Seeking Equality:

The Political Economy of the Common Good in the United States and Canada

By Alvin Finkel

by John Harles
University of Toronto Press
2017/$34.95/304 pp.

Left-leaning Canadian scholars often point to more redistributive Scandinavia to demonstrate that greater economic equality, achieved through government policies, benefits society at large. Political scientist John Harles presents a similar balance sheet for Canada versus the increasingly inegalitarian United States. He attributes the differences to conflicting sets of social values between the two countries. Harles shows convincingly that, despite Americans’ belief that their country offers opportunities to all strivers, they experience far less mobility than Canadians. Canadians have better chances of climbing the income scale during their lifetimes and a smaller chance of falling. It is more important for American babies to choose their parents well than Canadian babies, says Harles with tongue in cheek.

Part of the reason is that wealthy Americans are increasing their total national income share at a far higher rate than wealthy Canadians. Working Americans and the poor are experiencing stagnation in disposable incomes after taxes while Canadians of similar status continue to gain at least marginally.

The broader welfare state measures in Canada compared to the US contribute to these differences. So does the greater density of union membership in Canada, an important factor in reducing inequality. But I found unpersuasive Harles’s contention that more deeply rooted egalitarian values explain greater compassion in Canada. If he is correct, Canada should have led the US in developing its “welfare state.” Until at least the late 1950s, the Americans instead led the way. Under Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression, the Americans introduced unemployment insurance, employment-related pensions, federal support of poor families, ambitious state housing programs and national legal protections for collective bargaining. Canada followed tortoise-like.

That may have proved a blessing in disguise for Canadians, who slowly but steadily won the race. US trade unionists and left-leaning individuals alike chose to focus on the Democratic Party as their saviour, while Canadian trade unionists, without a New Deal to lure them to either old-line party, informally supported the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, whom they later joined to create the New Democratic Party (NDP). In the US the Democrats, without a party to their left to provide competition, did nothing as their southern wing joined forces with Republicans to limit further reforms. Though most Americans in 1945 wanted universal, single-payer medicare, and many were open to social ownership of industry, white Southern voters prioritized segregation and voted for plantation aristocrats despite their anti-worker policies. Canada’s Liberals also caved to their right wing’s desire for slothful introduction of social reforms until, faced with a parliamentary minority from 1963 to 1968 dependent on the NDP for survival, they left the Americans in the dust in the area of social reform.

If Harles is weak on the history of both his country and Canada, he is on a sure footing when he discusses the more recent past, in which Canada could serve as a model for the Americans. Indeed, Canadian readers of this text of many statistics may be surprised to learn how much better off the poor in our country are compared to the American poor. Our social programs have made a difference. But, as Michael Rachlis told a recent Friends of Medicare gathering, Canadians do themselves few favours by focusing on complacent comparisons with Americans. Why, he asked, would we want to only rival the currently least compassionate country in the developed world?

—Labour historian Alvin Finkel’s latest book is Compassion: A Global History of Social Policy (Red Globe Press, 2018).

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