Canada, Land of Smaller Government

From my friend Jason Clemens at the Pacific Research Institute, how Canada (sic.) is newly the land of smaller government. I don’t agree completely, as Canada has been the beneficiary of a massive, unpriced subsidy – proximity, physical and economic, to the U.S. and its debt-happy consumers – but makes some useful and intriguing points.

Canada, Land of Smaller Government

When Americans look to Canada, they generally think of an ally, though one dominated by socialist economic policies. But the Canada of the 1970s and early 1980s—the era of left-wing Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau—no longer exists. America’s northern neighbor has transformed itself economically over the last 20 years.

The Canadian reforms began in 1988 with a U.S. free trade pact that would lead to the North American Free Trade Agreement. But change really began to take off in 1993. A socialist-leaning government in Saskatchewan started by reducing spending and moving towards a balanced budget. This was followed by historic reforms by the Conservatives in Alberta, who relied on spending reductions to balance their budget quickly.

In 1995, the federal government, led by the Liberal Party, passed the most important budget in three generations. Federal spending was reduced almost 10% over two years and federal employment was slashed 14%. By 1998, the federal government was in surplus and reducing the nearly $650 billion national debt. Provincial governments similarly focused on eliminating deficits by paring spending and reducing debt, and then they started to offer tax relief.

All government spending peaked at 53% of Canadian GDP in 1992 and fell steadily to just under 40% by 2008. (Government spending in the U.S. was 38.8% of GDP that year.) The recession has caused government spending to increase in both countries. But if present trends continue, within two or three years Canada will have a smaller government as a share of its economy than the U.S.

Canadian taxes have also come down at the federal and provincial level. They were reduced with the stated goal of improving incentives for work effort, savings, investment and entrepreneurship.

Jean Chrétien (a Liberal) won elections in 1993, 1997 and 2000 by promising to balance the books, to prioritize federal spending to ensure that government was doing what was needed, and also to deliver tax relief. Mr. Chrétien’s former finance minister, Paul Martin, became prime minister in 2003, but he lost power to the Conservative Party in 2006, in part because he moved away from some of the Chrétien principles.

Tellingly, the last three Canadian elections have all had key debates on tax relief—not whether there should be tax cuts but rather what type of tax cuts. Beginning in 2001 under a Liberal government, even the politically sensitive federal corporate income tax rate has been reduced. It is now 18%, down from 28%, and the plan is to reduce it to 15% in 2012. The U.S. federal rate is 35%.

Yet much of the tax relief since 2000 has been on personal income taxes. The bottom two personal income tax rates have been reduced, and the income thresholds for all four rates have been increased and indexed to inflation. Canada has also reduced capital gains taxes twice (the rate is now 14.5%), cut the national sales tax to 5% from 7%, increased contribution limits to the Canadian equivalent of 401(k)s, and created new accounts similar to Roth IRAs.

Government austerity has been accompanied by prosperity. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), between 1997 and 2007 Canada’s economic performance outstripped the OECD average and led the G-7 countries. Growth in total employment in Canada averaged 2.1%, compared to an OECD average of 1.1%.

During the mid-1990s, Canada’s commitment to reform allowed it to tackle two formerly untouchable programs: welfare and the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), equivalent to Social Security in the U.S. Over three years, federal and provincial governments agreed to changes that included investing surplus contributions in market instruments such as stocks amd bonds, curtailing some benefits, and increasing the contribution rate. The CPP is financially solvent and will be able to weather the retiring baby boomers.

The one area Canada has been slow to reform is health care, which continues to be dominated by government. However, some provinces have allowed a series of small experiments: a completely private emergency hospital in Montreal and several private clinics in Vancouver. British Columbia and Alberta also are experimenting with market-based payments to hospitals. While these are incremental steps, the path in Canada is fairly clear: More markets and choice will exist in the future. The trend in the U.S. is the opposite.

Most strikingly, Canada is emerging more quickly from the recession than almost any industrialized country. It’s unemployment rate, which peaked at 9% in August 2009, has already fallen to 7.9%. Americans can learn much by looking north.

Mr. Clemens is the director of research at the Pacific Research Institute and a co-author of "The Canadian Century: Moving Out of America’s Shadow" (Key Porter Books, 2010).

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