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Book Review: The Canadian Century

The Canadian Century, by Brian Lee Crowley, Jason Clemens and Niels Veldhuis, is an unusually sobering look at political realities in North America, suggests J.J. McCullough. It may prove, he claims, enormously prescient.

J.J. McCullough - July 12, 2010

4) The United States has become an extremely fiscally irresponsible country in recent years, and should no longer be regarded as anyone’s role model.

With such points assembled into a cohesive whole, the authors’ conclusion is self-evident: Canada’s destiny, ordained by its historic ideology and America-toppling desires, lies in perpetuating a tradition of fiscal restraint and small government. This is the “Canadian Century” the title refers to, a future in which Canada stands alone as a model of growth and wealth, the proud benefactor of its own sensible fiscal traditions. It will be a country engorged with national purpose.

The fall and rise of conservative Liberalism

For a book which such a decidedly conservative message, its heroes are explicitly non-partisan. Canada’s most celebrated fiscal leaders are both prime ministers from the Liberal Party, an institution whose historically respectable brand is said to have suffered a regrettable decline through a prolonged, failed dalliance with leftism.

There is much hagiography of Sir Wilfred Laurier, the longest-serving of Canada’s Victorian-era prime ministers, and the second Liberal to hold the office. In his day, we are reminded, liberalism was still understood in its traditional sense: a philosophy of high individual freedom and low levels of government involvement in private lives and private commerce. By modern standards, much of Laurier’s agenda was remarkably libertarian: low taxes, low tariffs, minimal regulation, and a vehement distaste for anything resembling welfare statism. Canadians had to sink or swim in those days, but the country was evidently better for it; from 1896 to 1911 Canada was in an undeniable “boom,” with massive urban growth, industrial expansion, and rising global relevance as one of the West’s primary exporters of wheat and minerals.
Laurier-style liberalism was a victim of its own success, however. Having pushed Canada to a comfortable level of wealth, it faded quickly in the aftermath of two world wars and by the 1970s had been superseded altogether by the left-liberalism of Pierre Trudeau. In the interventionist fashion of the time, Canada proceeded to ratchet up spending, welfare, and protectionism, with the predictable consequences of high debt and taxes, as well as a new social culture of dependency and entitlement.

The extraordinarily horrifying consequences of Canada’s unrestrained decades of fiscal incompetence cannot be understated, and The Canadian Century does a good job of bluntly reminding its readers just how awful things had become by the mid 1990s. In 1993, Canada’s national debt represented a full 80 per cent of the country’s GDP, teetering the national credit rating on the precipice of total collapse. A full one-third of all tax revenue was used simply to pay down debt-related interest payments, yet government spending continued to rise with blissful indifference. Canadians were paying a high price for this, of course — the income tax rate, in some cases, was over 50 per cent -- yet they were also taking in large amounts: an astonishing 12 per cent of Ontarians, denizens of Canada’s richest province, were on welfare as of 1994.

Whatever Greece analogies you may be thinking of are completely apt.

It was in this context of undeniable looming doom that Canada saw the dawn of what The Canadian Century’s authors somewhat mawkishly refer to as the “Redemptive Decade.” The exact stats are probably not worth hashing over in too great detail, but suffice it to say, shortly upon taking office in the mid ’90s, the Liberal government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his long-suffering finance minister, Paul Martin, quickly realized the crippling magnitude of Canada’s fiscal disorder and moved swiftly to correct it. Things were cut, things were lowered, and things got better very quickly. Deficits turned into surpluses, Canadians got off welfare and back to work, and The Economist began writing cover stories about the northern miracle.

More articles by J.J. McCullough