© 1995 Karen Selick
 Why Fear Competing Safety Nets?
An edited version of this article first appeared in the June, 1995 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


 Why Fear Competing Safety Nets?

Just before the federal budget came out in February, I heard a welfare advocate on the radio pleading for the federal government not to cut provincial transfer payments for social programs.  Such programs, she said, are "the ribbons that bind us, one to another, all across the country."

The ribbon imagery was intended, I think, to give listeners a warm, cheery feeling.  The effect was lost on me.  I wondered whether it would be any more comfortable or uplifting to be bound with ribbons than to be bound with chains.

Defenders of the welfare state have worked tirelessly to portray Canada's social programs as the defining characteristic of the country--a civilizing force that distinguishes our kinder, gentler nation from the Hobbesian jungle to the south. 

The truth is that Canadians don't have a monopoly on compassion.  In fact, we don't even have the edge.  For example: in 1992, Americans donated U.S.$122 billion to charities.  Canadians donated only U.S. $2.4 billion--far, far less per capita than those supposedly mean-spirited Yanks.

The difference, welfare statists say, is that we dispense our kindness in an organized, centralized way, through government.  Even this proposition is debatable.  As Diane Francis has pointed out in The Financial Post, Canada spends 34 percent of its federal budget on social programs, while the U.S. figure is nearly 50 percent.

But even if it were true that our government spends more lavishly than the American government on the relief of hardship, does this really mean we are nicer people?  Surely it's a sign of greater benevolence that people donate their money voluntarily rather than being forced to hand it over via the tax collector.

The attempt to build a national identity on a foundation of coercive social programs is, in my view, pathetic.  There are many other attributes this country can be proud of besides its "social safety net".  The immigrants who arrived in Canada over the centuries came here primarily because they saw it as a land of freedom and opportunity.  They didn't come seeking to be part of an ocean-to-ocean chain gang--or even a ribbon gang.

Despite all the pleading, the February budget introduced the "block funding" of social programs, which would allow the provinces to spend their transfer payments as they see fit, unconstrained by direction from Ottawa.  The welfare statists howled.  B.C.'s Minister of Social Services was one of many to voice this concern:  "I'm afraid without national standards, there will be a very quick race to the bottom."

What an odd reaction.  Welfare statists should be rejoicing that the federal stranglehold on social programs has been broken.  In fact, if they genuinely believed in the fairness and efficacy of their policies, they would be campaigning to devolve the responsibility for social programs even further, from the provincial level down to the municipal level, along with the concomitant taxing power.

There would be several strategic advantages to this.  First, because municipalities are relatively small, the welfare statists should find it easier to target one or two and convince all the inhabitants of the merits of generous social programs.  They wouldn't have to persuade a whole country simultaneously, just a few thousand voters in a couple of small towns. 

And because there are so many municipalities, it should be easy to find a few that will embrace the welfare state package even if others don't.  They could start by targeting places that have traditionally voted NDP. 

The country could then become a giant experimental laboratory for social programs.  If the welfare state works as well as its proponents claim, it would provide us with model communities, full of picturesque, immaculate and crime-free government housing projects, with health care, day care, elder care, university education and prosperity for all. 

When outsiders observed how well those munificent social programs worked, many would vote with their feet, moving into the model communities to join this marvellous system.  To avoid becoming ghost-towns, other municipalities would be forced to imitate the welfare state communities and provide the same generous social programs.  In other words, there would be a race to the "top".

Why don't welfare statists believe things would work this way?  Why aren't they willing to let their theories compete in the real world?  If the social safety net is what makes Canada kinder, gentler and more prosperous, why are they so convinced that only federal--not provincial or municipal--policy makers can grasp this?  Why would voters support it in federal elections but not in municipal ones?

The answer, of course, is that welfare statists suspect (correctly) that support for social programs is weak.  These programs can become entrenched only by being implemented at the highest political level--where the average citizen feels too remote and insignificant to cause change, or even to make himself heard. 

Look for a stepped-up campaign for Canada to commit itself to international welfare-state standards through the United Nations.  Voters back home can't throw the U.N. bums out of office, and people can't even vote with their feet if every country in the world offers the same statist agenda.  It's an insidious way to impose socialism on the unwilling masses.

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June 11, 2000