The Haves and the Have-Nots: The United States vs. Canada

Why is the gap between the rich and the poor greater in the United States than it is in Canada? What can be achieved by considering the differences? What is truly at stake with income inequality? Author John Harles considers these questions in the newly-published Seeking Equality: The Political Economy of the Common Good in the United States and Canada. Below, he summarizes his goals for the book and offers some great inspiration for why this kind of comparative study is necessary.  

That a book will find a wide and enthusiastic audience may be every author’s conceit. But I’m tempted to think Seeking Equality: The Political Economy of the Common Good in the United States and Canada has a chance. The timeliness of the topic is the first thing to recommend it. Among rich democratic countries, over the last forty years or so a rapidly growing gap between the haves and the have-nots has pushed economic inequality toward the top of the public agenda. The Occupy Movement, with its rallying cry that “we are the 99%,” was an initial and conspicuous expression of this concern, but it’s far from the only one. From Pope Francis to Barack Obama to Christine Lagarde, global opinion leaders have identified inequality as one of the defining challenges of our time. Social scientists supply the confirmatory evidence—most famously Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose book on the rise of the super-rich, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, was the surprise bestseller of 2013. Yet such testimony aside, the issue of economic inequality resonates because it touches concretely on the ability of ordinary people to live fulfilling lives. And insofar as material disparities typically translate into differences of political power, the prospects for a democratic and just political order are in play as well.

As an American political scientist, I’m particularly interested in the implications of inequality for the United States. Seeking Equality takes an explicitly comparative approach to that concern. In comparative terms the irony of US political economy comes into sharper resolution: a country that prides itself on the promise of equal opportunity and well-being—indeed, which has a name for it, the “American Dream”—but which has a more unequal distribution of income and wealth than any of its rich democratic peers as well as one of the lowest rates of upward economic mobility. And it’s by comparing the American experience of inequality to other advanced industrial countries that one realizes there are alternative models of political economy on offer, that the US distributional status quo isn’t destiny.

Given the many political similarities between neighbors who share a border and most of a continent, in this relative weighing up Canada is America’s natural foil. According to, say, Nordic European benchmarks Canada may not be a paragon of egalitarian virtue, yet by every standard measure of distributive equality—income, wealth, middle class well-being, the poverty rate, and especially upward mobility—Canada does much better than the United States. Why has Canada has been able to achieve what the United States has not? As Seeking Equality relates, the answer has cultural, institutional, and policy-specific dimensions. But a common denominator is that Canadians are more open than Americans to the ideal of material equality and to an activist state whose interventions aspire to produce it. So, for those Americans who think a little more equality would be a good idea, Canada offers important civic lessons—not least about the convictions that underwrite a more satisfying and equitable economic future.

Seeking Equality details the key differences in economic distribution and mobility between Canada and the United States and carefully considers the discrete values that drive them. In that respect, students of North American political economy may find it a rich and useful empirical resource. (And since no specialized knowledge of economic statistics is required, an accessible one too.) But to leave things there would have been unsatisfying. The reason why economic inequality is a focus of such intense public discussion is because conditions of human dignity are at issue, including the self-respect that comes from having sufficient resources to pursue a meaningful life of one’s own choosing. When the stakes are this high, political inquiry necessarily turns to the requirements of a good life as well as the proper functioning of the state whose mandate is to secure it. At the heart of any thorough consideration of economic inequality, then, must be a defense of the value of equality itself.

In the last third of the book I try to make this normative case for equality, arguing that a more productive, healthy, cohesive, democratic, and just society requires liberal-democratic polities to move in an egalitarian direction—and why economic markets are no substitute for a purposeful government to that end. In the conclusion I sketch a way forward for the United States, specifying the kinds of measures conducive to a widely shared prosperity, and using Canada as a template for what might be achieved. My intention is to make Seeking Equality a book with which readers must wrestle, one whose central claims demand a response—the kind of book that over thirty years of university teaching persuades me students like to read.

Ultimately, compelling work in politics and economics must be able to pass the “so what?” test: How are what we study, the things we discover, and the conclusions we draw relevant to the average citizen? How do they bear on the substance of the life we share? Or again, with respect to more immediate concerns, why is a yawning chasm between the very rich and the rest cause for civic anxiety… and what can be done about it? At the end of this book, I hope readers will know.

John Harles is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Messiah College.


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