With public libraries around the world looking at how to foster civic participation and increase democracy, I thought I would recommend a few accessible non-fiction titles related to civic literacy.
Enlightenment 2.0 by Joseph Heath
Winner of the 2015 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, this entertaining and stimulating book makes the case for improving our political culture by facing up to the way human reasoning actually works. Rather than focusing on simply trying harder to think rationally, as many books about critical thinking do, Heath argues that we should try to improve our “cognitive environment,” which can either support or hinder reasoned debate. The book is particularly suggestive for librarians interested in how libraries can contribute to the “institutional scaffolding” necessary for a fully functioning democracy.
Loat and MacMillan, of the non-profit Samara, which is dedicated to increasing civic engagement in Canada, interview eighty departing Members of Parliament to take the pulse of Canada’s parliamentary democracy. While they provide a starting point for considering a number of issues such as party discipline and the proper scope of constituency work, this book is perhaps most useful for conveying what the life of an average MP in today’s political climate is actually like. (Hint: it’s more Veep than Game of Thrones.)
Seeking to dispel knee-jerk scorn for government, Donald Savoie takes a look at what government does and doesn’t do well. The book reminds readers that governments provide public goods where there is little incentive for private actors to truly tackle a problem, in many cases of the “wicked” variety. Sadly, this means that government failure tends to be visible and frequent. Nonetheless, Savoie explains how our political institutions (such as the public service) are going awry in a hostile environment and what kind of reforms could turn things around. What is Government Good At? Won the 2016 Donner Prize for Excellence and Innovation in Public Policy Writing by Canadians.
Prime Minister Trudeau has promised full implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 calls to action. The first volume of the six-volume TRC report lays out the 94 recommendations for action, describes the history of residential schools, and conveys their damaging legacy.
Democratizing the Constitution by Peter Aucoin, Mark Jarvis, Lori Turnbull
This book is another Donner Prize winner (2011). It is a valuable, readable resource for learning about the concept of responsible government and getting a solid grounding in some of the main features of parliamentary democracy. Arguing that the principle of responsible government has been eroded over time in Canadian politics, it proposes reforms that could restore the proper relationship between the Canadian prime minister, parliament, and the constitution.
This clearly-written book offers a whirlwind tour of public policies aimed at realizing gender equality. Rhode discusses a range of relatively familiar topics like pay equity, the division of domestic labour, and domestic violence. She also describes types of political action that have proven effective in winning change in the real world. Besides its pragmatic approach, what I especially liked about this book was the attention to less-commonly discussed policy ideas like public insurance for child support payments.
Canada is practically a socialist country, right? This brisk, well-written entry in Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series puts the Canadian welfare state in global context, explaining the three basic types– liberal democratic, Christian corporatist, and social democratic. (Canada’s is the first type – which is the least comprehensive.) Garland provides some surprisingly entertaining history as well, reaching back to the early days when Churchill described the “exhilaration” of social insurance that can “bring the magic of averages to the aid of the millions.”
Could a liberal democracy like the United States (or Canada) become more like the Nordic social democracies of Denmark or Sweden? While there have been lots of great books written about inequality in the past few years, this is a personal favourite (even if it doesn’t foreground that way of phrasing the issue.) It is written in an amazingly clear and concise style (at a reading level similar to that of data journalism sites like Vox), laying out the extent of the problem, proposing solutions, and responding systematically, debate-style, to common objections. Some have been turned off by the book’s optimism; regardless, this is a must-read for understanding debates about the size and effectiveness of government programs.
There is no succinct book for a popular audience on Canadian tax policy debates along the lines of Slemrod and Bakija’s Taxing Ourselves or Bruce Bartlett’s The Benefit and the Burden for American readers. However, with economic inequality a major issue today, informed debate about tax policies and, perhaps more importantly, our overall tax system is extremely important (and is actually much more interesting than it sounds). This brief book published in 2015 does a decent job laying out the different aspects of tax policy, including different types of taxes, guiding principles like fairness and efficiency, and tax collection and evasion. No matter your opinion on taxes, this book is sure to illuminate aspects of the tax debate you hadn’t appreciated before.
Which books would you recommend for improving democratic participation and debate?
- Joe H.