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Sean Speer: A lament for conservatism

Commentary

Jason Kenney’s swift resignation as United Conservative Party leader is a lamentable outcome for Canadian conservatism. It reflects the rise of an oppositional mindset on the Right that is bad for Conservative politics and the country as a whole to the extent that it marginalizes centre-right ideas and enables progressives to govern essentially unchecked. 

Alberta’s Kenney-led government wasn’t perfect—no government ever is—but it was the country’s most ambitious centre-right provincial government since the Harris government’s Common-Sense Revolution in Ontario more than a quarter-century ago. 

There was virtually no area of provincial policy, from taxes and spending to education to health care and everything in between, that wasn’t the subject of energetic reform. The totality of the government’s reformist impulses shifted the Alberta government decidedly in a more conservative direction and in so doing set out a policy playbook for other provincial Conservatives to draw from.Jason Kenney’s critics are wrong. Alberta is the only place conservatism is winning https://nationalpost.com/opinion/sean-speer-jason-kenneys-critics-are-wrong-alberta-is-the-only-place-conservatism-is-winning 

One would think that such a successful agenda would have widespread support among Conservatives (and conservatives). Yet nearly half of UCP members who cast ballots in the party’s leadership review disapproved of Kenney’s leadership.The final tally of the leadership review came at 51.4 percent approval of Kenney’s leadership and 48.6 percent disapproval. 

The obvious question is: what gives?

Even accounting for the naked ambitions of some of the anti-Kenney forces such as the self-evidently unserious Brian Jean or serially foolish Danielle Smith doesn’t quite explain it. There’s something bigger going on. 

There’s a small yet spirited minority of grassroot conservatives who’ve come to define their politics in solely oppositional terms. It derives from a position of perceived weakness in modern society. They see mainstream institutions (including corporations, universities, and the media) succumbing to an assertive form of progressivism and feel increasingly embattled in a culture that at times can be quite hostile to their ideas and values. These feelings of powerlessness, marginalization, and condescension are reinforced by online sources and American conservative media. 

The result is a siege mentality that’s more reactionary than it is conservative. These people aren’t interested in incremental policy reforms. They’re looking for a fight. They want to toss a hand grenade into the cathedralA brief explanation of the cathedral https://graymirror.substack.com/p/a-brief-explanation-of-the-cathedral?s=r of our mainstream institutions. 

This oppositional conservatism has of course been exacerbated by the COVID-19 lockdowns. The entire pandemic experience laid bare in their minds the corruption of the political and expert classes. The so-called “freedom convoy” was the clearest expression of their anger. Now Kenney’s sacking is its most significant.  

There will be plenty of opportunity in the coming days to assess the political fallout of his departure including the strong likelihood that it will lead to an NDP government in the forthcoming provincial election. But permit me to make a big-picture point about what it means for Canadian conservatism. 

Conservatism’s instinct to conserve can put it at something of a structural disadvantage against the false yet compelling utopian politics of modern progressivism. Conservatives have to be the ones that raise questions about costs, trade-offs, and inadvertent consequences. This invariably risks sounding a bit negative or gloomy. 

Conservatives must therefore balance their inherent realism by being aspirational and confident. They need to bring their ideas and values to bear on the key issues facing their society in the form of an affirmative agenda of steady yet sensible reform. 

This necessarily involves the hard work of ideation, policy development, and implementation. It’s not as easy or fun as throwing hand grenades but the long-run payoff is far greater. As my former boss Stephen Harper once said: “if you make conservatism relevant to ordinary working people, you make the most powerful political philosophy in Western democratic society.”Working class returning to fold, Harper says https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/working-class-returning-to-fold-harper-says/article701725/

The forces that have led to Kenney’s departure aren’t interested in or capable of making conservatism relevant to ordinary working people. They have nothing of an affirmative agenda. They are agents of outrage and that’s it. 

I rarely write in the first person at The Hub so as to convey a sense of dispassion and detachment. It’s hard for me to maintain that tonight. I was attracted to conservatism as a young person because I thought its understanding of the world was good and right. Its emphasis on the dignity of individuals, respect for tradition and long-standing institutions, and recognition of the deep complexity of the economy and society provided a strong philosophical framework for thinking about old and new problems. 

I don’t see any of that in this leadership result. Instead, I see a scared and angry minority that doesn’t define itself based on what’s good and right but rather by a sense of embattlement and opposition. 

The short-term cost of their political paroxysm is the best conservative premier in the country. The longer-term cost may be to the character of Canadian conservatism itself. 

Steve Lafleur: No, you don’t need to end capitalism to save the environment

Commentary

Every now and then, an old claim goes viral: capitalism is ruining the planet. The argument goes that capitalism requires economic growth in order to sustain itself. And economic growth requires more output, which means more carbon emissions and pollution. Ergo, capitalism is bad for the environment. A recent viral tweet by a Reverend from New York recycled this claim.

This type of vague claim about the alleged evils of capitalism isn’t uncommon. People often just use the term capitalism to mean bad, but then happily point to capitalist Nordic countriesDanish PM in US: Denmark is not socialist https://www.thelocal.dk/20151101/danish-pm-in-us-denmark-is-not-socialist/ as examples of socialist utopias. It all gets very confusing. Her follow-up tweet is important, though, because it gets to the heart of her concern. It also displays a fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of these arguments.

The Reverend argues that economic growth—which is, indeed, something that capitalism tends to deliver—inherently requires depleting the earth’s resources (which presumably also includes a relentless increase in carbon emissions). While it is true that for most of history economic growth has been very emissions-intensive, economic growth doesn’t inherently require increased resource use or emissions. Much of this depends on things like technology, land-use patterns, and the treatment of externalities. These are issues that both market and non-market economies have to grapple with. It’s not about capitalism.

In fact, it’s entirely possible that the things left-wing activists dislike about capitalism could get even worse while environmental outcomes improve dramatically. Let’s walk through one scenario.

Suppose in twenty years the world economic output has increased ten-fold. Bitcoin hits a million US dollars, crypto bros get rich selling NFTs, and metaverse speculators who got in on the early digital land rush are unfathomably wealthy. Meanwhile, for whatever reason, the median income has remained stagnant. All of the real, inflation-adjusted gains have gone to a small number of narcissistic entrepreneurs who escape the long arm of the IRS by building their own sovereign islands while tax bases around the world collapse. That sounds like a pretty dystopian scenario. 

But there are other things that have changed in this scenario. Nuclear and hydropower are now the baseloads for the global energy grid, with most of the rest of the energy mix composed of solar, wind, and other renewable sources. The majority of the transportation industry is electrified. And incremental innovations have dramatically improved energy efficiency. In other words, our most pressing environmental problems have all been solved.

While this is a hypothetical scenario, it shows that there is no logical reason why capitalism can’t solve all of our biggest environmental problems, and they could be solved without doing anything to address the things left-wing activists hate about capitalism. This scenario is also pretty consistent with a pessimistic left-wing view of capitalist dynamics—which I don’t share—but it highlights that based on their own logic, there is no reason why capitalism is inherently at odds with the environment. 

Markets are actually pretty good at solving problems when you let them. Tesla has done more than the governments of Venezuela or Cuba to address climate change. The fact that Elon Musk got rich is irrelevant to the environmental impact. 

It’s true that politicians in market economies face incentives to pursue growth to the detriment of the environment. But that isn’t unique to market economies. The old Soviet Union was notorious for prioritizing industrialization over the environment.“During seven decades of Soviet regime, there was a trade-off between economy and environment. Like many socialist states, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) believed in communal ownership of almost every property and treated nature as a free resource that the government has right to exploit. With very little regard for future, the USSR continued to run its economic engine, leaving behind a legacy of environmental catastrophe, including desertification and pollution.” https://www.downtoearth.org.in/coverage/environment/environmental-collapse-before-the-soviet-s-fall-56642 

Environmental outcomes depend on technologies and policies that are unrelated to broader questions about capitalism versus socialism. If anything, distractions like this are likely to distract from concrete solutions. Loudly denouncing capitalism doesn’t do anything to reduce carbon emissions. If the goal is to reduce carbon emissions, it’s better to focus on actual policies that reduce carbon emissions rather than moralizing about capitalism.