Events

Liberalism: Conscience and Confidence

February 04, 2003 // 3:00pm4:00pm

The Honorable Pierre Pettigrew, Canada's Minister of International Trade

With the end of the cold war and the collapse of communism, the ideology of neo-liberal economic integration has spread globally as the largely unchallenged mantra for wealth generation and human development. Canada's Minister for International Trade Pierre Pettigrew defined liberalism as the philosophy at the heart of modernity. Based on its belief in individual freedoms, liberalism has created what he calls the "miracle of development." Using examples from the Canadian state, Pierre Pettigrew questioned whether it is possible for the ideology of liberalism to find within itself a counterbalancing mechanism.

According to Pettigrew, a self-described liberal, there are two overarching conceptual pillars at the heart of the liberalism paradigm: conscience and confidence. The confidence pillar of liberalism can be generally understood as a confidence in development, in the market, in our institutions, in our selves, and in one another. To illustrate the importance of the confidence factor, he cited a study in which the author found confidence to be the most consistent and crucial characteristic that separated developed from underdeveloped societies throughout history. When a society falls into mistrust, it fights constantly over shares of the "pie"; people distrust their leaders and are dissatisfied with their role in society. However, a society with high levels of trust can agree to grow the "pie" for everyone, and to see logic in the common cause. He said that the United States was the ultimate example of this mentality of confidence, citing it as central to the to the unprecedented success of America as the unquestioned superpower of the 21st century.

The second conceptual pillar of conscience has proven to be a greater preoccupation for Pettigrew. He sees the miracle of development as the product of a fine balance between market and government forces. He expressed strong concerns that today's expression of liberalism (e.g. the Washington consensus) underestimates the importance of state functions such as rule enforcement, wealth redistribution, and social welfare. He sees this privileging of the market as very dangerous: "Whenever you see only markets shaping your society, there is a negation of human freedom and liberty."

He believes that the Canadian model has a great deal of significance and meaning for the paradigm of liberalism in the 21st century for two main reasons. Since its inception, Canada has consciously rejected the traditional unitary state model and is not comprised of one culturally and linguistically homogeneous nation. As a result, Canada now has among the highest levels of ethnic and religious tolerance in the world. He sees this feature as having major significance for an increasingly culturally heterogeneous planet. Secondly, Canada is a country which has high levels of solidarity and cooperation amongst its citizenry, which he also sees as essential to liberalism in the 21st Century.

Pettigrew argued that liberalism was founded on a strong ethical base that has been narrowed over the last few generations, and must be either remodeled or revitalized. He argues that this is essential firstly because the pillar of confidence requires it: if the conscience factor is too weak, the confidence disappears. Here he cited the examples of Enron, Vivendi, WorldCom, etc. Secondly, he argued that we cannot maintain the state of consumption we presently enjoy. The "ethics of care" becomes absolutely imperative despite advances in science, which Pettigrew also believes holds much promise. He sees the reconciliation between the confidence and conscience pillars of liberalism as the major political project today.

Pettigrew concluded with some of his recent observations on the rapidly increasing levels of anti-Americanism he encounters throughout his travels. When abroad, Pettigrew consistently responds to these allegations with the argument that U.S. capitalism is not "get rich as fast as possible and don't bother with anyone else." Rather, he sees it as coming from a rigorous set of ethics, where immoral behavior still has consequences in the community. Pettigrew sees potential for this reconciliation of conscience and confidence when firefighters become heroes in the same year that corporate icons of the previous decade go to jail. He argued that the United States is capable of undergoing remarkable shifts. He also cautioned that the United States has power unparalleled in history, and with it increased responsibility. Finally, he called for the unification of confidence and conscience into an institutional framework similar to that achieved at Bretton Woods.

The roundtable discussion generated extended dialogue, with questions ranging from the question of Quebec separatism, to Canada's position on NAFTA's Chapter 11 investor state dispute, to the future course of trade agreements.


The Honorable Pierre S. Pettigrew received a BA in philosophy from the Université du Québec à Trois Rivières in 1972 and an M.Phil. in international relations from Oxford (Balliol College) in 1976. Mr. Pettigrew served as Director of the NATO Assembly's Political Committee in Brussels, and also as Foreign Policy Advisor to Canada's Prime Minister from 1981 to 1984. Appointed Minister for International Trade in August 1999, he has since chaired the Ministerial Meeting of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in Toronto in November 1999 and the Working Group on Implementation at the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in Seattle in December 1999. He is also the author of a book called The New Politics of Confidence on globalization and the art of governing.


David Biette, Director, Canada Institute, 202-691-4133
Drafted by Stefanie Bowles
Canada Institute
202-691-4139

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