National Post’s Robert Fulford on The Great Divide

Here is a very positive review of The Great Divide, published today by one of Canada’s foremost culture critics:

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It is agreed by all liberals that everyone should worry about the widening gulf between rich and poor and that those who aren’t concerned about it are probably heartless.

It threatens “our way of life,” Barack Obama remarked. Still, he believes wise government measures can fix or alleviate this fault in the economy. “That’s our generation’s task,” he said. Justin Trudeau has taken on the same task in Canada. Since 1981, he says, the Canadian economy has enormously grown but average family income has increased only moderately. “Where did all the wealth go?” he asks, and answers: “To the wealthiest one per cent, whose income doubled, and to the wealthiest 0.1 per cent, whose income quintupled.” He says Liberals, if elected, will fight income inequality.

Before we drown in proposals for making incomes more equal, we should consider someone who says inequality doesn’t matter. Poverty matters, sure, but “People who worry about inequality either belong to a culture of jealousy and class hatred or they are confusing inequality with poverty.”

That’s the opinion of William D. Gairdner, expressed in his recent book, The Great Divide: Why Liberals and Conservatives Will Never, Ever Agree (Encounter Books). A conservative, he’s written an outrageous book. It will outrage all those who take for granted that “the conventional wisdom” (as J.K. Galbraith called it) should be treated with respect and automatic approval.

Gairdner dissents from the 2015 moral consensus in many areas, among them abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia. Whether one agrees with him or not, he writes with shrewdly deployed energy.

He feels no resentment when he reads of titanic incomes. He assumes that there is a reason, and the reason is freedom. He gives a conservative’s reaction to such news: “Three cheers for freedom, mobility and inequality.” He points out that “Oprah Winfrey, Wayne Gretzky and Bill Gates did not steal their fortunes. They were given to them voluntarily in little bits by millions of people willing to pay for what was offered. There was no hardship for the buyers, and no coercion by the sellers.”

The question of traditional ethics stands at the heart of the argument, the great moral principles that result from tradition and consensus

Gairdner is not in any way typical of writers on political philosophy. In his youth he was a notable athlete, representing Canada in the decathlon at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. After acquiring a PhD in English literature at Stanford University in 1970, he taught at York University in Toronto and then left teaching for business. He was a left-leaning university student but life experiences, his reading and his thinking took him to the conservative side. He founded The Fitness Institute in Toronto and ran it for 15 years. In 1988 he retired, to write books on subjects ranging from family life to democracy.

He explains why we can’t expect liberals and conservatives to agree. The question of traditional ethics stands at the heart of the argument, the great moral principles that result from tradition and consensus. Gairdner says we should always be asking “In what ways can I uphold those principles?” But that question seldom arises, because liberalism has backed away from it. Instead, as Gairdner puts it, “We judge the moral laws, instead of being judged by them.”

In our time liberalism has made values into a personal matter. We worry less about the rightness of an act than about how it makes us feel. “Values education,” as taught in some schools, has become empty and shallow because it’s widely assumed there are no right or wrong values, only personal and usually emotional responses to moral questions. The conservative believes “The truth of life is external to ourselves.” The liberal believes, “Life is a matter of relative values and personal choices; to liberals the truth of most things must be internal.”

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