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Too Far to Bridge

William Gairdner's The Great Divide: Why Liberals and Conservatives Will Never, Ever Agree is a must-read, argues Convivium book review editor Richard Bastien, for anyone interested in making sense of things as citizens and as ethical beings.

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Too Far to Bridge June 1, 2015  |  By Richard Bastien
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As we approach Canada's 150th anniversary, Canadians can rightly claim to have accomplished great things, both politically and economically, as attested by this country's resilient political stability, its role in the two world wars, its active involvement in international affairs, its rapid economic growth, its ability to integrate vast numbers of immigrants and its top ranking in the United Nations' human development index. However, if there is one area where Canada's record is rather lacklustre, it is its contribution to the world of ideas. Except for Marshall McLuhan, Charles Taylor and perhaps one or two others, we've produced few internationally known intellectual figures. Our most fitting description might be that we are practical people. And while that is certainly not without merit, it means that we do not excel in matters of a more theoretical or intellectual nature.

This being said, there are exceptions that confirm the rule.

Over the past quarter century, William D. Gairdner has been one of the rare Canadian public intellectuals who has taken on the role of developing a spirited intellectual defence of social conservatism, largely through the publication of books, the best known being The Trouble with Canada, War Against the Family, The Trouble with Democracy and The Book of Absolutes. He is probably as close as you can get to a Canadian equivalent of the late William F. Buckley, Jr., the American conservative author and founder of the political magazine National Review. While Buckley benefited from a family fortune and fame not shared by Gairdner, the two hold a number of features in common, notably a fondness for athletic activities, a good business sense, an interest in the humanities, a passion for writing on public issues, an anti-statist view of politics and, last but not least, a certain kindred feeling for the Roman Catholic tradition. (Although not himself a Roman Catholic, Gairdner is married to one and seems endowed with a Catholic sensitivity.)

In this latest book, Gairdner seeks to clarify the underlying differences between liberals and conservatives, the words liberal and conservative being used not in the usual political sense but rather to describe a cultural and moral divide that has been growing and deepening below the surface of ordinary life for quite some time all over the West. The book is about the culture war, which Gairdner describes as a "permanent tension between two warring peoples in the bosom of every Western nation, each vying… for political, legal and moral control of policy and law — and hence for the character of the nation." Gairdner's thesis is that both liberalism and conservatism have a certain intellectual structure, each resting on a foundational argument on which other, more complex arguments rest. His purpose is to describe each of the two structures.

An important part of the book is devoted to analyzing eight basic issues on which liberals and conservatives disagree. These are human nature, reason, democracy, freedom, equality and inequality, morality and the self, the triumph of the will, and God and religion. A separate chapter is devoted to each, and as might be expected, the most important is the one dealing with human nature.

The liberal understanding of human nature assumes that each of us is endowed with a latent and equal goodness and perfectibility and can be given a new kind of humanity through education and changes in social conditions. Conservatives, however, believe that, although it is natural for every person to acquire a "second" social and moral nature through family education, human nature is always constant in its basic parameters, and attempts to change it through social engineering inevitably lead to problems worse than those meant to be corrected. When dealing with social problems, liberals thus assume that they are caused by bad social forces acting on an ab initio good human nature; conservatives, by bad choices resulting from the struggle between good and evil inclinations inherent to each human being. Liberals view human behaviour as being shaped essentially by social forces; conservatives, by family education. This explains why the former assume the individual to be the basic social unit; the latter, the family. Hence the Great Divide.

Given their differences about human nature, it seems natural that liberals and conservatives would differ about the nature of reason. The liberal mind, taking for granted the social malleability of human nature, tends to be disdainful of the role of tradition as a guide and to rely solely on reason as the instrument of social renewal. As for the conservative mind, committed as it is to the notion that human nature is unchangeable, it is naturally suspicious of an exclusive reliance on reason and calls on other sources of knowledge such as tradition.

Similarly, liberals believe that moral rules should be binding only to the extent that they receive one's personal assent, whereas conservatives believe in universal moral standards that equally bind all human beings. The former assume that priority is to be given to what we want; the latter, to what we ought.

"The modern liberal tends to think of moral truth as authorized by the will or the self, rather than by any objective moral truth or standard outside the self, or beyond the reach of influence of will. The conservative, in contrast, will tend to support the belief that, regardless of the cultural, social or historical context, or changing customs and manners, there are certain permanent and universal moral truths and dispositions that…operate in all human societies and all times as universal standards of conduct…. The conservative rejects strongly the belief that morality originates in the self…."

As might be expected, liberals and conservatives are also divided by "God and religion," most of the former describing themselves as secularists (by which they mean that they are either agnostic or atheistic), and most of the latter acknowledging the existence of a creator God. These metaphysical positions have major political implications because belief in God entails belief that man-made laws must accord with a superior natural law, whereas indifference to, or disbelief in, God leads one to assume that there is nothing above human laws by which they can be judged.

Gairdner argues that each Western country is now caught up in an attempt at combining, on the one hand, an officially egalitarian political philosophy aimed at destroying the natural inequalities within its own civil society and, on the other, a philosophy of free social bonding based on individual choice. This unrelenting effort causes civil societies to weaken both morally, through the erosion of whatever distinguishes the groups that constitute them, and financially, through excessive taxation. A society moves in the direction of totalitarianism when egalitarianism is used to eliminate the specific features of the voluntary bodies, such as families, churches, associations, making up civil society. For example, marriage, which has always been defined as a lifelong exclusive union of a man and a woman open to procreation has been redefined in the name of equality as a mere contract between any two persons, thus making it much more flimsy as a social institution.

All Western States have undergone an evolution whereby the free and natural social bonding that constitutes the foundation of civil society has been forcibly replaced by "State bonding." In other words, the "underlying emotional and social allegiances" that sustain various civil society organizations have been transferred "to the State through the mechanism of substitute caring… proffered in the form of equalization laws, benefits, tax privileges, subsidies and a myriad of tax-funded services, social programs and public institutions." Through this transfer, the purpose of which is to ensure equality of outcome rather than equality of law and opportunity, civil societies have been weakened to the point of exhaustion and can no longer act as solid barriers to State coercion.

The result is that people are now subject to far higher levels of taxation and regulation of commercial and private life and of property and thus enjoy fewer political, economic and property freedoms than their ancestors did. The only exception to that is the unprecedented expansion of bodily and sexual freedoms (e.g., contraception, no-fault divorce, same-sex marriage, cohabitation, abortion, euthanasia) that has taken place in the past half century. Thus the regime commonly found in the West is best described as one of libertarian socialism — providing for both maximum personal liberty in bodily and sexual matters (the libertarian part) and the elimination of social and economic differences (the socialist part). Such a regime, "never before seen in all human history…bespeaks the cry of the individual will to be free from all unwilled authority or restraint…even the natural restraints of one's own human nature and biology." All this, of course, points to two very different views of freedom, which a liberal understands as the absence of restraining law; a conservative, as "liberty under law." In other words, one sees law and order as a threat to freedom; the other, as its guarantee.

This is an important book because it elucidates the cultural crisis besetting most Western countries, a crisis that sounds increasingly ominous as it calls into question the exercise of freedom of conscience and religion, and thus the very nature of Western democracy. Its greatest merit is perhaps that of highlighting the fact that freedom is no longer understood as the ability to do as we ought, but rather as the assertiveness of the will — a will supposedly constrained by Mill's famous "no harm principle," but the scope of which is arbitrarily defined so as to exclude certain human categories such as the unborn and the terminally ill. Otherwise, the assertiveness admits of no limits, not even those of human nature, which should be made to evolve through social engineering.

There are a number of points in Gairdner's book that one may quibble about. His inclusion of David Hume among the architects of modern conservatism (the others being Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre) is certainly one of them. Hume was, for all practical purposes, an atheist and denied the existence of free will. Jeremy Bentham considered him to be the father of utilitarianism — the forerunner of moral relativism. Another irritant is that Gairdner fails to mention the role of Marx and Nietzsche in the development of modern liberalism. Yet, Marx was the first to argue that it is man's social being that determines his consciousness rather than the other way around; and Nietzsche can be considered the great defender of the supremacy of the will. Finally, there is no recognition by Gairdner of the major role that contraception played in the legitimization of same-sex marriage.

But all things considered, The Great Divide is a must-read for anyone interested in making sense of the issues we face today, not only as citizens but also as ethical beings. Over the past 150 years, few Canadian thinkers have been able to address social and cultural issues from a natural law perspective. Gairdner does so brilliantly, thus providing us with an impressive intellectual defence of the Canadian conservative tradition. This is no small feat.

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