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  • Tax, Order, and Good Government: A New Political History of Canada, 1867–1917 by Elsbeth Heaman
  • David Tough (bio)
Elsbeth Heaman. Tax, Order, and Good Government: A New Political History of Canada, 1867–1917. McGill-Queen's University Press. xvi, 582. $39.95

There has never been a book quite like Tax, Order, and Good Government, a history of Canada's first half-century of political development in which "the language of outraged taxpayers is given prominent place," in Canadian scholarship and not simply because the history of taxation has gone essentially unwritten since J. Harvey Perry's Taxes, Tariffs and Subsidies was published in 1955 or because political history more broadly became methodologically moribund in the 1980s and is only slowly recovering recently after two decades of desperate, life-sustaining interventions.

The subtitle signposts Elsbeth Heaman's ambition and affiliation; it is a new political history of Canada not only in the non-technical sense, which is without precedent, telling a story of Confederation and its aftermath that is different from histories with which readers might be familiar, but also in the specialist sense – the "new political history" – which is a scholarly approach that sees struggles over political power as embedded in wider webs of social and cultural meaning. While major figures like John A. Macdonald and Edward Blake appear, the central actors in the drama are the social tensions – between wealthy and poor taxpayers as well as between minorities and the state – that are at the centre of taxation. Those struggles were not simply political in the obvious sense, but cultural and epistemological. Throughout the book, the implicit intellectual work involved in politics is made explicit. Power repeatedly substitutes for gaps in knowledge. The result, as Heaman says, is "a social history of politics grounded on a social history of knowledge."

The first half of the book traces the creation of Confederation as an austerity project, an attempt to get poverty (particularly, the poverty of Montreal's urban proletariat) out of government and to make wealth go upwards. The [End Page 131] goal to write "culture" (or identity, understood as an irrational distraction from self-improvement) out of the constitution had to be negotiated with other fiscal visions. Through the second half of the book, the central tension is the struggle between professional economists and single taxers, a social movement that popularized tax politics around a very basic moral economy.

Economics was a liberal profession and, having had to contend on the Conservative side with an anti-intellectual protectionist political power that saw its knowledge as a dangerous threat, it reacted against the popularity of the single tax as a potent threat because it undermined the core basis for the authority of economists: the claim that the economy was so inherently inscrutable that only a professional class of experts could understand it. In telling this part of the story, Heaman never takes for granted that the economists are right; the focus is on the professional power politics involved in establishing monopoly control over legitimate tax talk.

It is not a simple read. Tax history, if it covers all of the instruments used by all levels of government over half a century and all of the ideals and anxieties that have fed people's engagement with them, will necessarily be complex. "The devil of Confederation is in the details," Heaman writes, and her writing – rich in detail and nuance, authoritative in tone, often elliptical in argument – bears out that maxim. And "new political history," by definition, must be more analytical, must tell a more complex story, than the regurgitated newsprint that Canadians have come to expect as political history. Heaman is an excellent teacher, but the reader has to pay careful attention.

Tax, Order, and Good Government is uniquely important in that it brings an urgent investment in current questions of the role of the state in the production of extremes of wealth and poverty (and race) to a careful analysis of how tax talk shaped politics in Canada's first half-century. In the coming decades, as liberal political institutions strain and crack under the pressures of widening income gaps and increasingly insistent demands for more...


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pp. 131-132
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