Libertarianism versus social conservatism
Lorne Gunter, a senior columnist with the Edmonton Journal, is one of Canada’s most prominent and distinguished journalists. Unlike the great majority of his fellow journalists and intellectuals, he understands that abortion is morally wrong and that the difference between right and wrong is a matter of truth, not arbitrary personal taste.
However, Gunter is a libertarian. His commitment to that abstract philosophy sometimes leads him astray, as it did when he suggested in a recent column in the National Post that social conservatives are like socialists in that they have an anti-freedom agenda. Specifically, Gunter chided social conservatives for insisting that, “Family values break down when the traditional family model – mom, dad, kids – is devalued by governments sanctioning alternative choices such as common-law and same-sex families.”
Gunter went on to note: “Benjamin Disraeli once said an Englishman did not need a lot of laws, because he was prepared to do the proper thing of his own accord.” True enough, but Disraeli, the most influential conservative thinker and prime minister of Britain in the 19th century, was no libertarian. A committed Christian who was proud of his Jewish ethnicity, he understood that public laws must reinforce the private morality that is essential to sustaining democracy.
As prime minister from 1874 to 1880, Disraeli presided over several radical and benign reforms, such as the 1878 Factory Act governing child labour and the 1875 Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act that legalized picketing by trade unions. Had he been a libertarian, Disraeli would have rescinded social conservative legislation, such as the Offences Against the Persons Act, 1861, which prescribed up to life imprisonment for attempting to procure an abortion, or the Obscene Publications Act, 1857, which prohibited “works written for the single purpose of corrupting the morals of youth, and of a nature calculated to shock the common feelings of decency in any well-regulated mind.”
In contrast to Disraeli, all of the Liberal prime ministers of Canada since Pierre Trudeau have been political socialists and social libertarians. They have presided over a massive expansion of state powers constricting the freedom of Canadians, which Gunter rightly deplores, while sabotaging the benign social laws that used to govern such matters as abortion, marriage, divorce and pornography.
Are Canadians better off as a result? Obviously not. Over the past 30 years, the rights and freedoms of Canadians that are supposed to be guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms have been restricted as never before, especially by equality-obsessed zealots in the nation’s newfangled human rights tribunals.
Gunter has persuasively argued for the abolition of the censorship powers of these human rights tribunals. But should Parliament also rescind all other legislation restricting freedom of expression including laws on pornography, libel, fraud and sedition? Surely not. It would make about as much sense to suggest that Canada should eliminate all criminal laws on the ground that some of these laws are misconceived.
It’s true that the state cannot impose morality on an unwilling people. But well-designed laws in relation to murder, theft, infanticide, abortion and other offences can at least deter some people from acting immorally.
Moreover, it has been rightly said that the law is a great teacher. Specifically, a well-crafted obscenity law can underline the evils of pornography and shelter the vulnerable from temptation. Who can doubt that the progressive weakening of Canada’s pornography laws over the past few decades has contributed to the pervasive obscenities now commonplace even on prime-time television?
Correspondingly, it is, or should be, obvious to all but the wilfully blind that the introduction of no-fault divorce, the extension of spousal benefits to common-law and same-sex couples and the judicial imposition of same-sex “marriage” have had, and will continue to have, a calamitous impact on traditional marriage and the family – institutions of vital importance to population growth, social stability and the nurturing of children.
In short, Gunter is right to insist that we have too many laws in Canada. But he is wrong to oppose even those sound laws on marriage, the family and other moral and social issues that have stood the test of time and are essential to the peace, order and good government of Canada.