Government is the problem: common Smith theme

Is new Wildrose Alliance leader a member of the economic cult?

Political centrists in Alberta (all four of us) must look upon the recent ascendancy of Danielle Smith with mixed emotions. The newly minted leader of the Wildrose Alliance Party (WAP) seems very nearly as fresh sharp and articulate as Conservative Premier Ed Stelmach seems stale dull and rhetorically gaseous.

Here finally after what feels like an interminable period of increasingly inept and arrogant Tory rule is a force capable of challenging a Conservative dynasty that has gone largely untested since seizing power in 1971.

“The Tories seem to think they have a divine right to govern” Smith says. “They’ve centralized decision-making and the group of insiders around the premier is getting smaller and smaller…. It’s like we have an elected monarchy just not on familial lines.”

A growing number of Albertans appear receptive to the idea of regime change in 2012. But while we should be grateful for the fact that someone (anyone) has finally attached some electrodes to the bloodless corpse of democracy in Alberta it is worth thinking carefully about what kind of change Danielle Smith represents.

Conventional thinking would place Smith and the WAP firmly to the right of the governing Tories. But Smith is in fact a libertarian which she associates primarily with her belief in “smaller government.” For libertarians she says “government is not the first resort but the last resort.”

Because libertarians commonly hold positions that are traditionally associated with both the right and the left libertarianism itself can seem confusing or incoherent when viewed through paradigms that emphasize the old left-right binaries. Smith for example stands for an agenda of private property and election reform that is well to the right of mainstream Conservatives. And yet she is also nominally pro-choice and is a supporter of same-sex marriage. On these and other social issues Smith would find herself at home in the NDP.

The idea that “government is the problem” is a central pillar of libertarian thinking and is a common theme for Smith. Consider a few lines from Smith’s acceptance speech earlier this month: “We believe government is not there to tell the people what to do; we the people are here to tell the government what to do. We believe that if you own something and the government takes it then the government should pay for it. We believe that families and communities should run their own affairs and fulfil their own responsibilities without a lot of political interference from the legislature.”

The “government” here emerges as some kind of malicious entity bent on dictating how you should live your life; it wants to steal what is rightfully yours; it sets out to “interfere” in the affairs of families and communities. Government in short is the problem not the solution.

Smith’s libertarianism is underwritten by the conviction that individuals always make better decisions than governments which has any number of practical implications. In terms of health care Smith encourages us to think of patients as customers. If the patient wants “alternative” or “non-traditional” or “non-western” medical care then it is incumbent upon the government to make those options available. The customer is always right.

In other words Smith is a member of the cult of economic freedom. So at the same time that she positions the WAP as the “party of change” much of what Smith has to say on the topic of fiscal policy doesn’t sound particularly new; in fact it smacks of nostalgia for an era of Reaganite certainty in the rationality of markets and the wisdom of supply-side economics. “We must leave behind the popular but totally discredited 20 th century delusion that government spending makes countries prosperous. . . or that governments can plan the economy” she says.

In a year that witnessed the subprime-mortgage meltdown the cratering of the American real-estate market and the attendant collapse of the securities market the implosion of the credit system the failure of the American automobile industry along with countless other symptoms of the global financial meltdown it seems curiously out of touch to raise the spectre of “government planning” as the primary threat to prosperity.

It was of course a lack of governmental oversight — the very opposite of the governmental “intrusion” that so worries libertarians — that allowed certain elements within the American financial services sector to run hog-wild and precipitate the present financial crisis. But even if in the face of all this you are still unshakable in your conviction that unchecked market capitalism is the answer to every problem Smith’s indictment of centralized planning doesn’t sound like much of a “change” from the conventional right-wing ideology that has undergirded Conservative policy in Alberta for the past four decades.

What does sound like a change and a potentially serious one is the program of democratic reforms outlined on the WAP website. This issue of democratic reform marks the WAP’s most significant break with Tory policy and their ideas will need to be dissected at length when more details are available.

Smith’s libertarianism would seem to leave her the awkward position of believing that government is the problem at the same time that she appeals to Albertans to let her party form the very object of her derision. But regardless of how one comes down on this problem — whether government must always be considered the problem or whether it can even be part of the solution — things just got considerably more interesting in Albertan provincial politics.