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Columnist Andrew Coyne on his intellectual influences, the loss of gatekeepers, and the future of Canadian Conservatism

Podcast & Video

In this episode of Hub Dialogues, The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer speaks with Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne about his intellectual influences, his views on key issues such as democratic reform and the role of the internet, and his prescriptions for the future of Canadian Conservative politics.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Audible, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Andrew Coyne, long-time Canadian columnist and political commentator. He currently writes for the Globe and Mail and appears regularly on CBC’s At Issue panel. Andrew is a rarity in Canadian public commentary: His ideas and arguments are worth reading even in those cases when one disagrees with him. I’m grateful to speak with him today about some of those underlying ideas, including a 2017 essay he wrote for The Walrus on how to “Save the Conservative Party.” 

Andrew, let’s start with some general questions about your ideas and your work. You have a well-earned reputation as a trenchant voice on matters of policy and politics. On some issues, including, for instance, the role of government and the economy, you’re to the right of the Conservative Party. On others, though, you’re more centrist, and you’ve even voted NDP in recent elections. How do you think of yourself? How would you describe your worldview?

ANDREW COYNE: Well, people are always tending to pigeonhole people, and that’s natural, I suppose. We try to simplify things. What I don’t understand is why people want to pigeonhole themselves. So, when people ask me, I’d say sort of half-jokingly, I’m a conservative, liberal, libertarian, socialist. But I kind of mean it, because I’ve always felt that each of the traditions has something to teach us. There are nuggets of wisdom in conservatism and liberalism and libertarianism and socialism, and I don’t see why you have to sort of buy the package. 

Now, that being said, I’ve become more comfortable with calling myself a conservative in recent times, mostly because liberalism, capital “L” Liberalism, in particular, has moved so far left, so that you are now in the position as a conservative of battling for a sort of late 20th-century liberalism. And I guess I’m more comfortable with that. And I guess also, as I get older, I’m more temperamentally conservative in the sense of appreciating the value of caution of moving incrementally. I think I’m less impatient than I might have been in the past.

But, you know, I think a lot of people will say to themselves, “Well, I’m a conservative, therefore, I believe X.” And I guess I approach it more in the nature of, “Here’s what I believe, and yeah, I guess some of that falls into the camp of conservatism. But fair enough, if you want to label me.

SEAN SPEER: Your formative years were spent in Winnipeg. How do you think that experience has caused you to see the country, its politics, and its culture?

ANDREW COYNE: Winnipeg is a wonderful place, and Manitoba, in particular, in or in general, I suppose. Manitoba is in the centre of the country, not just geographically, but in every other way. It’s kind of a microcosm of the country. You’ve got, you’ve got all—the Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP all do well there; you’ve got the French influence, the British influence, the Indigenous influence, the immigrant communities. So, it really doesn’t seem to go too far in one direction or another. It has an appreciation for balance, for moderation, for humility, and modesty. Winnipeg is not a place where you put on airs. And I guess all those things are things that I value and appreciate even if I don’t necessarily exemplify them myself.

And I think also that it’s not just that I grew up in Winnipeg, but also that I moved somewhere else. I think your vision of the country to some extent is going to be shaped by where you’re from, and if you’ve only ever lived in one part of the country, you’re going to have a particular perspective. If you’ve lived in different parts of the country, I think it adds something to your ability to sort of see it how other people see things.

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned in a previous answer that your worldview has evolved over time, and that’s natural. Are there thinkers and writers that are particularly influencing the way you think about politics and culture, and economics today?

ANDREW COYNE: In modern, current times? I have to think about that. I mean, my background was, I took economics and history and university. So, I’m steeped in the usual Western liberal tradition, Locke and Smith and Hume and all that. I grew up in a particular time when inflation was rampant, when the confidence in government had ebbed only because government had so overreached in the postwar years. People thought, “Well if we win a war with government, why can’t we win the peace? Why can’t we run a peacetime economy the same way we ran a wartime economy?”

And so, when in the 1970s and 1980s, you really had the influence of people like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. And in my particular case, I did grad school in London in the mid-80s, which was the high watermark of Thatcherism as an intellectual movement, and it really was an intellectual movement.

I think people if they think it was just about Thatcher, they’re missing out that there was a whole school, and it was complicated and more nuanced, and more sophisticated than I think people understand, and much more heterodox in terms of its, its soft rules for the state in certain types of things. 

And you had writers then, in the British press, really quite extraordinary figures like Samuel Britain, the long-time economics commentator at the Financial Times, or Peter Jay at The Times, or Ferdinand Mount at The Telegraph, and they all had this, this kind of take on things that was agreeable; that wasn’t dogmatic, that saw a role for markets, a very strong role for markets, but also, as I say, understood the places where the state had to step in. And that was liberating in a way. You didn’t have to be all one thing or the other. You could understand how the pieces fit together. And then I think the final influence was Michael Kinsley, the great American columnist and editor, who just again, that kind of heterodoxy, a sense of humor, and ability to write in a very persuasive way, and I aspired to that.

SEAN SPEER: If we can take a minute just to speak about some specific policy issues for which you’ve been involved in the debate over the years. One, for instance, is the issue of legalized physician-assisted death, where you’ve consistently been one of the most eloquent critics of the legal regime that came into effect in recent years. What in your worldview has led you to assume such a principled opposition to the idea of physician-assisted death in Canada?

ANDREW COYNE: Well, it probably I mean, part of it, I guess, is I’m not a fan of abortion; I have moderately pro-life positions on abortion. And I think I can see how we can be in haste as a society to search our own conveniences at the expense of very vulnerable and helpless other beings. So, that’s maybe a warning sign or a bell that might have been ringing on that.

I think in particular, though, with assisted suicide, it was how easily the slope became slippery. You know, undergraduates are all taught, “Slippery slopes, it’s just a fallacy.” Well, no, it’s not always a fallacy; some slopes are indeed slippery. And when you see the progression of how that came to pass, where it was initially pitched as people who were in the last agonizing stages of a terminal disease; who were physically unable to end their own lives. I mean, nobody wants to ban suicide, but in this case, they were physically unable to do it, and therefore the argument was, “Well, they have, you know, somebody has to help them to put them out of their misery.” But that’s a very, very narrow case; it was the Sue Rodriguez type of case, and it was almost instantly, instantly elasticized. 

First, it was to people who aren’t in that stage now but might be in the future, and therefore, they need to be able to avail themselves of assistance now, because, you know, when they’re in the last age, they wouldn’t be able to do so. Or it started to include not just physical pain, but psychological pain, which is a much more elusive thing to define. And when you started to sort of burrow into the underlying rationale for it, it really didn’t allow for any constraint, as we’re starting to see. Once you accept this idea that this is actually just a basic human right to have somebody else kill you, then are you going to prevent the mentally handicapped from availing themselves of that? Are you going to prevent children from doing so? And of course, when that was first raised, people said, “Slippery slope; this is alarmism,” and they were perhaps unaware that people even then we’re arguing precisely that, and were going to continue to argue precisely that. 

So, I think the nature of that I found very disturbing, and it was, at the same time, kind of interesting to unpack it as an intellectual puzzle. How did people go down this road? How do they allow themselves to lose their bearings so much that we could start advocating a society for basically killing disabled children?

SEAN SPEER: You have similarly been a major champion of electoral reform and strengthening the role and voice of individual parliamentarians. Yet you’re also a major critic of the notwithstanding clause and support having courts act as the final arbiter of rights. How do you reconcile on one hand your credentials as a small “d” democrat, and on the other your opposition to the Notwithstanding clause?

ANDREW COYNE: Well, I should say, first of all, I don’t actually think the courts are the final arbiters of rights. I actually do think it is a dialogue, and when you look at how these things generally evolve, courts don’t look into the purpose of law, they simply look at it in pursuit of that purpose of did you overreach. And to the extent that you overreach, they typically don’t throw the whole law out. They say this particular provision is a little overbroad, and it’s absolutely open to governments to turn around, say, “Okay, let’s try it this way. We’re still going to achieve the purpose that the law was set out to do, so, we’re going to do so in a less hand, handed and over, overbroad way.” So, I do think the dialogue model actually fits that in virtually every case. 

The notion that there’s runaway courts out there who are just going to absolutely block needed legislation is almost never the case. And in fact, for every case you can find of courts overreaching by tossing out laws without proper constitutional authority, and those cases do exist, you can find plenty of examples of courts refusing to throw out laws that they should have thrown out, being overly deferential to the legislature. So, that’s the first point.

Second point is, the charter and the Constitution were passed by a democratically elected legislature. And not just one, but all but one of them. Parliament plus the nine provincial legislatures, and Quebec, which was the lone holdout has a charter of its own; it’s virtually identical. 

So, when people say you want to respect the will of Parliament, well, which Parliament you’re talking about? These laws were passed, and they were intended to be binding promises. They were intended to say, “As a society, we are not going to violate this, this and this right.” And all the courts are doing is holding governments to their work. Anytime you issue a statement like that or a promise like that in private life, you don’t get to vouch for your own credit. Somebody has to actually be the, you know, if you if you swear an oath, somebody has to figure out whether you’ve actually lived up to that oath or not. 

And so, similarly, that’s the role of the courts, and it’s the role finally, that the courts were assigned by the democratically elected legislatures and parliament. They’re the ones who included the provision in the charter, saying if the courts find a law is inconsistent with a charter, that law will be of no force or effect. So, I don’t see the contradiction there that many people often paint there being.

SEAN SPEER: There’s a real consistent throughout much of your writing on matters of politics, economics, culture, and so on. One can pretty reliably know where you’ll come down on different issues. What are some issues, Andrew, where your position has changed in your multiple decades as a columnist and commentator in Canada?

ANDREW COYNE: Well, I can’t think of a lot of ones where I’ve made any 180-degree shifts. And I think that’s partly in the nature of how I came to the views I hold. I didn’t come out with a full-blown ideology out of the box, or certainly not by the time I was writing in my mid-20s, when I was, when I was younger, a bit more that way. But by the time I was sort of starting to piece out what I believed about various issues, I mean, I came back from grad school, having done an economics degree, a graduate degree, and I was plunged into the middle of the free trade debate, the GST debates, and I had to write editorials for the Financial Post, as it then was, and I had to figure out, you know, what do I think about free trade. And it sounds elementary now, but at the time, these were, these were big, huge issues. 

So, I had a framework; I had a toolkit that I had assembled in school, from my training there and, and then I sort of said about trying to apply it to a range of issues as I went on. And I think I tried to make the pieces fit together in a consistent and coherent way. But it was more a series of sort of tentative hypotheses that I then filled in the blanks. I think as I’ve gone on, I’ve acquired a more nuanced or deeper understanding of issues than the sort of surface-level I might have had at first. I think, for example, when it comes to health care, or to education, I think I see roles for markets in both of those areas. But I think I’m much more alert to the pitfalls and the dangers, and the ways in which markets can fail in both of those areas than I might have been when I first approached these issues. I probably had more simplistic approaches to that.

 I think I’ve certainly—I think one area in which I’ve had a pretty big rethink is on the internet. I think I was much more of an Internet Evangelist when it first came along, particularly when it came to the media that we should make everything free. Certainly, that was a mistake. But also, in the last couple of years in particular, I haven’t rethought or recanted my belief in free speech and my belief that the state should not be regulating speech on the internet or anywhere else. I’d become much more aware, I think, how much of our whole philosophy of free speech grew up in an era when there were gatekeepers, private gatekeepers. When to get your views, you could always stand in a street corner and yell, but to have broad distribution, to have amplification of your views to a mass audience, you had to persuade other people to publish. You had to persuade other people with skin in the game, with reputations to uphold, with businesses to run it, etc. And those gatekeepers served, I think, a vital role of creating this space in the public square, where reasonable people could differ, and both parts of that equate in that sense are very important. 

You can differ, there were legitimate differences you could have, there wasn’t just one side, but you had to be reasonable. We weren’t going to just give a platform to every passing Nazi or flat-earther. And all of that in the age of social media has fallen down, and we are in an era now where people are being overwhelmed. The processing power of the human mind has not changed, but they’re drinking the stuff in like a firehose, and as we’re seeing a lot of them are being overwhelmed by it, they’re being radicalized in one direction or another. Or to give it a less gentle name they’re being turned crazy by it. So, picking our way out of that is going to be very different. I don’t want the government doing it, but I think I’m more aware of how much free speech depends upon that, that scaffolding of the gatekeepers. 

SEAN SPEER: It’s a fascinating answer, Andrew. I think for instance of the stories from the middle or second half of the 20th century when thinkers like Bill Buckley excommunicated Ayn Rand or the John Birch Society from the conservative movement, and the notion that someone has that kind of authority today, or could communicate a decision like that, and somehow it would be honored and respected by people and society seems kind of laughable. Which brings my next—

ANDREW COYNE: It’s a double—

SEAN SPEER: Sorry, go ahead, pardon me. 

ANDREW COYNE: It’s a double-edged sword, if I can just pick up briefly on that point. It’s a double-edged sword because there’s no doubt that the gatekeepers also probably marginalized a lot of views that deserve to be expressed and a lot of voices. So, I’m not saying it was a golden age where everything was perfect. But my goodness, the age we’re in now is just utter anarchy. 

So, what we need is our choice of gatekeepers, so that if one gatekeeper is not getting the balance right, it is marginalizing people who ought not to be marginalized, you can go find another gatekeeper who can get the balance more appropriately. But the notion that every viewpoint is equally valid, that everything deserves a massive platform, and that everything should be available to everybody without any editing or fact-checking, that’s not how the human mind evolved. And we’re paying the price for it.

 SEAN SPEER: In that context, Andrew, what do you think the role of the national columnist is in this fragmented media environment? Can columnists still influence public discourse and the public agenda?

ANDREW COYNE: I’m skeptical, particularly any one columnist. I think maybe the media, in general, has some influence, although even that is overstated. I mean, obviously, it has any influence, but you’re always struck by how the moment of maximum media gloom about the economy, for example, when the recession is never going to end, that’s precisely when people start spending and investing again. So, there’s a whole range of other things that influence public opinion than just the media. I think we often overstate that, but it has some influence. And within the media sphere, maybe, you know, columnists or reporters, news reporters also can have influence at the margin, here and there. But I think one has to be fairly humble. 

If I were ever teaching a journalism class, and this anecdote is rapidly growing dated, but the field trip would be to go sit on an airplane when they’re passing out the newspapers because it’s a usefully humiliating experience. If your column was in the paper that day, you get to watch people reading the paper, and they turn the page and they turn the page and they get to the page your column is on, and then they turn the page, or even worse, they read the first two paragraphs, and then turn the page [CHUCKLES]. So, what you come to appreciate is the reader doesn’t owe you anything. 

If you can get the reader to stop and spend three minutes reading your column, that is an achievement in itself. And it’s hard because people have got so many other things they can do with their time. So, you better make it worth their while. You better make yourself agreeable company, first of all, and second of all, you got to give them something; you got to tell them something they didn’t know or make them laugh or persuade them to a point of view that didn’t hold before. So, I guess, you know, if you, if you can do that fairly consistently, get people to actually read your column, that’s achievement enough. 

SEAN SPEER: If we can spend the rest of our conversation focused on the 2017 essay that you wrote for The Walrus, which I mentioned in the introduction. It was a fascinating essay that I encourage listeners to read.

I’ll ask about its underlying ideas in a minute. but let’s start with the matter of political prescription. You call on Canadian conservatives to “move the middle of Canadian politics.” What do you mean by that? And how would it differ from what conservatives do now, in your view?

ANDREW COYNE: Well, conservatives, in particular, are in a funny position in Canada because they think of themselves as both an ideological party but also a contender for power. And they haven’t really done either of them very well. I like to say they have all the principled foundations of the Liberal Party and all the electoral success that the NDP. So, it’s a dilemma for them, and the way they’ve resolved that dilemma is they acquire an ideology, and if it doesn’t work, then the next election they throw it out and try to get a new one. So, they’re always kind of casting about for kind of new ideas or new prescriptions, and they do so in part because of advice from pundits like me, that you need to move to the middle. The middle is where the votes are; you win elections by being in the moderate middle ground. And as a matter of arithmetic, of course, that’s true. The median voter is where it’s at.

But the flaw in that prescription is it assumes the middle is some kind of fixed meridian, like the Greenwich Meridian. That it never moves, that it’s just there, and then you just fight it out, or who can get closest to it. But in fact, the middle is always moving around. So, for example, you know, circa 1992, balancing the budget was an unimaginably right-wing, barbaric idea that no decent person could possibly subscribe to. And by about three or four years later, it was absolute middle ground orthodox. Why? Because the ground had shifted partly because of the Reform Party and partly because of the Liberal Party’s great conversion on the road to Damascus on that. But it became the centre-ground of Canadian politics. And then of late, it’s become orthodoxy now to run deficits, and that will shift again. 

So, if you’re in the persuasion business, which people in politics ought to regard themselves as being, then I think yes, you want to be relevant to people. You want to have policies that are actually addressed to things that are on the public’s mind. But I think you also have a role to put things on the agenda that weren’t there previously. If you believe in something, if you believe that these are the right prescriptions, then your job should be it seems to me to try to move people your way; to try to find a way to bring them around to your point of view. That’s what I tried to do in my columns, and I don’t think it’s that different for somebody in public life. 

So, if at first you don’t succeed, try again. If over a prolonged period of time, you find that you’re just not relevant, people just aren’t even interested at all, then at some point maybe you want to have a rethink. But the NDP has never won an election federally, but they’ve been enormously influential in terms of the policies that were actually enacted, and so was the Reform Party. So, there are more things in life than just being in power. But as I say, unfortunately, the Conservatives get close enough that they sometimes forget that. 

SEAN SPEER: Your core intellectual point in the essay is that conservatives ought to champion a political and social vision rooted in a textured understanding of markets and social institutions. Maybe a two-part question: what do you mean by markets as a social institution? And how would that vision manifests itself in a positive, aspirational, and ultimately, politically appealing policy agenda?

ANDREW COYNE: There’s a tendency for people who understand in the virtues of free markets to pitch them in terms that already appeal to people who already think the way they do. So, they become entranced with their roles as that they allow individuals to pursue their own destiny. They, they help create wealth, they harness the dynamism of entrepreneurs. All these kinds of arguments that are true, but if you’re trying to reach to people who don’t already think that way, that’s not what’s on their mind.

So, that’s the first point: Most people want to if there some order to this universe. Are important social objectives going to be attended here? Or is market simply code for throwing the poor to the wind and ignoring all these pressing social problems? 

I guess maybe the best way I can answer your question is by citing the example of carbon pricing. We had a whole generation of environmentalists who grew up, who understood, who got it, who understood how markets can be harnessed to social goals. The original social goal they were harnessed for was eliminating scarcity; was creating wealth. But they can also serve other goals, and in this particular, if you get the prices right, you can make for a cleaner environment and for less carbon emissions in the air. Well, that was a great advance in expanding the understanding of markets, that they’re not just arenas for private gain. They’re tools for solving social problems. What they do is they harness, yes, they involve individual free will and free choices, but they harness those choices. They integrate those choices into a socially beneficial order. 

The thing about markets really is not so much that they liberate you to do whatever you like, but rather than that they require you to do things that are useful to others. The way in which you make money in a market is by useful exchange, by selling people things they need at a price they’re willing to pay. And if you’re not able to do that, there’s actually a kind of a collectivist aspect of this, that your company will be driven out of business. 

Now, that’s not the same as saying, the poor must go to the wall; there’s a difference between helping people on low-income to prevent them from falling below a decent minimum. But the collectivist idea of the businesses that cannot make a good that is more valuable to society than the resources it costs to produce it, that’s a social idea. That’s a social obligation. So, we can understand markets as being things that actually serve social objectives and being social institutions in the same way the government is. They’re different instruments that are better suited to different tasks.

Markets are better suited to things that involves efficiency and allocation of resources in ways that prevents shortages or surpluses. The state and government are more suited to questions of distributional equity because those are inherently collective decisions, what’s the just distribution of income. 

And so, the overall philosophy I was trying to pursue there is, let each do the tasks that it is best suited to, and don’t try and mix them up. Don’t try and twist the market to achieve social goals like distribution of income, which we’re constantly doing by fiddling around with prices. And don’t try and get the state involved in matters that are probably in markets, i.e. trying to achieve allocative efficiency, because it’s really not very good at that.

The sort of policy prescriptions that come out of that are, you can use markets in areas that we traditionally haven’t, and I mentioned in the beginning health care and education. As long as you make sure that you’re taking care of the distributional equity questions by the state, so allocating public funds to schools so they’re publicly funded and people aren’t having to pay out of pocket for them, but allowing people their choice of schools and allowing the schools to be individually managed, not having to answer to some education bureaucracy, that’s a kind of a social markets approach to it. 

And similarly, in health care, again, you got to be very careful there because patients aren’t in a position to make a lot of complicated decisions in health care. But you can modify that where you have doctors or other providers making decisions on their behalf, and you can incorporate competition in prices within a publicly funded envelope. And this is the thing we’ve been arguing about as a society for some years now is, if you have any private involvement in the provision of health care services, is that somehow the same as people paying out of pocket? And it’s required a lot of work, but I think we’ve managed to get people around to the idea that know that you, the one does not imply the other. You can have a fully publicly-funded system with no user fees, and yet incorporate competition and markets and prices within that public-funded system.

SEAN SPEER: Just a penultimate question. You argue in the essay that consumer and producer interests are one and the same. But isn’t there a case, Andrew, that the experience of the so-called “China shock” has brought that into question? That is to say, we may have gotten cheaper consumer goods through increasing trade exposure with China, but at a significant cost for many industries, workers and communities? In effect, the consumer gains came at the high cost of producer losses?

ANDREW COYNE: Well, this is not a new argument. I mean, this is the classic argument about protectionism versus free trade from time immemorial. And I guess the answer is that we don’t just stop it there as it’s just workers versus consumers. First of all, those consumers who are getting cheaper goods are also workers, but more importantly, the real income that they’re saving, the increase in their real income from lower tariffs, and cheaper imports coming in, that increases their income. Well, what happens is they spend that income in other parts of the economy, creating other jobs, and supporting other industries across the economy. 

Or put it another way, if you raise tariffs, yeah, you benefit the protected industry, the protected firms that protect workers, but you do so at the expense of all the other workers and firms and industries that might have benefited from that real income that consumers are thereby deprived of. So, ultimately, protectionism doesn’t protect Canada versus China. It protects the protected sectors at the expense of all the other sectors in the domestic economy. So, that’s why that consumer versus worker dichotomy I think breaks down there. The workers’ interests, ultimately, is in making goods and services that consumers want to buy. There’s no other safeguard for workers or firms or industries than being able to produce a good and service that can compete with any other provider anywhere in the world.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s end with how we started. Early in our conversation, you talked about paradigmatic change occurring in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as the costs and consequences of government overreach manifested themselves in the economy, and Friedman, Hayek, Thatcher, Reagan, and so on, were in the ascendancy.

We find ourselves in a moment one might describe as a progressive moment. How can those who believe in markets and have some skepticism about the type of ambition we’re seeing with respect to the role of government in the economy and the society start to push back and rebuild the case for markets generally, and, and markets as a social institution as you set out in your essay for The Walrus in particular?

ANDREW COYNE: Well, there’s a number of answers to that. I mean, the first is focus on that rather than chasing a bunch of irrelevant hobbyhorse issues. I mean, how did Conservatives become the party of vaccine skepticism? How did the party, the Conservatives, become the party of climate denialism? Why is it you’re obliged as a conservative to be anti-science, as too many of them are these days?

I think that’s—you know, and more broadly, and maybe this, the second answer is, you got to focus on the issues that are of concern to the public. Today, people are very worried about climate change, people are very worried about the pandemic; they have a right to be. And if you don’t have an answer to that, as a party, then you’re going to be ruling yourself out of the debate.

The third answer to that would be to some extent, time will have to pass, that in the moment of progressive ascendancy, it’s going to be harder for those costs to be apparent. So, for example, right now, in the middle of the pandemic, and the lockdown and the enormous expansion of the state, people are aware of all the good things the government has done to support incomes in the last couple of years. But the bill for that is going to be coming due. And I’m not saying the government shouldn’t have done that in the middle of the pandemic, but it’s very clear that the Trudeau government would like to use this as a springboard for a more permanent expansion of the state, in ways that are, I think, less advised. The costs of that are going to be coming due, and at that moment, you may get a more of a hearing. 

I do think in particular, if you’re talking about that sort of social market approach that I was talking about, that it was an enormous opportunity missed on carbon pricing—I hate to single that out, but it is one of the central issues of our time. And it could have been a great moment, it was the biggest win for markets in generations; that people put aside the regulatory and subsidy model, at least partly in favor of a flexible pricing model. And Conservatives could have taken that and run with it, first of all, on its own as an issue. They could have owned that issue, and they could have had a much clearer and purer version of that than the very muddle version the Liberals have brought forward. That would have cost the economy much less, would have achieved our climate goals much more effectively.

But secondly, they could have said, “Okay, if you like what the market can do for your environment, can we interest you in what it can do for your healthcare or your education? Or are these other areas where you know that there’s room to expand market approach rather than the traditional very top-down status approach to things?” And that opportunity was blown. And so, it’s going to be a much harder slog to make those arguments now. Conservatives lost that opportunity. 

Which raises, I guess, a final point in this, which is, I think conservative intellectual muscles atrophied in the 1990s, partly because they won a lot of fights, and they got lazy. And partly, they won a lot of those fights with the sledgehammer of the deficits. “We can’t do X or Y because we can’t afford it” became a very simple, one-size-fits-all answer to a lot of different questions. And it might have won the argument in the short-term, but at the cost of people going away grumbling, saying, “Well, is it the only reason we can’t afford it. What about when we can afford it? Well, what should we do with them?” So, rather than making arguments on the merits of what is the appropriate role of the state, what should it be doing, and what shouldn’t it be doing, it just became this kind of exercise in accountancy.

And so, when in fact, the deficit receded as an issue, conservatives were kind of caught flat-footed. And of course, at the same time, they were falling into the populist trap of Trumpism. So, conservatism has not had a lot of good answers lately to the questions that are on people’s minds. The Left has had answers, good and bad, but most importantly politically, they’ve had answers and they’ve definitely been on the march and conservatives have been very looking very ill at ease. 

I mean in Canada that’s, there’s a long historical point there as well, which is the conservatives have generally lost elections in Canada, so, that’s what layered on top of it. But ultimately, they’ve got to come back to, “What do we believe? Why do we believe it? Why do we believe things that are different than what the other parties believe?” And if having done all that exercise, we think those answers are the right ones for society, have some self-confidence; muck up your nerve, and get out there and make your case. 

SEAN SPEER: Well, that sounds like a good instruction manual to me. Andrew, thanks for joining us today at Hub Dialogues, and for sharing some insight into your own worldview, how it’s evolved over the years and been applied to different matters of public policy, as well as your thoughts on the future of conservative ideas and conservative politics in Canada. I’m grateful to have been able to talk to you.

ANDREW COYNE: Thanks, Sean. I enjoyed it.