Do Institutions Matter?

“Do political institutions in any crucial sense matter?” This is Donald
Smiley’s question (Canada in Question, 1980, pages 3, 4). “Does Society
decisively determine Government – or is it the other way round? In a formal
sense, is Society the independent variable, and Government the dependent

By 1980 the question had been settled to the satisfaction of most political
scientists. I’m surprised that Smiley was still going over the old ground at
that late date. Most Canadian social scientists had long since convinced
themselves that Society is the decisive influence. Society – history,
patterns of immigration, the period in which a country is settled, and the
ideas carried in the minds of the immigrants; geography, terrain – these are
the factors that make a nation. In 1980, that was the received wisdom. In
2008 it’s still the received wisdom.

But Smiley was right. On two counts. He was right to raise the question. And
right to come down on the side of institutions. He argued that a country’s
political constitution is the determinative factor in the life of the
nation. He had allies: Alan Cairns, and some others, not many. And the
political science community has always respected Smiley and Cairns. But for
all that, the institutionalists remained, and still remain, in the minority.

Two articles in the current issue of the Literary Review of Canada (May,
2008) are revealing.

The first is Philip Resnick’s review of Robert C. Sibley’s Northern Spirits:
John Watson, George Grant, and Charles Taylor, Appropriations of Hegelian
Political Thought
(McGill-Queen’s, 2007). It’s a good book; I wrote an
endorsement that appears on the back cover, and I’ll stand by it. So: highly
recommended. It is in essence an exploration of the question I’ve just
broached: which matters more in determining the character of a nation –
institutions, or history and culture? Sibley argues that in exploring this
issue, a knowledge of Hegel is helpful, and he demonstrates through an
exposition of Hegel’s influence on his three authors. So what does Resnick
make of the book? He very nearly does it justice. I would never
underestimate Philip Resnick’s insight or scholarship. But the fact remains
that he is still gripped by the idea, dating from the the1960s and 70s that
“Society determines.” He knows intellectually that institutions must be
given their due. But his heart remains with “Society.” He inclines to the
communitarian side. And so he almost endorses Sibley’s even-handed
exploration, but not quite.

The principal objective of the scholars who adopted the view that “Society
determines,” was to show that Canada is not like the United States. They
argue that because our history was different, because we admitted immigrants
who held different philosophies, our nation is different. Canadians are not
Americans. Our culture and way of life are distinctive. That’s the usual
argument. And that’s what’s taught in the schools.

Now consider Edward Grabb’s review in the current Literary Review, of
Reginald C. Stuart’s Dispersed Relations: Americans and Canadians in Upper
North America
(Woodrow Wilson Press and Johns Hopkins). Stuart argues that
Canada and the United States are “not so different after all.” The two
countries share, “democratic and human rights, faith in the rule of law,
individualism flowing from constitutional provisions, balanced individual
and community outlooks, and broad tolerance.” They are, all in all,
“remarkably similar societies.” Similar societies because they have similar
political institutions? That’s Stuart’s opinion.

Grabb’s own work concentrates on Canadian-American similarities and
dissimilarities and he and his colleagues have found remarkable social
similarities. But Grabb doesn’t credit the influence of similar
institutions. In his many publications he gets the same answer as Stuart,
but it’s a bit of a puzzle to see how he does it.

“Democratic and human rights … faith in the rule of law … broad
tolerance.” Yes. That’s what we have in common with the U.S. Smiley would

It’s amazing how many political scientists, sociologists, and students of
“the Canadian identity,” can’t bring themselves to admit the similarity of
the constitutions and form of government. I am not saying that the two
countries are similar in all respects. I’m not saying that there aren’t some
constitutional differences (minor ones). I’m not saying that there are not
regional and social differences in Canada, and in the United States. Of
course not. I’m not saying that institutions determine all the
particularities. And I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t enjoy differences.
And what the heck, even boast of them.

But we’re selling ourselves short if we don’t admit – with Smiley – that our
good institutions, our freedoms, our history of rights, are the principal
determinant of our way of life, and the principal reason for being glad to
live in this country. And to love it.


1 Response to “Do Institutions Matter?”

  1. 1 Rob Leone May 8, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    What’s interesting about the timing of this post is that I was a part of a conversation with family a week or so ago about Iraq and Afghanistan. The common sentiment shared by many was that democracy will never work in Iraq or Afghanistan because “the people don’t want it.” I guess this shows how widespread that sentiment of “society determines government” really is.

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