“We need to be careful about what we say.” 

“We can’t take too bold stances – they might scare the public.” 

“We need to be slow in making changes.” 

These are some of the phrases you hear all too often from conservatives who adhere to the strategy known as incrementalism. These incrementalists may genuinely believe they are being strategic and thoughtful. In reality, their so-called “strategy” is myopic and, in the long run, destructive to the cause of free markets and limited government. And if the conservative movement is going to succeed in making Canada a freer and more prosperous nation we, are going to have to learn from our past mistakes.

On the face of it, incrementalism may sound simple and appealing.  All you have to do is win elections, and slowly but surely you will implement legislation that gets you to your desired goal.  But among the many flaws in this “strategy,” there is one that stands out amongst the rest: Conservatives do lose elections from time to time. When we do, our small steps forward can be erased with multiple steps backward by a left-wing government. 

The most extreme example of this is at the provincial level in Alberta, where the few good policies from a 44-year reign by the Progressive Conservatives are going to be entirely wiped out after four years of Rachel Notley’s NDP. The flax tax is out, the carbon tax is in, regulations are up, and the minimum wage has been increased by 50%. There is reason to hope the new United Conservative Party of Alberta will take a chainsaw to all these freedom-destroying NDP policies. But if they were to revert to the strategy of incrementalism, it would take at least another 44 years of uninterrupted government to usher in any substantial reforms. 

Even when Conservatives hang on for a couple of elections, the compromises that incrementalists supposedly must make to stay in government render the few limited reforms they did accomplish worthless. Look at the federal Conservatives between 2006 and 2015.  While they did move the ball forward on a couple of important issues, such as scrapping the Canadian Wheat Board and withdrawing Canada from the Kyoto Accord, they were extremely self-destructive to the cause of limited government elsewhere. Instead of lowering taxes and flattening tax rates, they littered the tax code with ridiculous boutique tax credits. When they should have eliminated corporate welfare en masse, they bailed out General Motors and went around handing out massive subsidies while shamelessly posing for photo-ops in the process.  If the cost of being in power is your principles, what is the point? 

I won’t delve too deeply into all Conservatives can do to fix the situation in this post. But we must take advantage of the opportunity when we do form majority governments. No more waiting around till after next election – we must seize the moment. Pro-freedom policies that are difficult to reverse, like privatizing Crown corporations and dismantling regulatory bodies, should be done first. While it is not impossible for a left-leaning government to bring these back, it is very challenging to do so once the infrastructure is gone. 

Undoubtedly, the incrementalists will say that running on these bold principles is a sure-fire way to lose – and that if we do somehow manage to win and get radical reforms through, we would get crushed in the subsequent election. They don’t know that for certain, nor do we. When Conservatives have run coherent and principled campaigns, they have been successful. Ontario’s Mike Harris and Alberta’s Klein both did so, with electoral and legislative success. 

What we know for certain is that the status quo cannot last. By compromising on our principles, we are making a bet with the left where they win if it’s tails, and we lose if it’s heads. There is a risk that we strike out in going for bold reform. But it is a risk we must take to hit home runs.