Ideological Nuances Created Distinct North American Welfare States

by astanhaus

Originally submitted for an independent research project comparing North America’s welfare states with Professor Antonia Maioni at McGill University.

For the former colonies of British North America, the American Revolution was a watershed for current Canadian and American identity. The United States celebrates the people’s revolution, the heroic founding fathers overthrowing an oppressive state, and the creation of an original government structure; Canada lacks similar national heroes and myths, instead commemorating defeat and a long struggle to preserve the British Monarchy.[1] Canada’s loyalty to the Crown and Britain’s Tory tradition has made Canada a more law-abiding, statist, and collectively-oriented society than the U.S..[2] Meanwhile, the U.S.’s foundation in Whig tradition emphasizes individualism and meritocracy, which were central to the Declaration of Independence and continually reinforced throughout American history.[3] While a comparison of North America’s welfare states to other OECD nations will show them to be similar liberal welfare states, Banting notes the ability of Canadian social policy to distinguish itself from the U.S. has immense political significance.[4] Stemming from revolutionary and counterrevolutionary ideologies, unique values and forms of federalism shape the policies of North America’s welfare states.

The revolutionaries were Whigs, while the counterrevolutionaries were Tories; this divergence has distinguished the American value system from the Canadian one. Despite divergent ideologies, their strong resemblance is a product of their joint origins as a liberal settler society.[5] However, America’s checks & balances system reflects its anti-statist tradition, meanwhile Canada’s parliamentary system allows for unchecked power comparable to an absolute monarch.[6] The Dominion of Canada was created by Tories protecting themselves from American territorial expansion, and Lipset notes that the conservative Tory value of collective rights has motivated Canada’s contemporary support for social democratic redistributive and welfare policies.[7] The U.S.’s laissez-faire Lockean tradition is incompatible with such programs, as this stresses individual responsibility.[8] While North America’s countries seem similar, it is their nuanced revolutionary and counterrevolutionary ideologies that contribute to drastic differences in social policy.

The divergent ideologies shaped their values, which determine support for social policies. Adams notes that Americans are more extreme in their views of patriarchy, gender, family organization, religion, and openness to violence, while Canadians tend toward moderation.[9] Accordingly, Adams describes that “[Canadians] have moved away from traditional religion, questioned traditional family models and generally have become a less hierarchical, more flexible people.”[10] Adams concludes that “this ‘heterarchical’ flexibility… is manifested in many ways, from increased acceptance of flexible gender identities …to the changes in workplace dynamics and the management of human resources.”[11] Moderation has influenced the Canadian view of the liberal tenet of individual responsibility, compared to their southern neighbors; “[Americans] are more likely than Canadians to feel that people should be given a chance to make something of themselves but that if they fail, it is their own responsibility, not that of society or of the government. By contrast, the somewhat greater strength in Canada of the belief that a person’s life is not necessarily subject to his or her control.”[12] Canadians value collective rights and believe it is appropriate to use state power to intervene in the market to benefit the common good.[13] The contrast of America’s individual responsibility to Canada’s collective responsibility is clearly seen in health policy. Evans succinctly notes “in Canada the primary source of funding depends upon the type of benefit; in the United States it depends upon the characteristics of the beneficiary.”[14] Individual responsibility motivates America’s welfare provisions that incentivize changing the recipients’ behavior; there is no equivalent in Canada.[15] Absolutist Americans and moderate Canadians have created distinct welfare states.

Canada’s Westminster-inspired parliamentary federation is a stark contrast to the congressional federation of the U.S.. At the national level in the U.S., power is shared between the President and Congress, where weak party discipline further disperses power.[16] Banting describes the U.S.’s legislative process as painful, as it’s fragile and temporary coalitions make it probable “that any proposal will be delayed, diluted, or defeated.”[17] Banting describes Canada’s policy-making process as “more concentrated than in the United States, a difference that facilitated the development of social programs.”[18] Simeon explains Canada’s “fusion of executives and legislatures, combined with strong party discipline, renders both national and provincial governments much more centralized.”[19] Yet, while power is centralized at both the provincial and national level, it is decentralized across these levels of government.[20] Distinct regional politics, specifically Francophone Canadians concentrated in Quebec, have caused decentralized social policy, yet equalization transfers do not allow geographic variation in benefits; variation in benefits is characteristic of the American system.[21] The minority population of African-Americans are distributed throughout the U.S., without a strong majority in any region or state.[22] With African-Americans lacking adequate representation, Banting describes the racist policies of the Social Security Act of 1935, “resistance from southern congressmen and other conservatives led to the exclusion of agricultural and domestic labour, denying coverage to three-fifths of black workers. In addition, southern congressmen led a successful campaign in the name of ‘states’ rights’ against national standards in public assistance, leaving southern blacks at the mercy of the local authorities.”[23] Racism and regional politics, magnified by the unique federal systems of Canada and the U.S. have resulted in distinct social policy.

Stemming from the system’s separation of powers, American policymakers can buck party discipline and are inclined to please interest groups, which is infeasible in the Canadian system. Canadian policy makers can take bold action because its parliamentary federation lacks the checks & balances of a congressional federation.[24] Immergut describes how “veto points” are points all along a congressional federation’s chain of decisions to create legislation; interest groups can influence the legislation’s outcome by accessing the political representative at the “veto point” along the chain. [25] Harles describes America’s system teeming with veto points, “Americans are suspicious of political authority…accordingly, the American government is hedged with an impressive array of institutional devices meant sharply to curtail its authority. This fragmentation of power means that there are numerous access points in the American policy-making process…federal and state officials are freed from the strictest norms of  party discipline and thus highly susceptible to the solicitation of private citizens and groups.”[26] The fractured power of the American federal system creates numerous “veto points” for interest groups to impact social policy for their specific benefit.

Traditionally Tory, Canada has created a collectively responsible political culture and intervened in the market for society’s benefit. Traditionally Whig, the U.S. has stressed laissez-faire policy and created a welfare system to incentivize individual responsibility. Banting notes these ideological differences also shaped the two countries’ unique retrenchment policies, “cuts in the United States fell disproportionately on benefits for the poor, whereas Canadian cuts accelerated an historical trend of targeting benefits on such people.”[27] Embracing its liberal roots, Canada has taken a step to “Americanize itself,” with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms creating a more individualistic and litigious culture.[28] Canada’s bill of rights reflects its shared beginnings with America, as the British North American liberal immigrant society. North America’s shared heritage created very similar countries, but the nuances of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary ideologies created divergent welfare states.

[1]Seymour Martin Lipset, Continental Divide:The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada ( New York: Routledge, 1990), 1-2.

[2] Ibid, 8.

[3] Ibid.

[4]Keith G. Banting, “The Social Policy Divide: The Welfare State in Canada and the United States,” in Degrees of Freedom Canada and the United States in a Changing World,  eds. Keith G.Banting, Richard Simeon, and George Hoberg ( Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997), 267-8.

[5] Lipset, 212.

[6] Ibid, 20-21.

[7] Ibid, 43, 48 & 225.

[8] Ibid, 48 & 225.

[9] Michael Adams,“Canadian and American Values Divergences: The Narcissism of Small Differences?” in Canada and the United States:Differences That Count, eds. David M. Thomas and Barbara Boyle Torrey (Buffalo:Broadview Press, 2008), 46 &49.

[10]Ibid, 49.


[12]Lipset, 170.

[13] John Harles,“Welfare, Safety Nets, and Values, ” in Canada and the United States:Differences That Count, eds. David M. Thomas and Barbara Boyle Torrey (Buffalo:Broadview Press, 2008),  175 &178.

[14] Robert G. Evans, “Extravagant Americans, Healthier Canadians,”  in Canada and the United States:Differences That Count, eds. David M. Thomas and Barbara Boyle Torrey (Buffalo:Broadview Press, 2008), 141.

[15] Harles, 167 & 175.

[16] Richard Simeon, “Canada and the United States:Lessons from the North American Experience,” in Rethinking Federalism:Citizens, Markets, and Governments in a Changing World, eds.  Karen Knop et al (Vancouver:University of British Columbia Press, 1996), 250.

[17] Banting, 281.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Simeon, 250-251.

[20] Harles, 183.

[21] Ibid, 183 & 184.

[22] Simeon, 253.

[23] Banting, 276-277.

[24] Harles, 178.

[25] Ellen M. Immergut, “Institutions, Veto Points, and Policy Results: A Comparative Analysis of Health Care,” Journal of Public Policy 10, no. 4 (1990): 396.

[26]Harles, 176.

[27] Banting, 284.

[28] Lipset, 225.