Sunday, 26 June 2011

National Review Praises Canada in Most Surprising Way


Reading the latest issue of National Review, I was surprised to find an article that actually praised Canada’s governmental system. I wonder if Hell has frozen over, or if air-traffic controllers will be writing reports of flying pigs anytime soon…?

Sure, the author Kevin D Williamson starts off with quite an offensive (by now totally cliché) paragraph about Canada, so it’s not like conservatives have totally changed their stripes:

“Canada is a weird cold semisocialist backwater pockmarked with Francophonic hostility and saddled with a ridiculous monarchy, a national wheat monopoly, and the pinko health-care system that Barack Obama really, really wants deep down inside. It’s basically a sprawling, low ambition Sweden with a miniature France growing like an udder out of its soft underbelly.” (p.18)

Williamson points out that Canada has effectively cut its national debt in half over the course of the past 15 years, and the government has run surpluses between 1998 and 2008. Unemployment peaked at 8.7% in the current recession, but it’s on the move downwards (7.4% in May).

“Our guys, our crazy right-wing free enterprise limited-government bootstraps Republican guys, don’t give us surpluses—they give us deficits. If you run a deficit, the question isn’t how much you tax, but how much you spend—because, as I am confident the ghost of John Calvin has finally hammered into the ghost of Jack Kemp, all debts eventually must be paid. Hu Jintao is going to get paid. And there’s where the U.S.-Canada thing gets a little counterintuitive: We’re basically the same on the spending front.” (p.19)


So why are things so different? Is it just a matter of different characteristics and national political desires of the countries’ citizens? After all, whenever something “pinko” is brought into the United States, people seem to rather like it – see Medicare, Massachusetts’s healthcare system, and so on. (Williamson says this is a typical Anglo-Protestant thing, the will and desire to sponge off the government.)

“Canada has a very big national government and relatively small provincial and municipal governments… The United States has a morbidly obese Leviathan spilling its federal muffin-top over the borders of the District of Columbia into three other states, and ravenous state and local governments, too. It about equals out, in terms of spending.”

“This is where your annoying Euro-lefty friend says: And at least the Canadians get something for it. And, as much as it hurts to write this, Moonbeam has a point. Canada has honest government (more honest than ours, Heritage finds) and transparent institutions that work. As welfare states go, Canada’s is pretty well run. (It does not follow that similar institutions would work well in the United States.)” (p.19)

It’s an interesting comparison, but what really strikes me is the part of the second paragraph that I’ve added emphasis to. Effectively, the author is saying that the Canadians are able to run government institutions efficiently and transparently, whereas the United States is incapable of doing the same. This is quite the indictment of his own country – admittedly backed up by a fair amount of evidence from both Republican and Democratic administrations – but instead of taking a more critical look at how it is that Canadians are able to be efficient, honest and, you know, do their jobs when it comes to government-provided services, Williamson moves quickly on. This, I thought, was an opportunity lost to be properly critical of the inherent corruption and stupidity that exists in Washington, DC.

I must be becoming incredibly cynical about the US conservative press. I initially thought Williamson’s next argument was another example of the argument that it is because of freeloading off US defence spending that Canada’s nanny-state is so successful (let’s ignore the fact that in Massachusetts, where a “pinko”-style healthcare system is in place, covering pretty much everyone and they’re all rather happy with it, thank you very much). But the author doesn’t conclude this argument in the typical way:

“No sense in our being bitter about all that: It’s not like Justin Bieber talked us into fighting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, and Yemen at the same time… in the main, Canada has thrived in the past 15 years or so mostly because it has been disciplined and thrifty.” (p.20)

Williamson then goes on to write some more things I never expected to read in the National Review:

“it was the center-left that balanced the budget, not the Conservatives. It wasn’t because they wanted to—as the debt piled up, interest rates went thermonuclear. Nobody loved them for balancing the budget… If all it takes is a left-wing government and a fiscal crisis, maybe there’s hope for us still.” (p.20)

Williamson makes an interesting point, but fails to mention something else: in the United States, the only president for decades to bring government spending under control was a Democrat (Bill Clinton), and the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush made a habit of spending an absolute ton of money (especially Reagan and Bush Jnr.).

Apart from the typical “jokes” and snide remarks about Canada and Canadians – which, given the economic security of Canada and the fiscal mess that is the United States, looks ever-more like a big brother pissed off that the little brother’s doing so much better than him – Williamson appears to be arguing for leftist politics. He picks up on the level of Canadian taxes (32.2% of GDP, compared to US 26.9% of GDP), but doesn’t attempt to turn this into an argument against high taxes (how could he, really?), but equally doesn’t attempt to suggest that maybe raising taxes just a little in the United States might help with America’s current situation. Oh no, that would be conservative blasphemy of the highest order.

A surprising article from a conservative magazine, one that brings to mind William Buckley’s more reasoned approach to politics. That being said, the author’s unwillingness to consider how these observations might be applied to American politics is disappointing. He seems to be saying that the US and Canadian governments are just so different that there’s no point in trying to compare their policies – which seems more an excuse not to consider the potential benefit of liberal principles (i.e. raising taxes to reduce the deficit) to the United States and its government.

(The article also exhibits the sad fact that, when it comes to discussing other countries, the US is seriously in need of more jokes. The same goes for the UK – come on, America, at least try to write some new material about the rest of the English-speaking world, and stop peddling the same, tired stuff that I suspect even Americans don’t find particularly funny anymore. Even your best comedians, who write great stuff about America, politics and observational comedy, just churn out the same guff about the UK and Canada. What happened to innovation? Admittedly, I’m disappointed in many British comedians, too, for being equally boring when it comes to commenting on the US.)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the mention.

    I wouldn't say that I'm arguing for "leftist" politics. I don't think that raising taxes to meet spending, rather than running deficits, is "leftist." Given a choice, I'd cut both taxes and spending down to something like 5 percent of GDP. But if you're going to spend 30-odd percent of GDP, then you probably should raise taxes to pay for it, rather than paying through debt, which only defers taxes and adds interest.

    Kevin D. Williamson