‘Liberalism is not a bloodless breviary for rootless cosmopolitans’

The text of Michael Ignatieff’s speech—for the annual Isaiah Berlin lecture—in London, England this evening.

“Liberal Values in Tough Times”
The Isaiah Berlin Lecture
Liberal International
The Canadian Club
National Liberal Club
Whitehall Place
London, July 8, 2009

Liberalism is a family of common allegiance. We believe in limited government in the service of individual liberty and fiscal responsibility in the service of social compassion. Our creed is a pragmatic vision of good government that adapts to context. The context that matters to me is Canada. So tonight I will focus on what liberalism looks like when viewed through a Canadian lens.

Let me begin with the commitments that all liberals share. Being a liberal is a habit of the heart. Before it became a political label, ‘liberal’ was a synonym for ‘generous’. A liberal helping on a plate was a generous helping. A liberal person was both a generous host and an open-minded thinker.

Liberalism should never lose its founding association with generosity of heart and openness of mind. These are the habits of heart that we need to keep to save our beliefs from curdling into political correctness or ideological dogmatism.

A liberal politics puts freedom first. A liberal’s disagreement with a socialist or social democrat comes down to this: we both seek equality, but the only equality a liberal thinks is worth striving for is an equality of freedom. Aliberal’s disagreement with conservatives comes down to this: we both seek freedom, but a liberal believes no one can achieve it alone. There is such a thing as society, and government’s purpose is to shape a society in which individual freedom can flourish.

We put freedom first but we are not libertarians. We think that individuals cannot be free without a free society. The institutions that create freedom include, but are not limited to, public education for all, free access to medical care, retirement pensions in old age, assistance for the disabled, public security in our streets and the protections afforded by a sovereign nation state.

The liberals who fought to create these institutions were inspired by the belief—best expressed by Franklin Roosevelt—that men and women who live in fear are not free. Liberal government exists to lift fear from the souls of free men and women. A society without fear is unthinkable without equality before the law. A person discriminated against because of their gender, race, creed, sexual orientation or economic circumstance is not free. Liberals believe that freedom is indivisible, and that to defend our own, we ought to defend those of our fellow citizens, and those fellow human beings outside our borders who call for our help.

Liberals are optimistic about human nature but skeptics about power. To control power, liberals believe that majority rule needs the checks and balances of an independent judiciary, a bicameral legislature, a free press, and charters of rights that protect individuals and groups from the tyranny of the majority.

We regard government neither as an unlimited good nor as a necessary evil, but rather as the framework of opportunity that makes liberty possible. Our view of economic power is as skeptical as our view of political power. We believe in free markets and free competition because we want to protect individuals from economic tyranny. But we know that markets do not naturally serve the public interest. Left to themselves, they generate unwelcome externalities, like extreme income inequality and pollution of the environment. Protection of the public interest requires regulation. The challenge is to achieve the proper balance: allowing markets to allocate risk, reward and resources, while safeguarding the public interest with skilful, precise and light regulation.

Today there is a new challenge to the liberal idea of limited government. In order to avert systemic economic collapse, governments everywhere have intervened in markets, taking over banks, car manufacturers and insurance companies.

All governments are now recognizing the potential moral hazard of these interventions. Bailouts create the expectation among risk takers that they can return to risk-taking with impunity, because they will be rescued once again. When governments step in, ordinary citizens wonder why their taxes are being spent to rescue a foolish few from their mistakes.

The fact is that the mistakes of a few were threatening the livelihoods of the many. Governments stepped in to save the jobs of auto workers, to keep credit flowing for small businesses, and to preserve the pensions and investments of small investors.

Protecting the public interest in this way is what government is for. But these new demands for intervention leave the role of government in a free society anything but clear. Socialists decry bank rescues as state bailouts of failed capitalist elites while conservatives decry intervention as creeping state socialism. Other conservatives, like the ones in power in Canada, have been forced to carry out liberal stimulus programs their own ideology previously rejected, only proving that it is tough to do something well when you don’t believe in doing it at all.

Liberals might be expected to welcome the interventionist turn. The problem is that we don’t actually believe in big but in good government. It is not obvious that we get good government when government is asked to do everything. Market de-regulation may have led the global economy to the edge of disaster, but heavy-handed government intervention may only slow economic recovery. Further government bailouts may push the deficit up to unsustainable levels. Further government borrowing may push up the cost of credit and reignite inflation.

Liberals accept the necessity of deficit spending to get the economy going again. But we want the scarce resources of government to be invested strategically on public education, science and technology and the infrastructure, especially green energy, that creates long term growth.

In the short-term, governments may have to own banks, insurance companies and car manufacturers, but in the medium term, they should return these businesses to the private sector as soon as they have recouped the public investments necessary to keep them from going under.

Governments will need to regulate markets but will have to find a way to do so without stifling market innovation. Governments can require markets to be transparent to both buyers and sellers and they should set capital and collateral requirements for lending, backed by tough sanctions.

If the global economic crisis presents challenges for every liberal government, not every government handles them the same way.

Liberalism, Berlin taught us, is not a bloodless breviary for rootless cosmopolitans. It is a fighting creed for men and women devoted to the fate of their particular national communities. So it is with me.

The Canada I grew up in, the Canada that shaped me is a liberal Canada. My party fought for publicly funded health-care for all. We campaigned to guarantee charter rights of equality for all Canadians. We have stood for recognition of the national identities of our constituent peoples. We believe that government has a standing responsibility to overcome inequalities of life between rural and urban, northern and southern, eastern and western regions. Finally, we believe that our example of a bilingual, multinational, multicultural nation state has a lot to offer to a wider world of nations ravaged by linguistic, cultural and national conflict.

We are a cold northern nation of 33 million people spread out across the second largest expanse of territory of any nation state. Canadians understand that individuals can survive and prosper only by banding together in community.

Canadian rights culture strikes a distinctive balance between the individual and the collective. Individual freedoms are not unlimited or unconditional, as they are in the American constitution. In Canada they are “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” These words appeal to a tacit understanding of a distinctively Canadian balance between liberty and community.

A liberal Canada is very different from a liberal America, even under a Democratic administration. Next door, American liberals are still fighting for rights—public health care, a woman’s right to choose and a person’s right to marry the person of their choice —that are settled questions for most Canadians. Affirmative action programs created in the 1960’s by American liberal administrations are now under court challenge. In Canada, affirmative action is explicitly mandated in our charter of rights and freedoms.

The Canadian idea of limited government is also different from the American. Our domestic market—a weakly populated band of settlement a hundred kilometers deep and five thousand kilometers long– was too small and diffuse to mature without the fostering hand of government. With the most powerful nation on earth on our doorstep, Canadian governments had to master the complex balancing act of protecting a domestic market, maintaining our sovereignty and keeping our American border open to trade, ideas and peoples.

The enduring character of our linguistic, cultural and national differences has also shaped our philosophy of government. One hundred and forty two years ago, four independent British colonies agreed to form a federation. Three were majority English speaking, Protestant and ordered by English common law. One of them was Catholic, French and ordered by the French civil code. And then there were the aboriginals, recognized by treaty, as constituent peoples. From the beginning, we had to make a complex unity out of these differences. We had to anchor collective rights to language and education in our constitution. We had to respect claims to land and territory that pre-existed our political foundation. We had to learn to compromise, to reach out across divides that have broken other countries apart. As we have expanded to ten provinces and three territories, encompassing five distinct economic regions, and providing a welcome to immigrants from every land, we have sustained the whole edifice of our federation on the constant practice of conciliating difference across languages, identities and cultures.

Government is central to Canadian survival, but at the same time, our federation distributes its powers so that no single order of government can dominate. The decentralization of our federation allows government to be close to the people and keeps its powers in check, while safeguarding the necessary rights of self-government of our regions and founding peoples.

La permanence de nos différences culturelles et nationales a également donné forme à notre philosophie du gouvernement. Il y a cent quarante deux ans, quatre colonies britanniques autonomes ont décidé de former une fédération. Quatre colonies britanniques indépendantes se sont entendues pour former une fédération.

Trois d’entre elles étaient à majorité anglophone, protestantes et régies selon le système judiciaire britannique du droit commun. L’une d’entre elles était à majorité francophone, catholique et régie selon le système français du droit civil. Il y avait aussi les Autochtones, reconnus par traités en tant qu’administrés de la Couronne.

Depuis les premiers jours, nous avons dû forger une unité à partir de ces différences complexes. Nous avons dû inscrire notre droit collectif à nos langues et à nos écoles dans la Constitution. Nous avons dû reconnaître la validité des revendications territoriales au sujet de terres peuplées bien avant nos origines politiques. Nous avons appris l’art du compromis. Nous avons appris à tendre la main au-delà de divisions qui ont mené d’autres pays à leur perte.

En réunissant au fil du temps dix provinces et trois territoires, qui ont formé cinq régions économiques distinctes, et en accueillant des immigrants de tous les pays du monde, nous avons consolidé notre fédération en réconciliant nos différences au delà de la barrière des langues, des identités et des cultures.

Le gouvernement est indispensable à la pérennité du Canada, mais grâce à notre régime fédéral, les pouvoirs sont répartis pour qu’aucun niveau de gouvernement ne puisse dominer.

La décentralisation permet à notre gouvernement de rester près des gens et limite ses pouvoirs, tout en protégeant le droit à l’autonomie de nos régions et de nos peuples fondateurs.

The sheer difficulty of keeping this complex unity together has bred compromise and conciliation into the Canadian soul. Because our unity cannot be taken for granted, we understand that pragmatic political leadership and moderate government are conditions of our survival.

This is the deeper reason why conservative ideologies run into difficulty with us. Getting government off the back of the people is not a persuasive slogan for a country like ours. Canadians know that wise government is essential to keep regions from falling behind, to keep Canadians equal and to keep us together. They also know that liberal habits of mind —compromise, generosity and pragmatism—are as important as government itself.

The now officially disbanded Progressive Conservative Party of Canada basically accepted liberal Canada and its vision of enabling government. The Conservative Party currently in power is a different animal entirely. Its leadership harbors an incurable distrust of liberal Canada. It cannot conceal its instinct that less government is invariably better government. For liberals, limited government is the condition of Canadian existence.

The battle between liberal and conservatives in our country is therefore a battle over the role of government in maintaining the unity of the country. In other countries, the unity of the state is a settled question, and so a politics of division can have no fatal consequences. In the United States, intense partisanship, attack ads and ideological vituperation do not endanger a country that settled the question of its unity in the American Civil War. In our country, a politics that arouses ethnic and regional resentment, creating wedges in order to mobilize a conservative base vote, is playing with fire. Last December, the current Prime Minister sought to survive a constitutional crisis of his own making by playing region against region and language group against language group. In our country, this is a dangerous game.

Canada is sturdy and enduring, but it is also fragile. All politics, in our country, is the politics of national unity. Leadership that fails to understand that is bound to fail. Furthermore, in a time of crisis, leadership is about preparing a country for the future.

Crisis foreshortens time horizons. All we can think about is getting through the crisis. Leadership is about pushing these time horizons back and preparing for the future.

Conservatives tend to believe that when markets correct and growth returns societies simply adapt to new economic conditions. In reality, without foresight and planning by government, people can be left unprepared for new opportunities. The new economy that will emerge from the creative destruction of the last eighteen months will need new skills, and government will need to invest continuously in scientific and technological training for the next generation. That new economy will have to support ever larger numbers of older people on a shrinking base of the working employed. So a government with foresight will have to encourage immigration, raise productivity support retirement pensions and provide health care for those who have left the work-force. It will have to do all this while stabilizing climate change and pollution. Markets cannot do this alone. Without action by government, the future will not be prepared for our children.

Liberalism is well-suited to these tasks because liberals believe in government and understand that pragmatic adaptation is a better guide for leadership than ideology and dogmatism.

Isaiah Berlin always believed this about the liberal creed. He remains an inspiration because he was so lacking in doctrinaire rigidity, so sensitive to context and national character, so realistic about the limits of the possible and so committed to the possibilities of a compassionate politics.

For a liberal, governing is always about choosing. Choices between good and evil are obvious enough, though hard; the choices that bedevil democracies are choices between competing goods. Berlin was often asked how a liberal should make such choices. One of his replies is worth quoting at length:

“You weigh up the factors as best you can, you rely upon all the knowledge at your disposal, scientific, your own experience, your general sense of what is likely to occur, what human beings are like, what the world is like. You discount your capacity for error, you listen to persons you think wise, in the end you decide as you decide, and you are responsible for what you have done, and if what you have done is foolish, then no matter how pure your motives, you have committed a crime. All you can say—all you can ever say—is that you have done your best to behave well in accordance with such moral values and such facts as you possess.”

The humility of this is as becoming as the stoic willingness to take responsibility for failure. This may make a liberal politics sound like a lonely road indeed. But Berlin did not believe liberals faced the hard choices of politics alone and without guides or inspirations. Always and everywhere, liberals could turn for help, first to the enduring principles of the liberal creed, and then to their country, to its institutions, its memory and its traditions. His motto might be said to have been: in all matters of principle, stand fast for freedom and in all particulars, let your nation be your guide. Mine is Canada. Thank you for listening.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.