In assessing the measure of Mr. Preston Manning, founder of the once right wing Canadian Alliance Party, most seem agreed that his greatest gift to Canadian politics is in persuading the West to stay in Confederation. I would hesitate to tarnish Mr. Manning, whose political attrition culminated when he announced his intention to quit his House of Commons seat by the year’s end, with sundering nascent Western separatism. If indeed Mr. Manning marginalized even further the peaceful right to a political divorce—then this is no achievement.
With his cri de coeur, “The West Wants In,” Mr. Manning is said to have bolstered the cause of national unity. Like that other dubious abstraction, “the public good,” national unity has become a totalitarian term, inimical to freedom. The human condition is simply too genuinely diverse to be able to unite nationally. For some, national unity is destined to be a coerced state of being: As soon as the pathology of an overreaching federal government starts to fuel that regional fever of freedom, governments let this ideological cobra out of its sack so that it can mesmerize citizens into submission. As economist Murray N. Rothbard pointed out, genuine nationality is not to be equated with state-decreed unity or with the modern nation-state. The unity we have in Canada is the provenance of the proto-centrist Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his minions. With mounting Western, and to a lesser degree Quebecker, discontent, Canada can hardly be termed a true federation, since she is no longer made up of voluntary partners that retain sovereignty over their own affairs. The question, of course, is whether an Administration rooted in the PM’s hegemony is what unity is all about. And if so, what kind of unity is achieved through the threat of “tough love” and the indenturing of some provinces to others?
More charitably, I would venture that in the unlikely event that Preston Manning had led a secessionist movement, it may have succeeded. For the most, the point-persons for Western secession speak a utilitarian language. From where they are perched, it all seems to boil down to the costs versus the benefits of being in Canada. With the West paying many times over for the privilege of Confederation, proponents of autonomy correctly pronounce the balance sheet to be badly skewed.
Still, secession has not really been defended as the mainstay of the liberties of a sub-national region. No doubt, economics undergirds secessionist sentiments; the fruits of Western foresight and initiative (read Alberta) are siphoned off by the center and funneled to PM Jean Chretien’s patronage playgrounds. The unending pelf perpetrated by the Canadian Liberal government is indeed reason enough for the West to leave. But unless secession redux can be achieved, to wit, a renewed historical and philosophical understanding of the importance of the right to secede, secession is doomed to be no more than an eddying view to Jean Chretien’s omnipotent centrism. Secession must emerge as a higher-not subordinate-principle. It isn’t, because its proponents neglect the soul of secession.
In Secession, State & Liberty, Mises Institute scholar David Gordon properly captures this essence. “Secession,” writes Gordon, “arises from individual rights”. The right to withdraw is defendable on the basis of individual—not group—rights. As I see it, secession is the political complement of the right of free association.
The American Founding Fathers understood this. Thomas Jefferson viewed extreme decentralization as the bulwark of the liberty and rights of man. Consequently, the U.S. was created as a pact between sovereign states with which the ultimate power lay. Sadly, the U.S. has progressed from a decentralized republic into a highly consolidated one. In the US, to speak of the Rights of the States, much less of secession gets you consigned to the lunatic fringe.
Canada, on the other hand, was born of a highly centralized regime, and has always cleaved to an expansionist national policy. Yet, paradoxically, it is Canada in recent years that has outstripped the U.S. in spurring powerful regional movements and in reviving secession as an arduous but valid political route.
Preston Manning is an idealist. He staked out unprecedented positions in the Canadian polity on the wrongs of deficit spending and on the need to return to Canadians the product of their labor in the form of tax cuts. He courageously denounced the zero-sum-game of extant identity politics, where benefits to some groups accrue at the expense to others. Would that Mr. Manning had been less slavish about Canadian federalism, he might have led a mighty secessionist movement. More than any other Canadian politician, Manning has the cerebral agility to have articulated the philosophy of secession and liberty. Instead, what did his pro-federalist plea get him and us? Through no fault of his own, Mr. Manning failed to quell the boorish vilification of Westerners by Eastern buffoons. In fact, for some reason, he incited the Liberal lickspittle media to new heights of Western libel. For wanting to be free men and women, we are repeatedly depicted as unruly, treasonous, and racist mouth-breathers.
Would Mr. Manning have ever achieved the real goal of decentralizing the Canadian nation-state? Could he have inched the Canadian mind-set any closer to holding a purely functional view of government, where it secures individual rights and no more? I doubt it very much. Outlining the broadest of distinctions, economist. Walter Block wrote in the Journal of Markets & Morality: “Libertarians favor freedom in both economic and social spheres, (while conservatives agree with only the former position and liberals with only the latter.” In short, “Right wingers advocate liberty in commercial but not personal affairs, while left wingers invert this stance, defending freedom in the bedroom but not in the boardroom.”
Preston Manning, of course, was a conservative through and through.
This much can be said, however, about the Canadian national psyche: Canadians are in the habit of routinely expunging the best and brightest from their midst. To sustain its system of forced egalitarianism, this nation is invested in banality (the fatuous, yet prized prattle of a Naomi Klein, a John Ralston Saul or a Mark Kingwell come to mind; these Canadian have also been embraced by American leftist proponents of the Culture of the Commons). The mediocre give Canadians consolation. And the mediocre serve national unity like no other: they reduce cognitive dissonance and bring about that much coveted Canadian deadpan homogeneity. Indeed, mediocrity in Canada is essential to survival. Mr. Manning was a populist, and a man of intellect and integrity. He was not mediocre which is why Canadians disliked him so.
Mr. Manning might have further distinguished himself had he rejected the coercive concept of national unity and realized that free people live in the kind of communities where the Beltway or Ottawa cannot make a difference in their lives.
©2001 By Ilana Mercer
A version of this column appeared in the Ottawa Citizen