Stephen Harper is back.
After flying under the radar for the last three years, Canada’s former prime minister has returned to the arena, albeit not as an active politician. Instead, he’s a commentator with several messages to impart, all of which are packaged in his new book Right Here Right Now.
Not everyone is impressed. The National Post’s Andrew Coyne, for instance, takes a distinctly jaundiced view.
But many readers will nod in agreement with at least some of the points that Harper makes.
Although Harper doesn’t bother disguising his personal distaste for Donald Trump, he’s shrewd enough to realize that Trump has highlighted a set of concerns that his rivals either failed to appreciate or brushed aside. And because those concerns are real, they’re bigger than Trump personally and thus won’t magically disappear when he does. Nor are they confined to the United States.
In discussing the globalization debate, Harper invokes English journalist David Goodhart’s analytical lens of Somewhere/Anywhere. (See my previous take on Goodhart here.)
Put simply, there’s a significant cleavage between elites and the general population with respect to globalization. Elites – loosely defined as those occupying significant positions in corporations, bureaucracies, academia, media and entertainment – tend to be enthusiastic globalists. Outside of those circles, many people are skeptical.
This cleavage has both cultural and economic origins.
Globalists tend to be culturally cosmopolitan and internationalist in outlook. They’ve generally done well economically over the past quarter century and don’t experience any particular sense of job insecurity.
Others live in a different reality. Their cultural orientation is more local and they’re prone to economic anxiety. Partly driven by competition from low-wage immigration and job offshoring, this anxiety is a tangible feature of their day-to-day life.
Numerically, globalists are a long way from being a majority. But their status gave them substantial control over the public policy agenda, which in turn created a form of tunnel vision and tone-deafness. So as populism forced different views onto the table, elite reactions were a mixture of astonishment, outrage and derision.
Harper is critical of what he sees as dogmatism on the topics of regulation, taxation, markets and trade. And coming from a conservative who’s been a long-standing advocate on all these fronts, this criticism has a particular sting.
Harking back to the 2016 Republican presidential debates, Harper expresses it this way: “Leaving aside Donald Trump, there did not seem to be an economic problem the candidates could not solve by either cutting regulations or lowering corporate and top marginal tax rates.” In effect, the challenges of 2016 were to be addressed by dusting off Ronald Reagan’s 1980 playbook.
Harper’s beef isn’t with Reagan, who he duly acknowledges was instrumental in forming his own worldview. Instead, he argues that the specifics of Reagan’s policies have to be understood in context. The fact that they were appropriate for the 1980s doesn’t mean that further extension of them fits today.
Whether it’s markets or trade, Harper believes many conservatives are overly abstract and theoretical. For them, it’s all aggregate results and macro formulations rather than individual circumstances and micro perspectives.
While markets are generally good, Harper notes they’re not perfect. So conservatives need to focus on optimizing the outcomes that markets produce instead of elevating them to holy status.
Ditto with trade. Viewed as a whole, he sees trade as a powerfully benevolent force, but all trade deals aren’t necessarily good. And even if they’re good for a country in the aggregate, there are circumstances where the net gains aren’t worth the economic displacement.
On immigration, Harper expresses satisfaction with the high levels of per capita immigration that prevailed during his period in power. Managed properly, immigration is a good thing.
Still, he articulates several principles that’ll significantly rankle those with a disposition towards any form of open borders.
First and foremost is this: “Sovereign countries have a right and responsibility to determine their own criteria for immigration, naturalization, and citizenship.” In other words, there’s no presumptive right to immigrate.
There’s also this: “Entering a country illegally is an inherent act of bad faith, no matter what its motivations. And failure to enforce immigration laws is a dereliction of any office holder’s basic duties.”
Stephen Harper may be finished with direct participation in the political arena. But that doesn’t mean he’s through with telling us what he thinks.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.