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Jeffrey Simpson

If "getting to Denmark" should be the objective of well-run countries, as U.S. political scientist Francis Fukuyama believes, then how is Canada doing? And how about our American neighbours?

Using Mr. Fukuyama's paradigm, Canada is doing rather well "getting to Denmark." Our American neighbours? Not so much.

In Political Order and Political Decay, the second volume of Mr. Fukuyama's massive exegesis on the evolution of political systems, he argues that the United States has degenerated into a "vetocracy."

"The American political system," he says, "has decayed over time because its traditional system of checks and balances has deepened and become increasingly rigid. With sharp political polarization, this decentralized system is less and less able to represent majority interests but gives excessive representation to the views of interest groups and activist organizations that collectively do not add up to a sovereign American people." The factors in this sentence represent only some of the problems facing U.S. democracy.

Surveying thousands of years of history, Mr. Fukuyama asserts that the best systems are those balancing a strong executive, the rule of law and accountability in the exercise of power. This is what he means by "getting to Denmark," a reference to a country that has found an effective balance among these three imperatives. Finding the balance is hard and often takes centuries. Many countries have never found it.

China, for example, has had a strong state with a powerful bureaucracy for several thousand years, but it has never had the rule "of" law. It has the rule "by" law – that is, law as defined by the ruler (emperor, Communist Party) but not "of" the law in the sense of impersonal rules applying to everyone and interpreted by third parties, namely courts. And accountability, in the sense of elected officials holding the executive to account, has never been part of China's governance.

Will this change as China's middle class grows? Democratic theorists and some historical experience says the middle class pushes social mobilization, including demands for political participation. In China thus far, the middle class has settled for economic progress. Will that political quiescence continue? That is the great unanswered question for China's future.

India, by contrast, has accountability mechanisms in its courts and democratic elections. But it lacks effective centralized capacity to get things done, bogged down by a bureaucracy that is massive, corrupt and inefficient.

Rather typically for American thinkers, Canada never pops up in a narrative that ranges over dozens of countries around the world. But has Canada gotten to Denmark?

Reasonable people can debate whether Canada has the balance of strong executive, rule of law and democratic accountability right. Opinions will somewhat vary according to one's attitude toward the government in office. Those who dislike the government are likely to believe that not enough obstacles are in its way, and vice versa.

Remove the government of the day from the equation, and a fair-minded assessment would be that Canada has all three elements necessary for reasonable and stable government that can deliver results, but not in an unimpeded way.

A prime minister with a majority in a parliamentary system (Prof. Fukuyama prefers parliamentary systems) is a kind of "friendly dictator," with considerable power to order and discipline people in his ranks and the civil service. He has unfettered appointment powers. He is not "first among equals" at the cabinet table; he is just "first." With a weak Senate and a publicly supine caucus, he gets his way.

But even our current rather Teutonic Prime Minister has found that the courts block some of his initiatives, including an appointment to the Supreme Court itself. In the age of the Charter, judges are far more powerful than ever, and they use that power extensively.

For Mr. Fukuyama, the power of the courts to supervise bureaucracies, fetter executive action and make policy in the guise of judicial decisions is among the reasons America's governance has become more difficult. It is a salutary warning for Canada.

On balance, using Mr. Fukuyama's triptych, Canada comes out rather well. We have the strong executive (thanks to the parliamentary system) he believes is essential for getting things done, a capable public service following broad political directives, very lively courts and at least episodic accountability sessions called elections.

It's not perfect by any means. But it's somewhere near Denmark.