My Thoughts on the Liberal Order Framework

2 06 2009

I attended a roundtable on the Liberal Order Framework at last week’s meeting of the Canadian Historical Association.  Roundtable participants discussed the body of historical literature that has emerged in response to Ian McKay’s seminal article “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History,” Canadian Historical Review 81, no. 4 (2000).

In the article McKay offered a  new interpretative framework/ paradigm/metanarrative for understanding Canadian history. McKay says that in the middle third of the 19th century there was a liberal revolution in British North America—liberal, by which he appears to mean classical liberal, ideas became dominant and have been hegemonic in northern North America ever since. McKay argues that the project of building a trans-continental  Dominion in northern North America was about imposing this “classical liberal” ideology on their various peoples of the territory, some of whom clung to various pre-modern, pre-liberal ways of structuring their societies.

McKay’s framework has been taken up by a number of Canadian historians. Indeed, a book of essays written in response to McKay’s initial article was recent published by University of Toronto Press. Liberalism and Hegemony: Debating the Canadian Liberal Revolution edited by Jean-François Constant and Michel Ducharme.

I have finished reading this book, which I picked up at the Learned Societies’ book fair. I must say that I find the literature on the liberal order at once stimulating and frustrating, which is also how I felt about McKay’s original article. Here are a few quick thoughts:

1)    McKay was not actually present at the roundtable on the liberal order. For some reason, the CHA organizers had double booked him for another event. This was really unfortunate, since the discussion took place without him.

2)    I commend McKay for thinking big and for advancing a comprehensive theory of Canadian history. One of the advantage of Marxism and other once popular macro-theories of history is that they gave scholars a framework for understanding a world full of discreet facts and making decisions about which facts to select. The discrediting of Marxism and many of the other big theories left many historians without a theory with which to interpret the jumbled facts presented in the archive.

3)    Theory is essential for the writing of high quality history. History is a discipline that is both empirical and theoretical. As I see it, it is the job of the historian to take a theory and see whether it applies to the facts of a particular case. If historical research produces too many data point contradicting the theory, then the theory needs to modified or discarded. To be credible, a theory must also be falsifiable. This is true for historical theories as much as scientific ones. As far as I can tell, McKay’s theory or framework lacks falsifiability because his definition of “liberal” is in constant flux, even within a single article.

4)    Let me repeat this key point: the liberal order framework or theory lacks falsifiability because the word “liberal” is never clearly defined by McKay and his followers. Loose or slippery definitions allow a theory to escape refutation.  It is clear that McKay is using the word “liberal” to describe something that relates to individualism and which is a distant cousin of capitalism, but he doesn’t supply us with a clear and robust definition of liberal that we can then use as a yardstick for judging his claim that the formation of the Canadian state promoted liberalism. Moreover, during the roundtable session, the participants threw around several definitions of the word “liberal”. Until I spoke up, nobody bothered to point out that they were defining liberal is very different ways. The meaning of the word liberal has changed dramatically in the last 150 years. It also varies from one English-speaking country to the next. Many Americans use the word “liberal” to mean a sort of soft socialist– which is clearly very different from a 19th century classical liberal (or “libertarian”) or the modern Liberal Party of Canada, which includes both classical liberals and soft socialists.

5)    The liberal order framework purports to explain why a separate nation called Canada emerged in northern North America. So far, so good. I agree that understanding why Canada emerged as a separate nation state and did not become just another region of the USA is one of the _central tasks_ of the Canadian historical profession. I’m not certain that pointing out that liberalism was part of the political culture of Canada in the 19th century advances our understanding of why Canada exists today. The USA in this period was also, broadly speaking, a liberal country. Indeed, some classical liberals, most notably Goldwin Smith, thought that ends of classical liberalism would be advanced by continental union (i.e., Canadian joining the Union).  In fact, the whole process of building a separate nation in North America has some profoundly illiberal elements, such as high tariffs and other protectionist policies, that were totally anathema to classical liberalism. I must say that McKay’s claim that Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy (a protective tariff) was an expression of liberalism was a bit far-fetched.

6)    To my mind, a much simpler and therefore better explanation for the emergence of Canada as a separate nation in northern North America is anglophilia—namely the intense loyalty that many British North Americans in the 19th and early 20th century felt towards Britain and the British Crown. The project of creating Canada was, in large measure, about building up a British Dominion and resisting the north-south attractions of the United States. This explanation fits the available facts far better than any other proferred explanations, including the famous Laurentian thesis. Until the Other Quiet Revolution of the 1945-1965 period, Britishness was central to the English-speaking Canadian identity. And it was the foundation of the Canadian nation state– the regions of North American that became part of the Dominion of Canada had nothing in common with each other, save that they were British territory, painted red on the map. Britishness was the glue that held them together.

7) In March 2008, I published an article in the Canadian Historical Review that cited McKay’s 2000 article and which then proceeded to undermine its central argument by looking at the debates on Confederation in British North America in the 1860s. The article showed that many, if not most, classical liberals in British North America were opposed to Confederation for fear that it would lead to higher taxes and “Big Government”. The proponents of greater government in the interventionism in the economy were, for the most part, on the pro-Confederation side of the debate.  The research findings presented in the article are the exact opposite of what McKay’s theory would predict, since McKay connects Confederation and the building of the Canadian nation state to the rise of liberalism. I don’t know what the production schedule for the Liberalism and Hegemony book was like, but I thought that it was unfortunate that there were no references to this article in that book, which was published in May of 2009. Although it is possible to dismiss my CHR article as relating to just a single data point (i.e., Confederation), it’s an important data point and one that calls McKay’s whole framework into question.


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