The quiet convergence

Nelson Peters
October 26, 2013
It takes a brave soul to question the essential goodness of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, but Nelson Peters finds a different tale in the hard numbers, as told by Vincent Geloso.

The quiet convergence

Nelson Peters
October 26, 2013
It takes a brave soul to question the essential goodness of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, but Nelson Peters finds a different tale in the hard numbers, as told by Vincent Geloso.
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Vincent Geloso is a Ph.D. candidate at the London School of Economics who lectures at the HEC business school in Montréal. Fresh from an appearance before a parliamentary commission on culture and education at Québec’s National Assembly, and having completed stints at the Prime Minister’s Office, the National Post and the Montreal Economic Institute, Geloso recently released his first book, Du Grand Rattrapage au Déclin Tranquille, which re-evaluates Québec’s economic history around the time of the Quiet Revolution.

The “Quiet Revolution” refers to a series of widespread political and social changes in Québec during the 1960s and 70s that included the Catholic Church’s drastic loss of influence, the nationalization of electric companies and the birth of Hydro-Québec, as well as the creation and expansion of governmental ministries, particularly education and health.

These changes rescued Québec from the Great Gloom (Grande noirceur) of the Duplessis government era, brought in a time of prosperity wherein the gaps between the Rest of Canada and Québec as well as between francophones and anglophones in Québec narrowed, and public health and education outcomes dramatically improved.

Or at least that’s what we are supposed to believe. In his book, Geloso ambitiously rejects this received wisdom, arguing that the lion’s share of Québec’s economic gains actually took place in the years preceding the Quiet Revolution. In other words, much of the progress that is popularly attributed to the events of the Quiet Revolution was in fact the consequence of previous societal changes, not the cause.

Using detailed and rigorous economic data, Geloso argues that the policies of the Duplessis era, not the subsequent creation of the welfare state, permitted the exceptional creation of wealth that took place in Québec over the last half-century. These policies included lower corporate tax rates, higher personal exemptions for income tax, lower tax rates compared with Ontario and the United States, low surcharges for mining companies, attention to paying down the provincial debt and strategic investments in infrastructure.

We recently got in touch with him to discuss his book.

How would you translate your title into English?

Something like From the Great Convergence or Catching Up to a Quiet Decline. The main idea is that it would be amazing if people can stop using the term “The Great Darkness” to refer to Québec’s post-war Duplessis era and instead start talking about “The Great Convergence.”

In Québec, the period of the Quiet Revolution is viewed as “la belle époque” and nearly sacrosanct. Culturally speaking, why do you think this is so?

This was a founding moment in Québec’s national identity; at this time, there was a strong association of nationalism with statism. If you take that position the State is not as great as it seems; it makes Québec nationalism seem not as great as it was cut out to be. People have a lot invested in this rhetoric.

At one point in your book, there seems to be a chicken or the egg discussion about how culture affects the economy and vice versa. How do you view this relationship?

I’m an economic historian, which means I’m trained like any other economist. We tend to be very skeptical of claims that culture can somehow independently create mentalities, such as the notion that individuals in Québec were less able to connect with markets. We don’t buy this. Culture is more often the result of individual decisions. If individuals in Québec were less risk-averse, it’s not that they were idiots; rather, this was a result of bad public policy.

Culture is reactive and adaptive. It is also inherently changeable. A single person can break away from it and completely transform it. An example: John D. Rockefeller advanced the production of extremely cheap oil; this in turn led to cheap steel and cheap cars, and in a few years, America was completely different. Culture didn’t create that – he changed the culture.

During the period of The Great Convergence in Québec, there were very few barriers from the State for the individual; it was easier for a person to break free from culture and change it.

What aspects of change during the Quiet Decline/Quiet Revolution were indeed necessary and which were not?

Ones related to equal rights for women – that situation was terrible. Before the 1960s and 70s, women in Québec had no financial rights. Still, you didn’t need a Quiet Revolution for that, only one bill. In fact, such legislation would be in the best interests of the economy.

Another necessary change was the removal of the Church from State affairs. Again, this actually started much earlier. Unfortunately, people became so zealous in doing this that they threw out the baby with the bathwater – you didn’t need to completely kick out the Church to have universal health care and education. They went too far.

In fact, in Europe, the Church continues to play a role in health care and education while meeting the same objectives of the public interest. The overexpansion of the State in Québec has destroyed social capital as well as the instinctive link between individuals and their community.

The worst consequence of the Quiet Revolution was that people broke away from solidarity between individuals; now, society operates in terms of group solidarity and rent-seeking from the State. This has turned solidarity into a negative endeavour, one where everybody is against everybody. This ruins civil society.

It’s also interesting to note that if you have high levels of social capital, you gain all kinds of benefits. During The Great Convergence, Québec spent less on policing and had a much lower crime rate against property compared to now.

At times, it seems that when discussing history, English Canada and Québec are using different narratives. What do you think English Canada misses out on? What about Québec?

First of all, I think that the two sides are more interconnected than they think. For example, “Quiet Revolution” is a term that was invented in English. At a 1960 press conference, a reporter from The Globe and Mail asked Premier Jean Lesage if the reforms being implemented were part of a revolution. Lesage replied that if it indeed was, it was a quiet one. The phrase went into print the next day and the rest is history.

English Canada forgets that Québec is not really leftist. Historically it has been more conservative than the rest of Canada; for most of its history, Québec received fewer federal transfers than did places like the Maritimes or Alberta. Québec also had the greatest proportion of free traders during the period from Confederation to World War l. Ontario has traditionally been the most protectionist province in Canada.

Meanwhile in Québec, the discourse is not talking about markets, not that the rest of Canada is much good at that, either. Perhaps this is because most political pundits in Québec are employees of the State. There’s a political force in the rest of Canada now that says, “Let’s get the government out of the economy!” That voice just isn’t present in Québec.

Conrad Black, who completed a renowned biography of former Québec premier Maurice Duplessis, wrote the preface for this book. How does his work compare with yours?

Lord Black’s book was an inspiration in that it went beyond political considerations and rhetoric. If you read his biography, when conducting research he convinced the former personal secretary to the premier to allow him access to Duplessis’ private papers. Nobody else could have done that. For that reason alone, he did a tremendous service to Québec.

Thirty years later, his work laid elements of a road map for the book I was writing. I was always stunned that no one had discovered what I had. It wasn’t as if I had gone and taken completely different data. A lot of historians, I suppose, started from a very prejudiced point in favour of the popular conceptions of the Quiet Revolution.

You note that some of the most popular U.S. presidents (FDR, Lincoln, Wilson) saw the worst economic performances in terms of economic growth, the size of government and deficit, and inflation, while some of the least popular (Grant, Van Buren, Coolidge, Harding) had some of the best economic performances. Does the State have to overspend to be perceived as successful? Are popular notions of greatness in public office unsustainable?

In short, yes.

Lord Acton’s quote about how “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” comes to mind. What most don’t know is the context behind the quote. Acton was writing to Bishop Creighton regarding a book written on the popes of the Reformation. Acton was chastising Creighton’s belief that we shouldn’t evaluate men in higher positions by the same standards we use for ordinary people.

We tend to have a bias for power in that we forgive politicians who have grand projects, whether they are right or wrong. We would much rather say that some failed but at least they tried, rather than that they did nothing. A lot of people in Québec have been corrupted by this idea, this feeling of political power.

What I’m trying to do is to inject into the history facts that have been left out. We should care about results more than intentions. Don’t convert these events into political rhetoric – these changes actually had harmful consequences.

Many of your findings point to the fact that economic growth, and thus wealth, is generational. How do you think this applies to our current social context and how it will play out in the future?

In the current context created by the Quiet Revolution, interest groups are formed to get something out of government. They are well organized and are able to lobby to force the creation of regulations in their narrow interests. Each of these might have negligible effects on its own, but when they are compiled together, there is a substantial negative effect on economic growth. In the meantime, the interest groups have become dependent on them. Going back from this situation is very, very difficult.

This is the sad part of the Quiet Revolution. Turning back these changes would take so much political will that I don’t feel a lot of politicians in Québec would dare to try. I am astounded at how much effort would be needed for small reforms, such as for removing quotas for entry to certain industries or liberalizing beer prices. This is not radical; this is simple, but it would require a huge struggle.

Are you planning to publish an English version of your book?

As soon as I can put together funding.


Nelson Peters is a graduate of the law faculties of Université Laval and Université de Moncton as well as Queen’s University (Philosophy). Originally from Manitoba and having spent 5 years in Quebec, he is keenly interested in issues pertaining to Constitutional law, corporate governance, and international business culture.

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