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Ben Woodfinden: Homeowners will soon be our new aristocracy

Commentary

One of the most significant economic effects of the pandemic has been the explosion it has helped drive in the Canadian real estate market.

Since the start of the pandemic the average home price has jumped 32 percent. It’s great news if you already own a home, but if you’re among the roughly 1 in 3 Canadian households who isn’t a homeowner, your prospects of ever getting on the housing ladder look increasingly bleak.

A recent RBC housing poll found 36 percent of Canadians under 40 have given up on owning a home and 62 percent of all Canadians surveyed think the majority of people will be priced out of the country’s market in the next decade.

More importantly, plenty of young people who still aspire to home ownership are in for a rude awakening. Nearly half of people planning to buy a home had a budget of less than $500,000. The average price of a home in Canada was $678,091 as of February 2021, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association. In British Columbia the average price goes up to $887,695 and $864,159 in Ontario.

Canada is headed for a future where home ownership becomes a new kind of bourgeois aristocracy, with the bank of mom and dad becoming the dividing line between the young Canadians who can and can’t afford to buy a house. Perhaps counterintuitively, it’s Canadian conservatives who should be especially concerned about this, and big-C conservative governments need to be the ones who take bold action to address it.

Why? After all, conservative party voters and conservatism more broadly is dominated by older homeowners. These are the people who benefit from skyrocketing house prices.

Well, because the kind of bifurcated and deeply unequal society we are creating is one in which there will be a large group of people who have nothing to conserve, and whose life experiences will make them unlikely to slowly drift towards conservatism over their lifespan. In short, what’s good for conservative parties today may make them irrelevant in a few decades.

Conservatives don’t tend to do very well among young people. This doesn’t mean there aren’t young conservatives, but there’s a clear relationship between age and conservatism, or lack thereof. What’s the reason for this? It’s not because people all of a sudden find time to sit down and read Edmund Burke. It’s because their lives change as they age, or so the story goes. They get married, start paying taxes, buy a house, have children, and settle down.

These life events give people skin in the game. They have something to conserve, which naturally over time makes them more dispositionally, and often more politically, conservative. People tend to overstate this, but there’s definitely something to this line of thinking.

What’s good for conservative parties today may make them irrelevant in a few decades.

Astute conservatives have long recognized this. The idea of a “property-owning democracy” was coined by a British Conservative (technically a Unionist) MP, Noel Skelton, in 1923. Skelton’s insight was that democratic reforms might have delivered political rights to the masses, but there was no extension of these rights into the economic realm and this was creating instability. Skelton’s solution was to massively expand the property-owning class. Interestingly enough though, Skelton was actually referring to worker stakes in workplaces. But the idea remained part of Conservative discourse and it was Prime Minister Anthony Eden who tweaked it and turned it into an idea about mass home ownership.

The property owning democracy became a core of Tory politics in the postwar era, and in 1980 Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced the so-called “right to buy” scheme that gave millions of Britons the chance to buy their publicly owned housing at a discount. It was one of the cornerstones of Thatcherism and helped sweep Thatcher to power. The right to buy has its critics on the left who saw it (and still do) as an attack on public and social housing. But conservatives should not be afraid to make the case for home ownership. Someone has to own the housing we live in, better that people own their dwellings as much as is possible, rather than the government or landlords. It gives people something to conserve, and in time may turn them into conservatives. Thatcher recognized this and modern conservatives should too.

But there’s a bit more to all this than just “widespread home ownership means Conservative party domination.” Cost matters too. The least affordable cities and areas are not conservative bastions, quite the opposite. George Hawley, an academic at the University of Houston, has found that there is a clear relationship between housing costs and voting Republican. But the relationship he found is a revealing one. Affordable house prices is closely linked with voting Republican, and one of the key variables linking home values and voting Republican is marriage.

Hawley also found that the more median home prices increase, the more marriage rates decline among young women, which in turn pulls voters away from the Republican Party. What this paper suggests is that higher house prices may delay marriage.

The earlier people can buy houses the sooner they can get on with other things like marriage and family formation.

There are some clear intuitive political implications from this. Affordable house prices allow people to get on with their lives earlier. The earlier people can buy houses the sooner they can get on with other things like marriage and family formation. Unaffordable housing costs delay all these life experiences, with political consequences. Unmarried and childless urban renters are not exactly a growth demographic for conservatives, but unaffordable housing costs that keeps people in this position for longer or perhaps indefinitely will be disastrous for conservative parties.

Seeing that the only people who can afford to buy homes are ones lucky enough to have wealthy parents, will likely push people to the left. A Canada in which fewer and fewer people are married and have children is not one that produces moderate politics.

Unaffordable housing can only be made affordable if prices become affordable, which requires some tough choices to be made. What’s more important, protecting inflated equity of homeowners or reducing prices to make housing affordable, most likely through increasing supply? Conservatives probably choose the former, but they will be signing their own political death warrant if they do. The short term gains for their current base will lead to the long term erosion of any base at all.

Some Conservatives do indeed recognize this problem. Pierre Poilievre has been a lone voice calling for more housing to be built to deal with this problem, and has attacked the “gatekeepers” who put up barriers to this happening. Others simply shrug and say it’s ultimately a municipal problem, so there’s nothing Conservative governments can do about it. But this is wrong.

Cities are creatures of the provinces, and conservative governments like the current Ontario government could take aggressive action to increase supply, especially in urban areas where the pressures are highest. They could do this without having to worry about losing these urban seats or alienating their voters, given that the current Ontario PC coalition is not primarily an urban Toronto or Ottawa coalition.

Similarly, the federal government sends lots of money and to cities and provinces. Attaching conditionalities on this funding to require the loosening of zoning restrictions and the construction of more housing could be an effective tool the federal government could wield to solve this problem.

The present situation is an existential peril to conservatism as a political and social force. Conservatives have a choice: work to get new housing built to ensure the next generation is not locked out of home ownership and start producing a new generation of people with a stake in society and something to conserve or face political extinction.

Garnett Genuis: On nationalism, globalism and what we can learn from ancient Athens

Commentary

Conflict between ideas about “nationalism” and “globalism” are shaping many contemporary debates, here in Canada and throughout the world.

Globalization is breaking down more and more barriers, and global problems increasingly point to the need for global solutions. But we are also seeing plenty of failures in terms of global common endeavour and the ability of global institutions to actually deliver positive results. Increasing numbers of people on the left and the right are reacting to the inequalities associated with globalization and demanding that their leaders focus on the wellbeing of their own countries.

As we debate our response to various global crises and the degree to which our responses should be local, national, or global, it is important that we set clear categories and make clear distinctions between the different competing outlooks.

For me, a useful jumping off point for thinking about these very 21st century questions of nationalism and globalism has been the trajectory of Athens from its golden age of empire through its defeat in the Peloponnesian War and then into the subsequent era of Athens’ greatest philosophers. These are the circumstances that gave us the ideas of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It is a fascinating story, and one that is particularly relevant today.

Ancient Athens itself does not really have a modern analog. It was a procedurally democratic society in which many were still excluded, populism was rampant, and the city itself formed the democratic center of an empire which was unapologetically exploitative of its periphery. In this sense, Athens was in reality what America’s most virulent far-left critics imagine America to be. Athenian democracy, in which the people voted to put Socrates to death, is frequently and legitimately invoked as demonstrating the problems with unbridled populism and the need for checks and balances. Ancient Athens is a warning about what democracy can become. And it was Athenian colonialism and abuse of its allies that sparked the Peloponnesian War.

In light of modern Sino-American competition for global dominance, the Peloponnesian War is most often invoked in the context of the notion of the “Thucydides Trap” — the idea that conflict is inevitable when a new power emerges to challenge another for dominance. Importantly, no such hypothesis about the inevitably of violent conflict between Athens and Sparta (or America and China) was actually advanced by Thucydides, the Athenian General after whom the term is named. The Thucydides Trap has about as much to do with Thucydides as modern Confucius Institute have to do with Confucius. Unlike the Thucydides Trap, though, there are lessons to be taken from this era that do draw from actual events.

Pericles’ Nationalism and Alcibiades’ Globalism

The two most important players during the war on the Athenian side were Pericles and his nephew Alcibiades.

Pericles, a brilliant strategist and orator, effectively led Athens in the early years of the war. He was what we would today identify as a devoted nationalist. For him, Athens itself was something like a great Homeric hero. Pericles saw his duty as being solely to the good of Athens and he saw justice itself as being whatever was good for his city.

Pericles would likely have led Athens to victory in the Peloponnesian War, if he had not died of a plague that devastated Athens in the second year of the war. Athens was protected by walls and maintained access to the sea. This allowed it to access vital necessities during a siege, but also left it very vulnerable to disease. Today’s pandemic is another element that makes the Peloponnesian War feel more resonant.

In always seeking the good for his city, Pericles was a true nationalist as opposed to a crowd-pleasing populist. He always sought what was in the Athenian interest, rather than indulging the public will. He initially convinced the Athenians to retreat within and stay behind their walls rather than face the Peloponnesians in open country, and he avoided calling a subsequent public meeting for fear that passions would drive the assembled people to an unwise course. He did all this for the sake of Athens, not for himself.

Like Pericles, Alcibiades served as an Athenian general and was recognized for his tactical prowess. Alcibiades also presented himself as a nationalist, though of a very different sort. During a debate about whether Athens should seek to conquer Sicily, Alcibiades was accused of only favouring the expedition in order to strengthen his own position. In his response, he argued that the glorification of a great man like himself carried with it the glorification of the city. The Sicily expedition championed by Alcibiades was ultimately disastrous and was the catalyst for ultimate Athenian defeat.

Alcibiades was also notable for defecting multiple times during the war when sensing personal danger. Facing allegations of sacrilege in Athens, he switched to the Spartan side, and then defected again to the Persians after his liaisons with the Spartan King’s wife put him in an awkward position. From his Persian perch, he managed to scheme and deceive his way back into the Athenians’ good graces and return home. In modern terms, if Pericles was a true nationalist, Alcibiades turned out to be something of a globalist, preserving a soft spot for home while plying his considerable talents and pursuing all manner of conquest under any flag.

The Great Philosophers

Following its defeat in the Peloponnesian War, Athens entered a period of declining geopolitical influence. But this political decline would happen alongside significant intellectual dynamism, marked by the emergence of great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Ross Douthat argues in The Decadent Society that civilizational decline is often associated with a decline in creativity, but these great philosophers (as well as people like Augustine and Boethius who lived during Rome’s decline) show us that civilizational decline can actually provide great fuel for creative reflection. Thank goodness.

Is there a connection between Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War and the ideas of the great philosophers that followed? It seems to me that there is. The end of Athenian dominance in Greece necessarily forced a re-think of Periclean nationalism. It was no longer attractive for Athenians to contend that “might makes right,” since they had just lost most of their might. Perhaps, therefore, this loss of national power made new models of justice that were universal as opposed to national more necessary. These are the models of justice that we hear proposed by these great thinkers. For example, Plato recounts in The Republic how Socrates effectively refutes the idea that justice is simply “the advantage of the stronger.” In this, he opposes the most extreme expression of an “Athens first” nationalism.

Both Alcibiades and Socrates rejected the extreme form of nationalism represented by Pericles. But it is important that they did so in different ways and for different reasons. Alcibiades discarded his attachments and loyalty to his community in order to pursue a lower ideal — his own self-interest. Though Pericles’ faults are easy to identify in retrospect because of his ill-treatment of foreign peoples, Alcibiades was still clearly a lesser man. Pericles at least loved his country, but Alcibiades only loved himself. In debates about nationalism and its alternatives, we often miss that traditional nationalism is a kind of middle course. It is possible to do worse than Periclean nationalism, and also to do better.

In the 21st century, there is more than one way to be a citizen of the world. One path involves pursuing wealth and opportunity everywhere, working for and with any country or company that serves one’s own private interests, disregarding the interests of one’s own nation or even the people in other nations along the way. This sort of personal selfishness can easily dress itself up as open-minded cosmopolitanism. This is the road of Alcibiades. An alternative way to be a citizen of the world is to draw on the insights of Socrates, building on a love for one’s own community and nation by seeking to advance the common good of all peoples as well as one’s own. This commitment to the universal pursuit of justice builds on a patriotic commitment to one’s own nation by expanding one’s sphere of concern instead of narrowing it. The cosmopolitanism of “I can make it anywhere” is not the same as the cosmopolitanism of a commitment to universal human wellbeing.

These three men from antiquity, Alcibiades, Pericles, and Socrates, were characterized by differing views of the world and differing views about justice. For Alcibiades, justice was whatever served his own interests. For Pericles, justice was whatever served his country’s interests. For Socrates, justice was a universal concept. For those concerned about the tension between nationalism and globalism, Socrates offers a kind of synthesis, emphasizing both fidelity to immediate commitments and the enlightened cosmopolitanism that comes from universal solidarity.

Today’s debates about nationalism and globalism would be somewhat clearer if we recognized the existence of three distinct positions instead of just two. And the particular circumstances of our present challenges, the need for both sacrificial local engagement and universal global solidarity, should point us back to a consideration of the path of Socrates.