Winter 2006 - Volume 9 Number 1
|Reviews||Competing against America: Why Canada Has Fallen Behind in the Race for Talent and Wealth (and What to Do about It)
Mississauga: John Wiley & Sons Canada, 2005
In the 1960s, some people marveled at the ease with which mighty US recording companies invested in “protest” singers whose ostensible purpose was to bring racist, capitalist, imperialist society to its knees or, at the very least, to corrupt the manners and morals of its youth. What once caused Socrates to drink hemlock in stuffy old Athens was now being promoted by some of the finest marketing minds of the day. Those who understood popular culture better were not worried. Woody Guthrie’s aspirations to the contrary, guitars (even electric guitars) were not weapons of revolution. Neither are books about business, even when their advertised purpose is allegedly to promote competition “against” America. That such a commodity should be put out by an American branch-plant publisher should surprise no one. Its true purpose, as should soon be plain, is not competition against but ideological integration with the USA.
Normally, I shy away from books about business. They are usually poorly written, self-congratulatory and triumphalist. They commonly tell the personal story of some captain of industry who has overcome great odds to become filthy rich, or they review some major reorientation of the processes of production and distribution to show how some new technology has overwhelmed an obsolete competition, or they provide ideological justification for some new organizational strategy that is about to change working life forever. Such volumes are tiresome.
Occasionally, however, a book appears that seeks to do more than pat the corporate sector on the back; it actually tries to relate business practice to larger social and political themes. Competing with America is such a book.
Its author, Michael Alexander, is a lawyer who has been an advisor to Canadian governments (and particularly to CSIS), who considers himself an expert in “wealth management issues,” who and regularly chats to major investment institutions such as Manulife, Investors Group and Scotia-McLeod. He is a man with a message.
This is it: Canada is missing the opportunity to maintain or improve its standard of living. This can be seen in the way and to the degree that it fails to match the economic record of its southern neighbour. What is the problem? It is the Canadian addiction to bad ideas and bad policies. What are the bad policies? They are “multiculturalism, pay equity, employment equity, deficit spending and regional equalization.” Each gets its comeuppance.
The purpose of these initiatives, according to Alexander, might have been well-intentionedcreating a “level playing field,” equality of opportunity, and the like. The results, however, have been disastrous. They tend toward “equality of result,” which sounds awfully like the “equality of condition” that was the utopian goal of people like Karl Marx in the 19th century and Gerard Winstanley and the “Levellers” in the 17th century. In a word, it sounds like “communism.”
The virtues of this book include its clarity of expression and simple (not to say simplistic) organization. It proceeds from step to step in a purposeful process of demythologizing the Canadian political economy and the ideology that sustain it.
He begins by explaining that Canada isn’t what it is cracked up to be. Despite being positioned near the top of the UN index of best countries in which to live, Alexander tells us that we are neither a prosperous nor a productive society. Our relative economic weakness derives from our having abandoned the thoughts of great liberal democratic thinkers including Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Kant, de Tocqueville, J. S. Mill and the American Federalists. Alexander tells us he looks to these titans for “guidance.” He has picked quite a group from which to claim a pedigree.
What do these luminaries tell us to do? Invest!
Invest in research and development. Invest in postsecondary education, especially in business schools. And invest in ourselves by becoming more entrepreneurial, seeking out global markets, enhancing the opportunities for recent immigrants, 40% of whom, he tells us, have university degrees but who are underemployed in Canada’s declining economy. Of special concern is Canada’s relationship with the United States. Only Ontario, he claims, has an “open economy,” which means shipping a lot of goods to the United States. Other provinces, especially the Atlantic provinces, the Prairies and British Columbia are derelict in their duty to export (which should come as a bit of a surprise to the oil industry in Alberta).
The trouble with Canada is not an absence of clever people who are willing to work hard and achieve results. We have plenty of go-getters. The trouble is that they are held down by a political culture that promotes failure. We have a horrible tendency to use government resources, taxpayers dollars and public employees’ time to promote consumption (i.e., expenditures on people) when we should be reducing taxes, reducing government and promoting investment in private enterprise.
This economic problem is compounded by all sorts of wrong-headed interventions in society. Multiculturalism, for example, started as an arguably benign program of promoting ethnic cultural festivals, but it has turned into a program of imposed employment quotas and has resulted in increased social conflict, a useless emphasis on foreign language skills and an frontal assault on freedom of speech (political correctness is always a malevolence of last resort).
Other misguided attempts to fashion a “just society” such as equal pay for work of equal value were promoted by “feminists” who pretty much invented the false notion of a “wage gap” and forced governments to impose “the costly burden of pay equity legislation.” Alexander, of course, stops short of saying that there is men’s work and there is women’s work and the apparent inequity comes from a false comparison between the two since women’s work is naturally less skilled and merits less pay. He does, however, come close.
Moving from sociology and economics to political theory, Alexander drapes himself in the venerable robes of John Locke. It was Locke, he says, who liberated us from “false claims about justice that had been foisted on societies since the time of the ancient Greeks.” Locke’s great contribution was the rejection of “the traditional notion that justice consists of taking care of others before taking care of oneself.” We are fools to look to the community for help and for helping the community. No one ever got rich by studying “the practices of aboriginal peoples living in isolation to determine how to organize ourselves in civil society.” What did Locke offer us, and what have we foolishly failed to enshrine? Property rights!
We have betrayed our authentic liberal heritage and have sold ourselves on the hogwash of big government, social welfare and indigence. We have done so in part because we fail to understand our own history, including that of the United Empire Loyalists who, Alexander insists, did not have the kind of “organic” view of society that later spawned Canadian socialism and, even if they did, they were quickly overwhelmed by other American immigrants who were not thus corrupted. He states that, 1812, only 20% of Upper Canada’s population were Loyalist and the other 80% were American immigrants of a much different sort (what black hole people of English, Irish and Scottish heritage dropped down remains an open question).
Old-fashioned colonial toryism and inchoate socialism have apparently hobbled us. The worst of all of Alexander’s fears takes the form of compassion for all those in alleged need. Special privileges for women and ethnic groups are bad enough, but the principle that everyone should be entitled to economic benefits based on their mere status as citizens (or maybe even as human beings) rather than their merit as producers is far worse. What is more, the bill for supporting these ne’er-do-wells is simply unaffordable. Deficit spending is never to be applauded, but it is to be ruthlessly condemned when it goes to those who promote Employment Insurance (“essentially … a welfare scheme”), pension increases that exceed the rate of inflation, and so on.
The answer? American society may be more unequal, but it is also more productive. They tax less, so people have more to spend. They invest in education and urban infrastructure rather than spending on the sick and the poor. This, it seems, is a good thing. (The fact that the US spends almost twice the proportion of its gross domestic product for a private health care system that ignores millions of its citizens than Canada does for its public, universal system is conveniently overlooked; in “fact,” many of Alexander’s “facts” are, to be generous, stilted). The “strange paradox of the compassion debate,” he says, “is that Americans have more to spend on the disadvantaged” through, I suppose, private charities, than we do by encouraging the lowly among us to feed at the public trough. Moreover, he adds, if it were not for America courageously shouldering the “stupendous cost of the war on terror,” they could “easily afford a Canadian-style social agenda” but, we may rest assured, they are probably too smart to do that.
Rarely have I seen a book as good as this, for the sort of book it is. And what sort of book is it? It is one that would provide solace to Canadians who are convinced that we are soft and bloated, lazy and defeatist, relativist and postmodernist, and generally incapable of transforming our talents into success by way of energy and entrepreneurship. It is a rallying call for anyone who chooses to resist the temptation of moving to the USA (the so-called “brain drain”) and who prefers to set about the task of reforming Canada on good old 18th century principles. Stephen Harper would be pleased, and the rest of us now have a competently written right-wing manifesto upon which to focus and, if we are wise, to refute.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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