Fearful Symmetry: The Fall and Rise of Canada's Founding Values was published in September 2009. The author, Brian Crowley, is an economist and founding president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
I should mention Crowley is a free-market economist, which will cause some potential readers to raise a suspicious brow reflexively. In the book's foreword, Andrew Coyne says Crowley started a PhD at the London School of Economics bent on debunking Friedrich Hayek, one of the great economists of the Austrian School. "But in the course of his research," remarks Coyne, "[Crowley] had found himself first unable to answer [Hayek's] arguments, and at last persuaded by them. In a word, he had become a convert." (p. 11)
The book takes its title from a phrase found in William Blake's poem, The Tyger. According to one source, the fearful symmetry of the tiger in Blake's poem speaks to the juxtaposition of opposites: the perfect beauty and perfect destruction of the animal (which, of course, symbolizes more abstract concepts).
The uniqueness of Crowley's book is not the title. A simple search of Wikipedia reveals that "fearful symmetry" has become a catch phrase for various works in the music, film, and publishing industries. No, the memorable feature of this book will be not the title though it is a very fitting summary of the content.
According to Crowley there is an Old Canada (Confederation-1950s) and a New Canada (1960s-present). The Old Canada is a making state, characterized by small and limited government, personal independence, personal responsibility, commitment to the family as the most important social institution, and productive citizens of strong character and work ethic. By contrast, the New Canada is a taking state, characterized by big government, rent-seeking, personal dependence on social assistance programs, the breakdown of the family structure, and a large proportion of unproductive citizens.
One side to the fearful symmetry is the New Canada. Crowley argues that two forces have reshaped Canada's identity from Old to New Canada: demographic change seen in the entry of the Baby Boomers to the labor force and the rise of Quebec nationalism. Fearing the private sector's inability to absorb the large influx of workers, the government abandoned traditional values by enlarging the public service, creating pseudo-work for Canadians, spending heavily on social assistance programs, engaging in massive wealth transfers among the provinces, etc. At this time millenarian nationalism, as Crowley calls it, also arose and set off a bidding war between Ottawa and Quebec for the allegiance of Quebeckers.
The second side to the fearful symmetry is the Old Canada. It will replace the New Canada for the same reasons that led to its original demise: demographic change and Quebec nationalism. Canada's fertility rate is not high enough to replace it's aging population, thus there will be a huge labor shortage in coming years unabated by immigration. This will not allow big government to sustain itself, leading to a smaller government. Also, Quebec nationalism is waning and, hopefully, the associated rent-seeking. (Crowley calls it PUPPETRY, an acronym for People Using Political Power to Enrich Themselves by plundeRing You.) These forces, it is predicted, will necessitate the nation's return to traditional values of individualism and skepticism of the state.
Crowley's book is a valuable contribution for many reasons. For starters, the reader will quickly realize that Canada's traditional identity is at odds with the official view. The official view portrays Canada as a natural welfare state that is kinder and gentler than its neighbor to the south. This view is easily shown to be historical revisionism.
The book is also valuable for the data presented in its 300 pages, which buttress Crowley's fearful symmetry. He makes a compelling case for his thesis. And the solutions he proposes may be what is needed. Crowley believes the government needs to shrink in size and where its presence is necessary, policies need to be adopted that actually reward people for doing the "right things" (working, having families, etc.).
If the reader gives Fearful Symmetry a fair shake, I believe it will change his/her view of Canada for the better. It may even persuade the reader that the best government is a making state, not a taking state. If it succeeds on this latter point, it will be due to the evidence presented, not because of an overbearing free-market ideology (though I would have no problem with it).
Despite my praise for Crowley's work, I do have a few criticisms. For example, I think the content of the book is worthy of a wide readership. Unfortunately, I don't think the book is in a format, which will allow the book to reach its potential audience. The book is 300 pages of text - text largely about numbers - without a single graph or figure. Absolutely puzzling. On page 265, for example, Crowley describes age pyramids and the difference between Canada's and the United States' age pyramids. Says Crowley, "Our pyramid is shaped like a vase: narrow at the bottom, because we have too few children, wide at the shoulders, where the 40- to 70-year-olds are concentrated. The American pyramid, by contrast, is almost cylindrical..." Why not illustrate this graphically? So simple and so effective.
Another criticism is the writing. It's not particularly strong in my opinion. Frequently, I came across sentences like, "The evidence equally strongly supported the proposition..." (p. 204) Being in research, I understand this phraseology, but it is poor grammar. Chapter 6, "Family and the Audacity of Love," reads like a never-ending Statistics Canada report and there are other little things that seem to have gotten past the editor (e.g., the breakdown of immigrants by category on page 221 adds up to 101%, which is no doubt due to a rounding error).
Although there's roughly 40 pages of footnotes and 20 pages of bibliographic references, there's no topical index to the book. Again, puzzling.
Finally, the book seemed to really drag in the final 100 pages. I felt like I was largely being given earlier information all over again. I think the book could be edited down to somewhere between 200-250 pages.
Minor criticisms aside, this book deserves to be read by Canadians who care about the past, present, and future of their country.