Liberalism is broken and Canada proves it

Liberalism is broken. This is a big kick-sand-in-my-face claim. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Canada’s embrace of euthanasia supplies that evidence.

Let’s unpack this.

First, what is “liberalism”? Its meaning shifts depending on whether one is speaking of economics or politics or ethics. Edmund Fawcett’s excellent Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, surveys scores of varieties of liberalism over the past 200 years.

In a recent widely-read essay in The Atlantic, however, New York Times columnist David Brooks identified its core idea as autonomy. This is the notion that the ultimate goal of politics, economics and ethics is to permit individuals to achieve their self-chosen goals. As Brooks puts it: “The state has no right to impinge on a citizen’s individual freedom of choice, provided that the person isn’t harming anyone else.”

The English philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote the classic explanation of autonomy in his 1859 tract On Liberty. Mill is to liberalism what Marx is to Communism or Thomas Aquinas to Catholicism – a patron saint whose words are used as epigraphs and memes and emblazoned on T-shirts.

Brooks is a thoughtful, moderate, eloquent American liberal and Mill has a special place in his heart. He paints an aureole of noble humanitarianism around Mill and his wife Harriet and his essay even begins with a sentimental tribute to their marriage. Together they produced On Liberty, which is, according to Brooks, “one of the founding documents of our liberal world order”.

The liberalism that the Mills championed is what we enjoy today as we walk down the street and greet a great variety of social types. It’s what we enjoy when we get on the internet and throw ourselves into the messy clash of ideas. It is this liberalism that we defend when we back the Ukrainians in their fight against Russian tyranny, when we stand up to authoritarians on the right and the left, to those who would impose speech codes, ban books, and subvert elections.

(More about his crush on Mill below.)

Notwithstanding the benevolence of its captain, Brooks is dismayed to see that the good ship Liberalism is breaking up on the reef of Canadian euthanasia.

Canada’s liberal credentials are impeccable; its Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a model for other countries. But why are so many people dying? Euthanasia – or, as it is called in Canada Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) – has swollen from zero to more than 10,000 in five years. That’s one in 30 of all Canadian deaths.

And, as Brooks documents, it is not only terminally ill patients afflicted with grievous suffering who are taking advantage of it. People have been euthanised for hearing loss, loneliness, and poverty. People are being euthanised for their organs. MAiD has become normalised as an end-of-life medical option. Brooks quotes the president of the Quebec College of Physicians; he declared that assisted suicide “is not a political or moral or religious issue. It is a medical issue.”

The unstoppable Canadian euthanasia juggernaut is a nightmare. Brooks ruefully acknowledges that it is the logical consequence of liberalism:

Autonomy-based liberalism starts with one core conviction: I possess myself. I am a piece of property that I own. Because I possess property rights to myself, I can dispose of my property as I see fit. My life is a project that I am creating, and nobody else has the right to tell me how to build or dispose of my one and only life … If you start with autonomy-based liberalism, MAID is where you wind up.

Nazi sympathisers looked at Auschwitz and repented. Communists looked at the Gulag and repented. Canada is Brooks’s Damascus moment. He gazes with horror at the mounting death toll and tells himself that there must be a better way. An ideology that leads to this insanity must be rotten. QED: Liberalism is broken. And Canada proves it.



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And this is where things get interesting. Where does a disillusioned autonomy-based liberal turn for a kinder, gentler philosophy? To gifts-based liberalism, says Brooks.

You may have never heard of “gifts-based liberalism”. You are not alone. Brooks’s desperate attempt to salvage the liberalism he loves leads him to invent it. It's a way to harvest the fruits of liberalism without uprooting the tree.

Gifts-based liberalism, he says, “starts with a different core conviction: I am a receiver of gifts. I am part of a long procession of humanity. I have received many gifts from those who came before me, including the gift of life itself. The essential activity of life is not the pursuit of individual happiness. The essential activity of life is to realize the gifts I’ve been given by my ancestors, and to pass them along, suitably improved, to those who will come after.”

He bases it on “four truths that gifts-based liberalism embraces and autonomy-based liberalism subverts”:

  • you didn’t create your life.
  • you didn’t create your dignity.
  • you don’t control your mind.
  • you did not create your deepest bonds.

Brooks concludes that society is based, not on social contracts between autonomous individuals, but covenants – enduring personal relationships. “If autonomy-based liberals believe that society works best when it opens up individual options, gifts-based liberals believe that society works best when it creates ecologies of care that help people address difficulties all along the path of life.”

To me, “gifts-based liberalism” has a familiar ring to it. It sounds suspiciously like Christianity. After all, a gift implies a Giver. And Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) begins with the fundamental conviction that all of creation -- and especially human life -- is gift from God. We are weak, fallible and mortal creatures whose dignity flows from the fact that we have been made in God’s image and likeness.

So, remarkably, all that is left of the broken bits of autonomy-based liberalism is a breadcrumb trail to Christianity. No doubt liberal philosophers will snort with incredulity at Brooks's naivete, but it is a hopeful portent for Christians. 

Back to John Stuart Mill. The shipwreck of autonomy-based liberalism was perfectly predictable, as anyone familiar with the philosopher’s life ought to know. Brooks idealises Mill – as have many other admirers. But as a man, Mill was a failure -- a genius but a deeply flawed genius. The roots of the tree of liberalism were rotten. 

These flaws are a matter of public record. In 1830 he fell deeply in love with his future wife Harriet. But there was a problem. Harriet was already married to John Taylor and had three children. In an arrangement which was just as scandalous then as it is now, Mill carried on an 18-year-long affair with Harriet, living in the Taylor's house and often travelling through Europe with her.  

When Taylor fell mortally ill with cancer, Harriet refused to care for him because she was too busy nursing Mill after a bad accident. Later on, to her credit, she did return to her dying husband. But she had to rebuke the whiney philosopher because he had complained that she was not paying enough attention to him. Mill, it appears, had no time for an “ecology of care”.

This was the crooked timber of which "the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century" was made, the great mind which forged the harm principle that “your rights end where his nose begins.” Somehow Mill was able to reconcile this with stealing another man’s wife and treating him with callous inhumanity. Ruining a marriage, apparently, was no harm compared to a bloody nose. 

It’s no wonder that Mill’s legacy 150 years later is the callous indifference of Canadians to autonomous deaths of despair. 


Michael Cook is editor of Mercator. 

Image credit: statue of Samuel de Champlain, founder of Quebec. 

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  • paolo giosuè gasparini
    commented 2023-08-19 19:20:19 +1000
    On my blog, in a 4-part essay, the first installment of which was published a few days ago, I attempted to explain the reasons behind the anti-Christian, libertarian, and nihilistic rebellion in the West. I’m unsure whether the editorial team at Mercator allows me to provide the link. Nevertheless, the Big Picture has been summarized by Plinio Correa De Oliveira, founder of the counter-revolutionary school, in five divorced stages, from the external to the internal: the disconnection of faith from reasonc(Lutheranism). The annulment of the reign of Christ, the Ancien Régime, the governance of God (which doesn’t refer to the clergy, but to natural law!), primarily carried out by Freemasonry (French Revolution). The divorce between ethics and economics (utilitarianism against civil economy; Richard Wathley 1829 “Noma” principle). Society (homogenization, the egalitarianism of the sexual revolution in service of the status quo, abolishing the father’s role, authority), and finally, anthropological revolution (gender studies).
  • mrscracker
    “This is probably not too surprising given that Canada is one of the few nations with absolutely no law restricting abortion. Any and all abortions right up to birth are permitted, something that is not well understood by many Canadians.”

    Nor understood by many Americans. Canada is a beautiful place & Canadians are overwhelmingly friendly, gracious people but Canadian regulations governing human rights-or the lack thereof-are appalling.
  • mrscracker
    I think at the end of the day we all live in glass houses but there’s certainly a more obvious disconnect between what some people proclaim & how they live their personal lives. Rousseau’s another example of that.
  • paolo giosuè gasparini
    commented 2023-08-15 18:18:22 +1000
    “Nazi sympathisers looked at Auschwitz and repented. Communists looked at the Gulag and repented” but post-human soft totalitarian Brave New World without God’s debased souls, didn’t. So, the contrary of Love isn’t hatred, but indifference,
  • Michael Cook
    published this page in The Latest 2023-08-15 15:28:08 +1000