The U.S. and Canada have little differences, but today, they are adding up fast

Posted on June 14, 2020 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion
June 12, 2020.   Sean Speer

One society is more dynamic and richer but less equal and a bit more chaotic. The other is fairer and more equal but less vital and a bit poorer. How do we judge which one is better?

New York — This week my wife and I crossed the Canada-U.S. border along with our poorly behaved beagle in order to return to the apartment in New York City where we were living for the six months prior to the coronavirus outbreak. We are both Canadian, and I work in Canada, but she has been working in New York. As my work is more portable, we’ve been spending much of our time in the United States, at least until the pandemic. We weren’t sure what to expect after the eventful 10 weeks or so since we had left the city.

Our time away was marked by the sharp dichotomies of American society. On one hand, the extraordinary race for a coronavirus vaccine has exhibited American dynamism, innovation and commercial zeal. On the other hand, the deadly mix of police brutality and sometimes violent protests have displayed the country’s inequities, polarization and volatility.

These inherent contradictions were evident prior to the crisis. Our experience in the U.S. has exposed us to the stubborn tensions within American society. But they seem especially acute in the confluence of events that are presently shaping history.

Now, I must preface these observations with two important points: first, the Canadian tendency to overstate our differences with the U.S. is usually more confusing than clarifying; and second, anti-Americanism is, in my view, one of the most unhealthy aspects of Canadian political life. The point here isn’t that Canada is profoundly different or better than the United States so much as the differences on the margins are more pronounced than I understood before we moved here.

Scholars such as Louis Hartz, Seymour Martin Lipset and Gad Horowitz have long sought to understand our “continental divide” (as was the title of Lipset’s 1989 book) and have usually turned to our separate founding stories as the basis for enduring cultural and political differences. One was founded in revolution; the other in counterrevolution. One celebrates individualism; the other prefers communitarianism. One subscribes to the boundlessness of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”; the other to the stability of “Peace, Order and Good Government.” As Hartz and Horowitz famously put it, the Canadian version of liberalism was marked by a “Tory touch” from the beginning.

I was familiar with, yet mostly dismissive of, these sociological depictions of Canadians and Americans. They seemed overwrought. They still do a bit. But my experience in New York City resonates with the title of Michael Ignatieff’s New York Times review of Lipset’s book: “minor differences mean a lot.”

These differences mostly come in the form of trade-offs situated at the nexus between politics and culture. They’re a matter of degree rather than fundamental principle. American society is tilted slightly more towards freedom than order. Canadian society tilts slightly in the other direction. Yet marginal differences on fundamental matters can add up.

The most powerful expression of their cumulative effect is this: Americans are richer overall, but the median Canadian household now earns more than its American peer. Research in fact shows that Canadian households in the bottom 56 per cent of the income distribution are better off than the same American households.

One society is more dynamic and richer but less equal and a bit more chaotic. The other is fairer and more equal but less vital and a bit poorer. How do we judge which one is better? Answering this is difficult because you don’t get an option to retain the parts you like and eschew the ones you don’t. They’re essentially two sides of the same coin.

There may even be a case that the United States’ eccentric mix of dynamism and inequality enables Canada and other countries to place a greater emphasis on stability and equality within their own jurisdictions. We get to ride on their capitalistic coattails so to speak.

Economist Tyler Cowen has argued, for instance, that the U.S. imports income inequality because its financial rewards make it a magnet for highly skilled immigrants who increase American inequality and in turn lower it in their home countries. Another example is drug costs where U.S. per capita spending is 50 per cent higher than in Canada in part because American consumers cross-subsidize pharmaceutical innovation on behalf of us and others around the world. If the U.S. chose to suddenly become more egalitarian, it might require the rest of us to confront our own trade-offs in a way that we may not like.

This is by no means a call for fatalism or a diminishment of the challenges facing our countries. Instead it’s a recognition that our societies are shaped to a certain extent by assumptions and preferences that are hard-wired into our laws and culture. I’ve seen it in my own personal experiences. Continental differences have persisted for a reason. And they seem even more profound in the past several weeks.

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Sean Speer: The U.S. and Canada have little differences, but today, they are adding up fast

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