The Great Degeneration – Ferguson 2

The state of politics – is the West in decline?

Those in North America and Europe observe daily the malfunctioning of their political, judicial and military institutions. The inability of members of the US Congress to compromise on policies to address outstanding fiscal and other problems is front and center in the media and online. Public disapproval of Congress is at record levels and yet those elected refuse to respond. Some argue that the checks and balances built into the US constitution are working. Maybe, but the results are harmful.

I find that one of the best sources of commentary on the US political system is Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, which with the aid of a brilliant set of researchers, exposes the malfunctioning of its institutions. A recent report showed an annual number of 26,000 cases of sexual assault and rapes in the US military (of which more than half were cases of abused males) and less than 1% of which were prosecuted. Numerous other examples are exposed by this program.

A question for Canadians is whether similar conditions of political paralysis are evident in Canada. Here, the system is different and while there are problems they seem less severe. With a majority government elected by a first past the post system, the government can do pretty much what it wants until the next election. One issue is whether it can do too much.

Power has flowed increasingly to the Prime Minister and his office where legislation is formulated. Providing the PM has the support of both his cabinet colleagues and party caucus, he or she faces little opposition. The unelected Senate can make minor changes to legislation and the courts can rule in certain cases. Rather than paralysis, this suggests more dictator-like powers, at least until the next election.

The first past the post system means that a majority government can be elected with under 40% of the popular vote. The present Conservative government shows signs of caucus unrest as the next election approaches. In a previous Conservative government (Diefenbaker in the 1960s), it was a divided caucus which upset the government. In contrast, when Mulroney was PM, he kept in close touch with the party caucus – his defeat came for other reasons.

The defeated parties and special interest groups like the Greens argue for changing to a system of proportional representation (PR). If 40% gives a party a majority government opponents argue that 60% voted against the government, say for Liberals, NDP and Greens. That’s a silly comment, since a similar argument could say that if 25% voted for the Liberals, then 75% voted against them. I would support a revised system (preferential balloting) where a candidate had to get 50% of the votes in the riding. Note that when referenda were held in Ontario and BC, the proposal for PR was defeated.

A problematic feature of the Canadian political system is deciding on the location of responsibility at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. Many costly activities are the responsibility of provincial (healthcare and education) and municipal (policing) governments, while the federal government collects a large chunk of tax revenues. Negotiations are often intense, but solutions usually found, sometimes with threats of declaring separation by some provinces.

On the whole, I don’t see the Canadian political system as suffering to the same extent as the US, although it may well be adversely affected by its neighbor, for example over trade and border issues.


I superficially looked at whether Oswald Spengler’s 1918 “Decline of the West” dealt with similar issues raised by Niall Ferguson in “Degeneration.”Although Spengler deals with a similar general topic, its approach differs, being written by a philosopher as opposed to an historian. I was struck by the Spengler’s emphasis on geographic boundaries to discuss the rise and fall of past civilizations. With Ferguson’s “Degeneration”, one difference to-day is that globalization means the dissolution or weakening of national boundaries for many types of activity, and in some instances a merging of east, west, north and south. One issue is why have particular countries and regions flourished and declined in the past, and are similar or different forces at work today. It would take an historian not an economist to attempt to answer this question.


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