Is there a conservative case against the carbon tax? Not really
By: Jim Farney
Conservative politicians across Canada have strongly opposed the Trudeau government’s promise to impose carbon tax since the idea was floated in 2015. Beginning with Premier Wall in Saskatchewan, opposition to the carbon tax is now a central commitment of conservative Premiers Palliser, Moe and Ford, as well as the leader of the official opposition, Andrew Scheer.
It is easy to see how conservatives would oppose a new tax created by the federal government. After all, what’s more conservative than opposing a new federal tax? Dig deeper down into conservative principles, though, and it is hard to see where those conservative principles point except towards a carbon tax.
This is counter-intuitive, but conservatism in Canada is a rope wound out of four different strands: traditionalist conservatives, religious conservatives, free market conservatives and conservative populists. The first two strands provide reasons to be concerned about climate change. The last two provide important reasons why a carbon tax is the appropriate mechanism to use to reduce emissions.
Traditionalists are the type of conservative that dictionaries define as “Tory.” In Canada, they are personified by Robert Stanfield, Hugh Segal or Peter Lougheed. They advocate for a strong government able to pursue the collective interest. But they limit the scope of what government does. They have long argued that the growth associated with unrestrained capitalism damages local communities. Contemporary British Tories like Roger Scruton argue for strong government action to protect the environment.
Religious conservatives usually make the news for their positions on social issues such as euthanasia or abortion. But, all of the major religious traditions in Canadian society have well worked out traditions of social thought that cover the waterfront of political, economic and social issues. Over the last generation, all of these traditions have increasingly stressed the importance of environmental stewardship — perhaps most famously in Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato si.
This leaves us with free market conservatives and populists — the largest and most politically important strands of conservatism in Canada today. They part company with traditionalists or religious conservatives on the importance of environmental issues. But both types make powerful arguments about how government ought to pursue public goods that have important implications for how to approach climate change.
Free market conservatives, almost by definition, hold true to a central gospel: setting prices through the marketplace is an extraordinarily efficient way to allocate scarce resources. They don’t like taxes. However, they recognize the good that can come from a transparent tax, imposed fairly for a demonstrable social good.
Free market conservatives will argue cap and trade or carbon rationing requires a much more robust level of government intervention. And such taxes would destroy the market’s ability to communicate value accurately through setting prices. As such, they create winners and losers. A transparent tax, like the carbon tax, they might argue, treats all emissions equally. In so doing, it preserves the market’s inherent ability to accurately set the most efficient price.
This leaves populists. If by populist we mean popular, then Premiers Moe and Ford have hit pay dirt. But, if we mean populist in the way that Canada’s most notable conservative populist, Preston Manning defined the term, then we come to a different position. Manning emphasized that to be populist was to create mechanisms that allow ordinary people to bring their wisdom to bear on the making of public policy.
Recognizing the carbon cost of consumption decisions is a direct and transparent way to involve ordinary people in collective decisions. We end up in the same place as free market arguments. Indeed, Manning himself publicly supports a carbon tax.
So what we are left with are two arguments often made by conservatives but which, strictly speaking, are not conservative. One is jurisdictional: that this is a policy area in which the provinces ought to take the lead and not the federal government. Ultimately, this question will be decided by the courts. The other is regional: that a carbon tax which hurts provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan more than Quebec is unfair.
Both of these are important sets of questions. Answering them may tell us which government should do something about Canada’s carbon emissions. But it is inescapable that the “what should be done,” if it were to be done by conservatives, would have to look remarkably like a carbon tax.
Jim Farney is an Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Regina, author of Social Conservatives and Party Politics in Canada and the United States and co-editor of Conservativism in Canada. He’s also a Contributor with EvidenceNetwork.ca based at the University of Winnipeg.