on December 15, 2009
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.
on January 26, 2010
This is an audacious and striking counter-cultural work that hopefully will shake up our moribund political climate. It is easily one of the most thought-provoking and easy-reading intellectualizations of Canadian society to appear in the past decade.
If like me you were born at the tail end of the baby boom you have grown up with the common wisdom that Canada has historically been a more center-left progressive state than the United States. However, in Fearful Symmetry Brian Lee Crowley presents substantial evidence to the contrary with an inventive mix of historical record and cogent analysis of present day ills.
Crowley argues that Canada until the latter half of the 20th Century was clearly a centre-right country whose founders and leaders put a clear emphasis on the values of both "liberty" and "freedom." It was only during the latter half of the 20th century, he argues, that Canada, in its life and death battle for survival with a surging separatist Quebec nationalism that Canada's leaders discarded these values, in a headlong competition with the Quebec state to massively expand and demonstrate the value of "Canada" to the Quebec populace. An unintended consequence of this expansion in Quebec brought massive statism and big government to the rest of Canada as well. The grave consequences of this were manifested in the stagflation of the 1970s and the current huge government apparatus, which crept into and then ran, across the country.
To prove his argument Cowley frequently quotes many leading Canadian Prime Ministers - particularly the classically liberal first French Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier - who said "Canada is Free and Freedom is its nationality." As well he notes a 1957 quote by Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent that: "Any ideas of non-essential interference by the Government is repugnant to the Liberal Party.".
Obviously something significant has happened to the values of the Liberal Party and for those of Canadians as a whole between 1957 and now - when the above statement seems incredible.
One thing that runs through this work is the author's belief in the transformative power of vocation and the self-respect gained by work of any kind. To further confound his critics Lee Crowley boldly cites the workfare like policies of the Saskatchewan CCF under Tommy Douglas.
I have often wondered what happened to those British symbols of the Queen and the Union Jack that were so prominent in my grade school growing up in small town central Ontario, singing "God Save the Queen" every morning and celebrating Dominion Day every July 1st. To Lee Crowley these vestiges of our heritage were collateral damage in a poorly executed counter attack by political elites in English Canada against Quebec separatism. With these core symbols jettisoned Canadian traditions of independence, self reliance and personal responsibility soon eroded. The Trudeau era was the culmination of this transformation.
Lee Crowley goes beyond economic policy and devotes a significant part of the book discussing the role and the value of the family and the cause and effect of anti-family policies and the negative impact this has on Canada's future supply of workers. Taking off were Brian Foote led us in his ground-breaking work "Boom, Bust and Echo", Lee Crowley argues that the impending, massive, shortage of workers, and the huge resources needed to support the baby boomers in their retirement years will incline Canadians to end their futile indulgence of Big Government and return to a emphasis on small government and a ruthless focus on creating wealth, which will be the only way to productively support such a large retired population on a relatively very small number of productive workers.
Certainly, Brian Lee Crowley has done a significant job in bringing forward these arguments so clearly. I strongly recommend this work for the deft way its author brings together current concepts of property rights, reworking and re-understanding Confederation in a distinctly counter-cultural way from the left-center consensus that now reigns in Ottawa and among our major media institutions.