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Political hypocrisy or sophisticated evolution

By Kevin Gaudet
web posted September 7, 2009

American Philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesman and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do." MPs' great souls have been busy these days. They have been changing their minds on many issues, notably; Mr. Ignatieff's promise to balance the budget without tax hikes, and Mr. Harper's appointments to the Senate. Voters will be left to judge whether these and other changes of heart were high-minded or callous.

Every day people change their minds. This is often seen as a good example of a maturing person, especially when the motives for the change are clear and reasonable. Why is it, then, that voters are hard on politicians who change their minds?

Perhaps it is because politicians change their minds too often on too many issues and they do it too quickly. As well they too often fail to disclose any, or at least believable motives for the change of heart. Often the motive is a mathematical calculation of maximizing vote gains. Further, the politician is seen not to believe the new position held.

Both Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff provide good examples.

Mr. Ignatieff says he can no longer support the government given its handling of the economy. This is peculiar given the government is only doing what the Liberals, NDP and Bloc urged them to do last Christmas, when the opposition threatened to topple the Tories for not spending enough. In fact, Mr. Ignatieff voted in favour of the budget he now decries. The motives for this change of heart are less than clear.

In May, the Liberal leader clearly refused to reject the prospect of tax hikes as a measure to aid in balancing the budget. Now he (thankfully) categorically states that no tax increases will even be considered. This change of heart has occurred in less than three months and its motive is also unclear. Perhaps he sees that his 'bosses' – the voters – wanted him to change his mind and he has responded to that pressure.

Prime Minister Harper's 'great soul' is also quite busy these days. He has provided a good number of interesting inconsistencies. In the past Mr. Harper has been a staunch critic of large, growing and expensive government, including; corporate welfare, regional development, spending growth and deficit financing. However, the last budget saw him embrace them all – and with gusto. Many Tory apologists argue that the motive for such inconsistency arose from efforts to appease the opposition. Some have said he is also appeasing Tory spending doves as well.

In the end, evaluations will be left up to voters regarding politicians who change their minds on policy matters. Acceptance or rejection of inconsistencies may hinge on whether the position the politician newly embraces furthers or harms the interests of any particular voter. If furthering the interests, the voter may see the change of heart as 'sophisticated evolution'. If the new position is deemed to be contrary to the interests of a particular voter, he may deem it 'hypocrisy'.

In the end, Emerson may be right, at least, that the prevalence of so many inconsistencies keeps politicians, and voters, very busy. ESR

Kevin Gaudet is the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. © 2009, Kevin Gaudet


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