The population of Quebec will shrink to barely one-fifth of Canada’s by 2031 – implying, according to economist Brian Lee Crowley in an important new book, “a big drop in the province’s relative weight in the House of Commons.” In fact, he calculates, Quebec’s influence will fall from 75 out of 308 MPs to 75 out of 375. The political implications would be profound.
“British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario together would have roughly 250 members,” Mr. Crowley says. “Winning three-quarters of those seats would give a political party an overall majority in the Commons without a single Quebec seat, or indeed a seat in any other province.” Ottawa’s long bidding war with Quebec for the loyalty (and votes) of Quebeckers would end – and an historic transformation of Canada would begin.
Mr. Crowley’s book – Fearful Symmetry: The Fall and Rise of Canada’s Founding Values – argues that Canada went disastrously off track in the 1960s and the 1970s for two reasons. The first was the rise of Quebec nationalism. The second was the population explosion following the Second World War. The need to appease Quebec separatism, Mr. Crowley says, warped federal policies and federal politics for two generations. The baby boomers, he says, provided a dubious justification for a rapid expansion of the welfare state.
Didn’t governments have a responsibility to find jobs for the baby boomers – and especially for Quebec’s baby boomers? Without federal jobs, wouldn’t these rebellious young people opt for separatism? Separately and in combination, these self-reinforcing influences induced successive federal governments (beginning with Liberal prime ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau) to abandon Canada’s traditional laissez-faire governing principles and to substitute the statist assumptions favoured by intellectual elites in Ottawa and Quebec City. The federal government’s obsession with finding work for the baby boomers, for example, led to the creation of vast numbers of federal and provincial “pseudo-jobs”- which inexorably corrupted the work ethic for which Canadians had, in earlier years, been famous.
The consequence was predictable, Mr. Crowley says. Canadians had prospered as a society of makers. They became a society of takers – and Canadian productivity inevitably faltered. The Canadian state became an intellectual conceit, “a great fiction through which everybody endeavoured to live at the expense of everybody else.” Mr. Crowley’s citation of this famous aphorism, crafted by the famous 19th century liberal economist Frédéric Bastiat, is persuasive. Bastiat’s corollary is corroborative: “Everyone wants to live at the expense of the state. They forget that the state wants to live at the expense of everyone.”
Mr. Crowley’s unique interpretation of Canadian history rings loudly with clarity and conviction. Perhaps intuitively, many Canadians appear to sense, with profound regret, the radical changes that have taken place in this country in the past 50 years. This sentiment is more than nostalgia; it is a growing awareness of personal loss. Canada was once a community of strongly held principles – principles shared by French-speaking Canadians as well as English-speaking Canadians. They included a profound commitment to limited government, personal responsibility and the rule of law. Canada is no longer a community of strongly held principles. It’s as simple as that.
Mr. Crowley tackles the mythology that Canadians are natural statists, that the welfare state is the product of a collective preference. Before the country began to change in the 1960s, he says, Canadians were “resolutely North American.” In some ways, he says, the British tradition made Canadians even more leery of the expansive state than the American tradition did south of the border – notwithstanding “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
He is absolutely correct. For much of the country’s existence, governments needed less than 10 per cent of Canada’s GDP to fulfill their obligations – because these obligations were narrowly defined by universal consent. Government was limited because Canadians wanted it limited, a fact attested by innumerable witnesses. In his memoirs, for example, J.A. Corry, principal of Queen’s University in the 1960s, observed that Canadians were as alert historically to government aggrandizement as Americans.
“Jeffersonian democrats,” he wrote, “littered the ground in Canada.” Mr. Corry regarded the centralizing federal state as the biggest threat to Canadian democracy. Mr. Crowley quotes iconic Canadian essayist Stephen Leacock to illustrate the strong aversion of Canadians to intrusive government well into the 20th century: “We are in danger of over-government; we are suffering from a too-great extension of the functions of the state.”
Leacock wrote this judgment in 1924, when governments spent 11 per cent of Canada’s GDP – roughly one-quarter what they spend now (which is modestly less than in 1992, when government spending peaked at 50 per cent). A couple of generations later, Montreal economist William Watson concluded that Canada finished the Great Depression as “probably the most laissez-faire country going.” In a word, as Mr. Crowley amply demonstrates, Canada got mugged – and never recovered its valuables.
Founder of the Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, Brian Lee Crowley has written a courageous book with absolutely unique analysis and interpretation. Part lament, part celebration, Fearful Symmetry is most of all a profoundly optimistic book. Why? Rush to read it as soon as you can.