Toe Which Line?

What does it mean to succeed? Can it be done without compromising? And how do rigorous and deeply held worldviews interact with flexible and relative issues?

Last week saw the approval of the first federal budget in two years. It ended up being an uneventful affair. There were no real surprises from what the Fall Economic Statement and more recent commentary anticipated in the budget. The budget’s linchpin is the idea of launching a national child care plan, seeking to halve the cost of child daycare by next year and eventually bring it down to 10 dollars a day, which will require a 30 billion investment over five years. There were two attempts to amend the budget, and both were defeated.

The budget increased Old Age Security payments by 10% to seniors 75 and older, which the Bloc Quebecois wanted to extend to seniors 65 and older. The Conservatives wanted an accelerated vaccine plan to recover the economy with less government spending, and a more flexible approach to child care that gave parents, provinces and private providers more options versus a more centralized federal approach.

I find that this proposal joins a recurring pattern in recent events where Conservatives seek to address a mainstream concern somewhat outside their traditional program while still claiming a connection to conservative principles. The idea of less taxes and more personal freedom to spend your money is unequivocally conservative; but the idea of a national child care system or initiative isn’t. A similar situation arose a few weeks ago, when the party amusingly scrambled to make the point that their proposed carbon pricing strategy wasn’t the same as a carbon tax. A very similar situation: attempting to cater to the prevailing sentiment in a way that still rests on traditional conservative principles. In this case, the claim to give money back to the individual to arguably allow more personal freedom in choosing how to spend it.

And I think the same thing happened to the Ontario Conservatives two weeks ago on the latest round of COVID restrictions. Ontarians seem highly supportive of restraining measures to curb the third wave, especially focusing on guaranteeing paid sick days so that essential workers can feasibly comply with these measures. The government refused, claiming that it would be unfair to taxpayers given there’s a federal paid sick leave program – a classical conservative approach. Then, in a weird situation, the government attempted to limit mobility by closing outdoor amenities and offering expanded policing powers, which law enforcement agencies dutifully rejected. After considerable public uproar, some of the measures were rolled back the following day, and the government has even relented on its paid sick days file. But one more time, notice the pattern: an attempt to satisfy public concerns, which at the moment arguably favour more progressive approaches, by adapting traditional conservative approaches.

Defining Success

Now, my goal isn’t to discuss the fate of Conservatives, or any specific political party for that matter. But all of this got me thinking about success. How do you define success? And how often do you think about it? I find this to be extremely important. It’s something I ask whenever I begin a personal or professional effort, and I ask it often along the way. What does success mean here? When do we win?

In my mind, there are three key elements to success. First, it stems from our worldview. If I’m an utilitarian, I’ll be hard-pressed to accept as success anything that doesn’t result in maximal happiness and well-being for as many people as possible. If I am a materialistic rationalist, my definition of success will align with what I perceive as objectively, verifiably true. Whatever my worldview, it will strongly influence what I consider to be success.

Second, it involves results. In politics, the ultimate measure of success is winning elections. You can develop novel and fascinating concepts in political philosophy or theory. You can negotiate great deals and alliances and mergers. Your contributions to democracy through firm and constructive opposition may be outstanding and praiseworthy. You can have very high approval rates in polls. And to an extent, it’s all moot if it doesn’t lead to electoral wins. This is true in all other areas of life. There is much to be said for integrity, for consistency, for unflinching values, for deeply held convictions, even in light of poor results, changing sentiment, and mounting opposition. These are all good things. But it’s hard to label them as successes if concrete, tangible results don’t follow.

The third element of success is that it is multifaceted. It is seldom unidimensional. It usually involves more than one variable; more than one goal. At work, for example, a very successful project would be one where business goals are met, deadlines are honoured, and costs are kept within budget. But also, one where relationships improved, or at least didn’t deteriorate; where team morale remained high throughout, and key players grew their careers. And it’s not easy to hit all those goals every time. I think we find the same complexity in child rearing, fitness, religious ministry, and many other facets of life.


An especially tricky element of success is that it often involves compromise. The thing about compromise is that it carries negative connotations. One definition of compromise is “an agreement or settlement that is reached by each side making concessions.” That doesn’t sound good. We often don’t want to make concessions. I think that too often we want to define success like the old tale about two siblings arguing over the last orange in the house. Each sibling claimed their right to the last orange, and they appealed to their mother to work it out. The mother – wise as only mothers can be – asked each sibling their purpose for the orange. One wanted to make orange juice; the other needed the peel to bake a cake. There was no real conflict! Perfect success and perfect compromise!

Alas, such outcome is rarely realistic. True success often involves a somewhat messier compromise. In politics this is readily understood. Political parties are like fixed price menus: you don’t get to eat a la carte. You get to choose from a few options instead. Maybe there’s meat and potatoes, or salmon and asparagus. Did you want meat and veggies? Or chicken? Tough luck; there is no such option. So maybe you don’t like asparagus, but you definitely prefer salmon over meat, and that settles it.

As far back as the 1960s, it was evident that the linear “left versus right” or “liberal versus conservative” approaches weren’t descriptive enough. In 1969, American Libertarian David Nolan coined the Nolan Chart, which depicts the political spectrum not as a flat line, but as a plane with axes representing economic freedom (liberalism versus conservatism) and personal freedom (libertarian versus authoritarian stances). It’s not perfect, but it does model reality better.

This isn’t to say that political compromise is trivial. It’s understood as a necessary evil – but it remains an evil, especially as social issues become more prominent in politics. Remember, success is about results. Flexing too much on core principles for the sake of humouring a majority sentiment may not translate into enough swing votes, and may in fact alienate more of the core vote.

Politics aside – how do we think through this dilemma? Here are three ideas I find useful. The first one is to consider the world views of those involved. Like I said earlier, it’s hard to declare success on a compromise that doesn’t uphold the key elements of one’s worldview. In many cases, the very foundation of a worldview can be unique and mutually exclusive with the very foundation of other worldviews. Thankfully, not everything we debate in our small public squares hits at the core of our belief systems. We can and should find common ground. Also, that doesn’t mean that we fully embrace each other’s worldviews. I think we fall prey to a false totalitarian approach. If I agreed to a policy measure by one politician, or a neighbour’s proposal in a community environment, it doesn’t follow that I endorse every single thought or action from those players.

The second idea that I find useful in drawing these lines is the element of time. Success can be a long, hard-fought condition. Something may not look like success or like a reasonable compromise today, but many years or decades down the road may provide a better perspective. I’ll give you a personal example. One of the most painful consequences of this COVID pandemic has been seeing people I love and appreciate a lot take stances that make no sense to me. You name it, I’ve seen it. COVID deniers. Vaccine deniers. Conspiracy theorists. People influenced by explanations from the far right… It makes for uncomfortable conversations and judgments. I’ve been questioned on aspects I wasn’t expecting to be questioned. But I still think it’s more important to preserve peace in the family; to preserve friendships, despite these issues.

Here’s how I think about it. In five years, we won’t be dealing with COVID. The light at the end of the tunnel shines brighter than ever. I’m not sure we’ll leave this totally behind us in 2021, but I certainly don’t expect this to be a prominent topic in 2026. And when I think about these dissenters in my life, most of whom have been around for much longer than five years, it puts things into perspective. How much do we have in common, even today? How much have I been blessed by these relationships? Am I willing to jeopardize future gains and mutual joys in the long term over what increasingly is seeming like one more bump in history, versus a truly world-ending cataclysm?

And don’t get me wrong: I understand that this is being devastating to some people, and I don’t want to minimise that. And if it truly were a world-ending cataclysm to all of us, I wouldn’t be so lenient with my acquaintances. And I know people who take issue with my attitude. They’ll say something like, “if someone isn’t able to think clearly and objectively on something like this, I don’t want them near me down the road.” I guess I am not that fixated on rational realism to define success in my personal relationships. But it does affect the way I relate to people. Let’s just say that I take mental notes on how to help them in the future, or how to evaluate what certain people tell me going forward. But it’s not yet enough to completely sever my ties to them.

Along these lines, the third and final idea is somewhat implicit in the previous two. It’s the fact that our beliefs have priorities. They don’t exist in a flat space, all on the same level; some matter more than others. Obviously this isn’t new or original. It’s the old idea of choosing which hills to die on. But I find that in these polarizing times, all too often we’re choosing “all” as an answer. “All hills are worth dying on.” This isn’t realistic. The debate on how to make that decision isn’t simple, but I think it’s important to separate the deeply held, immovable principles from their practical applications, particularly in a public square setting.

Let me try to illustrate this with the matter of abortion. There are only five countries in the world where abortion is forbidden in all circumstances. In the last few months, Argentina and Ecuador are two countries that have relaxed that stance, and the Dominican Republic is actively discussing it right now. Most pro-life advocates in these countries take a hard stance on this. They firmly believe that the primacy of the right to life above all the rights, coupled with the embryological fact that life in the womb is human since conception, mean that it is never appropriate to legalize abortion. In North America, however, pro-life advocates may be willing to support changes to the law that would make abortion legal in some circumstances only – the very type of law that is being disputed south of here.

Does this point to an inconsistent viewpoint? I don’t think so. The argument for the primacy of the right to life can be universal. Someone will claim that preserving 100% of unborn lives is the only acceptable measure of success. Someone will claim that increasing that number today, en route to that goal, is success of some sort.


Getting to the end, I want to repeat some ideas I have expressed in the past, which I think inform a Christian viewpoint on these matters. Christianity is a deeply personal worldview. It’s chiefly concerned with an individual acceptance of its answers to philosophical questions – the acceptance of the lost condition of the individual, the acceptance of the free gift of salvation through Christ, and the personal implications of purpose, moral and destiny that stem from it. Our goal is not to establish a theocracy in this Earth at this time. That is just not the plan of God outlined in the Bible.

Acknowledging this, we do want to contribute to a world that aligns with what we think is good as much as we can. But we are acutely aware of the compromise. We understand, as the book of Revelation outlines, that there won’t be a clear-cut outcome until the very end. That we will witness a noisy cacophony of increasingly notable good things and increasingly prevalent bad things, together, to the very end.

We understand that we’re stuck in this fixed price political system, and we don’t shy away from it. No political platform conforms wholly to the biblical worldview, but we don’t abstain from voting or being active in politics. We rank our priorities, take our compromises, and dive in.

Nor do we lose heart to the perception of lack of success from a faction we may support at one point in time. We shouldn’t be afraid when some party or politician does something silly and we all get branded along with them. We need not defend all viewpoints of an entity we support on specific issues only. And we need not lose hope because the current perception is that so-called “social conservative” issues seem to be a losing proposition. This world will continue to go around. What seems to be fashionable today will be shunned tomorrow, even as the Gospel won’t necessarily be what picks up the slack. We can already see fractures, fatal contradictions, in the current progressive wave.

We are in this world – but ultimately, our kingdom, and with it our definition of success – are not of this world.

I’m curious to hear from you. How do you define success? How do you achieve meaningful and satisfactory compromise around you? I look forward to your thoughts.

Published: May 3, 2021