Fear of separation and the constant demands of baby boomers have transformed Canada in unwelcome ways, says Brian Lee Crowley
By: Lawrence Martin
Customarily, political books come with one or two quotes of advance praise from well-known writers. In the case of Brian Lee Crowley’s Fearful Symmetry, we behold a multitude. The book’s entry on the market teems with lavish endorsements from Canada’s conservative cardinals: David Frum, Tom Flanagan, Andrew Coyne, Michael Bliss, Conrad Black, Ken Boessenkool, Jack Granatstein, William Gairdner and others.
They’re enraptured. Fearful Symmetry is brilliantly original, they say. It’s a blockbuster, a must-read, a national looking glass, and, to be sure, it will change our thinking about Canada.
In fact, it might. It will certainly, if widely read, stir resentment toward Quebec. A central theme of the book is that we’ve all been had by that province. Quebec sovereigntists repeatedly blackmailed Ottawa over an extended period when the baby-boom generation was flooding the job market. The blackmailing, in combination with a perceived need to accommodate all the new job seekers, brought on a rash of subsidies and benefits and pseudo-employment that changed the character of our governance. Led by Quebec, Canada was transformed into a parasitic, underachieving welfare state that violated the intent of our founding fathers.
We’re the bloated society, the author maintains. Been that way for nearly half a century. The good news is that with the clout of left-leaning Quebec diminishing as the power shifts westward, and with the baby-boom era passing on, we will probably be freed from government’s shackles. Unemployment will no longer be a problem. The welfare state will accordingly shrink. We will return to our pre-1960 market glories.
Crowley, founding president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, is a direct descendant of the survival-of-the-fittest school. Send everybody out onto the free-market tundra, let them beat the daylights out of one another, weed out the strong from the weak – and watch that GDP soar!
But while his book faithfully trots out all the familiar economic and family-values arguments of the right, Crowley is not just another Ayn Rand in trousers. In Fearful Symmetry, he has developed a credible and somewhat original take on Canada’s latter-day evolution that is cogent and, in good part, persuasive. Just as you’re preparing to drive a fleet of trucks through any one of his many eye-popping postulates, he comes at you with a flurry of convincing statistics and well-documented overtures that have you pressing, as good books should, your rethink button.
“ Crowley’s portrait of Quebec, undergirded with a plethora of studies and stats, is excoriating ”
He divides his story into welfare-state takers and private-sector makers. The big-time takers were indolent Quebeckers who demanded and soaked up government largesse like sponges and who, the author boldly asserts, would have been far better off without the Quiet Revolution.
“Far from being a model that has secured the economic success of Quebec, Quebec Inc. has created the conditions in which people and capital have fled the province, in which population renewal through both births and immigration has faltered … in which powerful and essentially parasitic interest groups organize to capture large benefits from the bloated Quebec state while spreading the costs over not just the entire society of Quebec but the entire country of Canada.”
Crowley’s portrait of Quebec, undergirded with a plethora of studies and stats, is excoriating. Quebec is a province where the work ethic has been destroyed, where pseudo-work and massive welfare programs predominate, where productivity is lame, where out-migration has crippled economic growth, where common-law unions, lone-parent families, divorce rates and suicide rates are uncommonly high, as is the stress level of its citizenry.
Because Ottawa was afraid to stand up to the separatist threat, it succumbed to almost each and every demand. With appeasement came an overdose of statism. If Quebec was getting the booty, other provinces, with the exploding demands of baby boomers, had to get it too. If failing steel and fish and pulp-and-paper plants had to be propped up in Quebec, they had to be propped up in other parts of the country.
Bigger government has been the general trend in North America and elsewhere since the Great Depression. But while recognizing this, Crowley contends that it is the separatist/ baby-boom dynamic that was the principal factor in the great expanse of Ottawa’s waistline.
He makes the case that in sapping the work ethic, oversized government has had a corrosive effect on the Canadian family unit, leading to increasing divorce rates, a diminishing birth rate and other social ills.
With some selective quotes from the likes of Wilfrid Laurier and Charles Tupper, Crowley thinly argues that our forefathers envisaged a society in which, much like that of the Americans, the laissez-faire ethic would be far more preponderant. In the 19th century, the complexities of the modern-day Canada could hardly be contemplated by the figures he cites.
As well, Crowley should have paid more heed to a range of other factors such as the impact of the United Empire Loyalists, who came here in large numbers, and to our aboriginal peoples, who were trying to nurture – see John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country – a collectivist society.
His sense that the decline of the influence of Quebec and the big drop-off in job seekers owing to baby-boomer retirements will see Canada revert to a pre-1960s culture seems extravagantly wishful. Increased immigration could, though he doubts this, fill many of the needs of the job market.
The book isn’t particularly well-timed. Owing to the excesses of the market – the deregulation-induced recession, the need for bailouts, the obscene executive compensations – it is the public sector that is in the vanguard now. A counterargument that we may, in fact, have benefited from greater public-sector regulation and vigilance could be made – and has been made in Mel Hurtig’s The Truth About Canada.
Nevertheless, Fearful Symmetry is an audacious, provocative and impressively researched volume. In setting out a new way of looking at the country’s development, it will open more eyes than it closes.