Why Harper hates experts

Andrew Coyne demonstrates afresh why he is my favorite conservative columnist with this attempt to fathom Harper’s inexplicable vandalizing of the census. Money quote:

It isn’t just that the Tories habitually ignore the expert consensus on a wide range of issues—crime, taxes, climate change—it’s that they want to be seen to be ignoring it. It’s the overt antagonism to experts, and by extension the educated classes, that marks the Tory style. In its own way, it’s a form of class war.

Andrew Coyne-150You can see it in the sneering references to Michael Ignatieff’s Harvard tenure, in the repeated denunciations of “elites” and “intellectuals.” In the partial dismantling of the census, we reach the final stage: not just hostile to experts, but to knowledge…

The result is a uniquely nasty, know-nothing strain of conservatism. The Thatcher Tories, unlike their forebears, weren’t anti-intellectual: her cabinet contained some of Britain’s most fertile social and political minds. Ronald Reagan, though hardly an intellectual, did not demonize expert opinion, or pit the educated classes against the rest. Even today’s Republican party, as know-nothing as it sometimes appears, relies heavily on a network of think tanks to provide it with intellectual heft. Only in Canada have expertise and ideas been so brutally cast aside. On the level of principle, this is appalling. A society that holds education and expertise in contempt, no less than one that disdains commerce or entrepreneurship, is dying. To whip up popular hostility to intellectuals is to invite the public to jump on its own funeral pyre.

Surely it’s a stretch to argue that the American right in its current incarnation is informed by intellectual rigor. So why do I like Coyne, even — perhaps especially — when I disagree with him? A few reasons:

  • He argues from first principles, without bobbing or weaving on the fundamentals whenever some shiny bauble of political advantage for “his side” appears in the form of a clever but intellectually dishonest argument.
  • He argues honestly, never selecting or trimming facts to fit the case wants to make.
  • He forces others, most especially those who disagree with him, to reflect on the weak points in their own arguments, producing what John Stuart Mill memorably described as “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

If only the left in Canada had an equivalent interlocutor, they might be taken more seriously. Jim Stanford, I suppose, is as close as we’ve got.

In the present case, Coyne notes with approval his Maclean’s colleague John Geddes’s assessment of Harper’s mistrust of experts. Also well worth a read.