Western Standard
email print

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

So who’s better?

There are conclusions to be drawn from all this, and the authors would very much like them to be flattering statements about Canada’s growing competitive advance over the United States, and America’s concurrent decline into the basket case status that Canada worked so hard to escape. But such conclusions are not so easily reached, in large part because the Harper government has done little to continue, or even consolidate, the gains of his Liberal predecessors.

Surpluses, for instance, one of the most celebrated victories of the “Redemptive Decade,” quietly disappeared from Canada’s 2009 budget in favor of a dramatic increase in spending, ostensibly for recession-fighting stimulus purposes. Though supposedly only a temporary measure, Ottawa’s forecast nevertheless predicts deficit spending to continue for at least another six years. The authors blame a lot of this on the fact that Harper controls only a minority of seats in the House of Commons, but it’s similarly true that the present administration has shown little courage in making significant cuts to the size or scope of government, which, all things considered, is still rather absurdly large and wasteful. (As Andrew Coyne reported recently, the “grants” section of the Public Accounts of Canada takes up over 280 pages).

In short, though an ample gap of difference existed between Canada and the United States at the beginning of the decade, it seems to be one that is rapidly closing. “There is substantial risk that current federal policy will undo the fiscal reforms of the Redemptive Decade,” the authors say at one point, and nearly contradict their book’s entire upbeat thesis in doing so. Though America may very well be permanently crippled by its “economic straitjacket” of unmanageable spending and unaffordable entitlements, Canada faces handicaps of its own that are just as difficult to weasel out of. Indeed, it is the very spirit of nationalism that The Canadian Century so eagerly tries to stoke that may impose the harshest toll on Canada’s ability to pursue a long-term agenda of rational self-interest.

The costs of nationalism

Canada’s extravagant, state-run health care, for instance, is identified in The Canadian Century as the country’s “great unreformed entitlement program” of which no significant effort to rein in cost or efficiency has been made by any government since the program’s introduction. As of 2008, 44% of all provincial spending is presently being devoted to the propping up of health care and nothing else, a trend that threatens to turn provincial governments into single-service entities within a decade or two. Devoting only two-and-a-half pages to the matter, the book treats this topic somewhat casually; a serious problem, but surely one we’ll get around to solving someday. But the reason we haven’t, of course, is that modern Canadian nationalism has built an enormous cult of patriotic worship around the very notion of “free health care,” on a scale no other entitlement program has ever enjoyed. When Canadians name Tommy Douglas as their greatest citizen and medicare as their proudest national symbol, it becomes impossible for any political party in this country to even broach the subject of free-market reforms, no matter how desperately needed.

It’s similarly worth remembering that the only reason we care so much about health care in the first place is because it’s perceived as something that distinguishes us from the Americans, and it’s this passion for distinctness at literally any cost that reveals our somewhat psychotic predisposition for irrational policy.

Though The Canadian Century, both literally and figuratively, promises to liberate Canada from the shameful darkness of “America’s Shadow,” the American shadow is not easily escaped, in part because, as the authors unambiguously state, Canada and the United States presently function as “a single economic entity.” The need to escape America for patriotic reasons, while simultaneously embrace it for economic ones, forms the central dilemma of Canadian existence, and has historically proven itself to be a rather powerful motivator of economic madness.

More articles by J.J. McCullough