Sunday, November 7, 1999


Think about what kind of government we want.
How much social engineering is acceptable?

by Fred McMahon

Finance Minister Paul Martin has called on Canadians to begin a national debate on what sort of government we want. Particularly, how much should it spend and on what?

Two extremes obscure the discussion. Some folks just hate government. All cuts are good. New spending is bad.

Others believe government has an obligation to spend any extra money that falls into its hands. Government, according to this view, makes better choices than individuals, particularly if the alternative is that awful market system.

This contains an element of truth. Government provides health care better than the market system. That’s because we’ve decided everyone should have health care. The system works because it allows choice. Individuals choose their doctors, and most family doctors operate in small businesses. This allows a melding of market choice with government as the single payer.

The emerging litmus test of new government spending is “the children’s agenda,” featuring a national day-care system. Government skeptics oppose it just because it’s government and hugely expensive. The question should be value for money. Medicare is expensive, and worth it.

So, would a national day-care system be efficient and fair? (Policy wonks prefer the word “equitable” to “fair” because it has more syllables.)

An additional concern centres on social engineering. A Liberal discussion paper on day care argues that it “is increasingly unrealistic to expect that parents can undertake the task of ensuring early child-development outcomes without systemic and structured (government) support.” If George Orwell had created a Ministry of Child Development, this passage could fit nicely into the ministry’s manual of Big Brother’s role in child rearing.

A national day-care program intrinsically involves social engineering. It gives subsidies that reward two-income families who require day care, while taxing families with a stay-at-home parent. These families often make a large financial sacrifice to keep a parent at home. Many could use a subsidy more than families with two working parents.

A national day-care program would also discriminate against those day-care needs provided by extended family, friends or neighborhood groups. A nationally subsidized program would create a financial incentive for parents to remove their children from these groups and place them in government-sanctioned day care, another form of social engineering.

The ability of many people to find inexpensive, children-friendly solutions to day care also underlines the inefficiency a national system would produce.

But Canada has a desperate need for day care. Many working single parents struggle to hold their jobs and find day care. But this isn’t really about day care. It’s about a deeper issue – poverty and the ability of people to afford things they need.

The solution is to get more money to low-income people so they can make their own choices. Ottawa unconscionably places a heavy tax burden on many of the poorest in our society. Instead of spending tens of billions of dollars on a national day-care system, let’s find ways to get an equivalent amount of money into the pockets of poor families.

Even with this additional money, some parents will continue to call on family and friends for daycare. Such families have a little left over for something special for the kids. Because of the extra money, some families will decide one parent can afford to stay at home. Other families will use the money for traditional day care, but even these families will be no worse off than they would be under a government day-care system. Many families will be better off.

This approach will be hated by anyone who thinks government does things best. It takes money and power out of government’s hands and gives it to people. Others will object to a government that, in their view, sticks it to the rich to help the poor.

But this example provides an outline of a non-ideological way to view government programs. Do we get our money’s worth? Does the program have unfortunate consequences such as pushing government power into realms that should be ruled by personal choice? Is there a better way to solve the problem and use the resources?