Academic journal article The Historian

The Propensity to Reform: The United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada Compared

Academic journal article The Historian

The Propensity to Reform: The United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada Compared

Article excerpt

THE OUTCOME OF THE 2008 election in the United States (occurring amidst near financial collapse) raised the possibility of a revival of the Progressive-New Deal-Great Society reform tradition. To be sure, at each interval, the manifestation of reform in the United States was different (for example, the issue of civil rights was central to the Great Society era). The focus of this article, however, is to identify what all reform eras shared. Prominent among common denominators is a push for extension of government economic intervention and for the development and expansion of the welfare state. Each reform era was also characterized by a flurry of legislation over a short span of years: The Progressive Era built to a climax with major economic and social legislation between 1913 and 1916; the New Deal's massive expansion of government's economic and social role was achieved between 1933 and 1938; and the Great Society's enlargement of the welfare state was accomplished between 1964 and 1966. The purpose of the following analysis is to explore how economic contexts, political patterns, and the historical salience of this propensity to reform structured the debate about some key common issues in four societies shaped by British colonial settlement. Was economic depression or prosperity more conducive to the reform impulse? Is there a regular pattern to be recognized in the upsurge and periodicity of reform? What was the strength of the propensity to reform over time?

The analysis focuses on a comparison between the US and three other post-settler societies, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, which all share a British historical background (even if the French contributed to the origins of Canada). Reform in each of these countries was influenced by reform in the others as well as by reform in Great Britain and in other European states. Despite these commonalities, is it justifiable to compare these four states? Australia, New Zealand, and Canada followed the British model of parliamentary government, while the United States was governed under the tripartite division of powers of its constitution. One might suggest that the atypical complexity of the American system historically impeded legislative progress. One could also argue that like Great Britain, New Zealand was ruled by a unitary form of government while the United States, Australia, and Canada had federal systems. Under federalism, significant reform innovations often first emerged at the state or provincial level, as during the early Progressive Era in the United States and notably in the case of health-care reform in Canada. Indeed, the first stirrings of Australian reform predated the creation of the federal government itself.

Still, despite such constitutional differences, the similarities regarding reform waves are striking: Social and economic reform was often seen as an alternative to more radical proposals, a "middle way" between the status quo and overall systemic change. Reform policies came over time to include government intervention to constrain business excess, improve workers' conditions, and promote economic stability and growth, as well as an array of social programs such as old-age pensions, aid to the indigent, and health care. In the wake of the outbreak of economic crisis in 1973, however, conservative resistance arrested further reformist change in all four countries.

While there were, then, strong commonalities about the propensity to reform across eight decades and four post-settler societies, the evidence is insufficient to propose any easy generalizations. Reform sometimes responded to economic depression but, in one post-World War-Two case, it also occurred in a time of phenomenal economic growth. While the Great Depression brought forth seminal reform advances in the United States and New Zealand, government reaction in Australia and Canada was a reflexive adherence to the essential status quo, postponing seminal reform to the 1940s (Great Britain unfolded in a similar manner). …

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