He has worked for, or volunteered in a senior capacity, for Ray Speaker, Preston Manning, Jim Flaherty, Stockwell Day, Jim Dinning, Stephen Harper, Christy Clark and Ric McIver. Sean Speer is a senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance and a former adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

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