The Government Taketh Away: The Politics of Pain in the United States and Canada

The Government Taketh Away: The Politics of Pain in the United States and Canada

The Government Taketh Away: The Politics of Pain in the United States and Canada

The Government Taketh Away: The Politics of Pain in the United States and Canada


Democratic government is about making choices. Sometimes those choices involve the distribution of benefits. At other times they involve the imposition of some type of loss -- a program cut, increased taxes, or new regulatory standards. Citizens will resist such impositions if they can, or will try to punish governments at election time. The dynamics of loss imposition are therefore a universal -- if unpleasant -- element of democratic governance. The Government Taketh Away examines the repercussions of unpopular government decisions in Canada and the United States, the two great democratic nations of North America.

Pal, Weaver, and their contributors compare the capacities of the U. S. presidential system and the Canadian Westminster system to impose different types of losses: symbolic losses (gun control and abortion), geographically concentrated losses (military base closings and nuclear waste disposal), geographically dispersed losses (cuts to pensions and to health care), and losses imposed on business (telecommunications deregulation and tobacco control). Theory holds that Westminster-style systems should, all things being equal, have a comparative advantage in loss imposition because they concentrate power and authority, though this can make it easier to pin blame on politicians too. The empirical findings of the cases in this book paint a more complex picture. Westminster systems do appear to have some robust abilities to impose losses, and US institutions provide more opportunities for loss-avoiders to resist government policy in some sectors. But in most sectors, outcomes in the two countries are strikingly similar.

The Government Taketh Away is essential for the scholar and students of public policy or comparative policy. It is also an important book for the average citizen who wants to know more about the complexities of living in a democratic society where the government can give-but how it can also, sometimes painfully, "taketh away."


Writing about political pain and loss imposition has been an oddly pleasurable and rewarding experience. the project had its roots in R. Kent Weaver’s work on the differential institutional capacities of presidential and parliamentary systems in the U.S. and Canada to reform their respective countries’ pension systems, as well as in theoretical work he had done on credit-claiming and blame-avoiding by politicians. This linked nicely with work that Leslie Pal had done on institutional theory and on some specific cases of what we later termed loss imposition, such as abortion policy in Canada.

The genesis of what eventually became this book was contained in several papers presented over the years. the first was a general overview of the theory and several cases, presented by Weaver at the American and Canadian Political Science Association meetings (CPSA) in 1989. This was followed by a joint paper by Weaver and Pal at the 1997 cpsa meetings in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Momentum continued to build as we invited collaborators for panels at the 1999 cpsa meetings in Sherbrooke, Quebec, and the 1999 meetings of the Association for Canadian Studies in the United States in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Other versions were presented in various venues, and we are grateful for the criticisms and suggestions of colleagues: the Cunliffe Centre for the Study of Constitutionalism and National Identity at Sussex University at Brighton (1997); the Brookings Research in Progress seminar (2001); and the Seminar in Economics, Politics and Public Policy at the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University (2002). in . . .

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