I reviewed The Canadian Century for the Globe and Mail in August, but I forgot to post. Didn’t get very much feedback on it. Curious what people think, as it (like the book), is a bit provocative…
Some Century Must Belong To Us
In The Canadian Century, Brian Crowley, Jason Clemens and Niels Veldhuis have combined a sharp assessment of contemporary public policy with a reinterpretation of a major political figure, Wilfrid Laurier.
The authors present an ambitious argument: Laurier’s principles of economic freedom and the rule of law, limited government, confident engagement with the United States and free trade are advanced as dogmatic certainties that can be used to ensure our national success, dominance even, in the 21st century. Conversely, it is by deviating from this framework that the country has in the past been derailed by protectionism, introspection and a welfare state run amok.
This sweeping re-assessment of a century of Canadian public policy may well be true, but the authors do not provide sufficient perspective through which to assess it. In particular, the way in which the argument is presented suffers from two major flaws: It draws on a highly selective overview of 21st-century history; and it fails to acknowledge its ideological underpinnings.
First, it is only during what the authors call the “redemptive decade” (a short period in the late 1980s and early ’90s that saw a series of provincial and federal spending reforms, as well as the introduction of NAFTA) that Laurier’s plan was implemented.
The question must be asked: Would we have been better off in the rest of the 20th century had we followed Laurier’s guidance? Or were his (and the authors’) policy prescriptions simply ill-suited for the context in which Canada has found itself for most of the past 120 years?
The authors offer that “war, depression and revolution all intervened to drag us down,” but such generality only makes the policy moments chosen to represent the re-emergence of Laurier’s vision risk the appearance of selection bias.
The rest of the century, of course, includes the industrial revolution, the Great Depression, two world wars and the civil rights movement. Would continued unhinged capitalism, rather than regulation, have been the better policy response to the Depression? Should the union movement have been banned during a period of brutal industrialization? How should the economy have changed after the world wars? Do the charter and the civil-rights movements overstep the bounds of individual freedom? We are left to guess.
Second, the book is presented as free from ideology; both Laurier’s and the authors’. While this is likely because the book is being used to promote a promising new think tank, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, it is unfortunate because the argument would be stronger, and more engaging, if the authors were transparent about its ideological grounding.
The Canadian Century is an implicit argument for a fiscally conservative Canada. Wilfrid Laurier’s vision is presented as a conservative one, and the authors clearly believe Canada’s future should be as well.
This is no surprise, as all three are known and respected economic conservatives. But it does point to a failing of the book, one that I think is representative of a broader problem in our public discourse: a predisposition toward “objective” accounts of policy decisions without addressing the ideological foundations that ground them.
It is clear that the authors have isolated a selection of Laurier’s positions that support their ideological predisposition, a small “c” conservative agenda, and the policy moments chosen to represent “redemption” are a hit-list of fiscally conservative successes. The implicit, unacknowledged claim is that Laurier’s agenda was a conservative one.
The problem is that the world the authors paint, one free from ideology, does not exist. Take, for example, the ideological grounding that may have framed Laurier’s worldview. As the authors imply, some of his positions could be considered conservative. But in a turn-of-the-century ideological landscape radically polarized between socialists and mercantilist capitalists, Laurier was far more likely to have been an early progressive than a conservative.
Whereas the conservatism of the time believed that markets should be left unhindered to determine all social outcomes, early progressives, such as Roosevelt in the United States, were centrists who believed that social outcomes could be shaped using both market and government forces.
Seen through this ideological prism, the rise of the social-democratic state would have likely fit nicely into Laurier’s world view. Similarly, as the authors recount, he would certainly have disapproved of the failure of baby boomer progressives to reform the institutions they inherited for a post-industrial economy.
So was Laurier a progressive or a conservative? Depending on the answer, the future policy prescriptions we ascribe to his agenda vary dramatically.
Do we repeat the blunt cuts of the “redemptive decade” and reduce government, as the authors suggest, to “the provision of services like defence, an effective legal system, adequate infrastructure, and the protection of persons and property”? Or should Canada, like the early progressives, seek to use the market to make government institutions more efficient and to deliver desired social outcomes?
Ideology is only negative when it becomes doctrinaire, when we fail to incorporate new realities into our politics. Whereas the Canadian ideological spectrum remains stuck in an out-of-date 20th-century left-right divide, the debate in many other democracies has evolved. The British Cameron-Clegg coalition, for example, was only possible because the Conservative Party spent time and effort while in opposition rethinking its ideological foundation, rather than entrenching it. For Canada to do the same, ideology must be discussed and debated openly and honestly in our think tanks and in our public discourse. It must be re-invigorated, not avoided. But the first step is to acknowledging its influence. On this note, The Canadian Century has fallen short.