© 1999  Karen Selick
Instead of the Nanny State
An edited version of this article first appeared in the July, 1999 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


Instead of the Nanny State

Conservatives are often keen to "privatize" activities of the state by contracting out or forcing some non-government entity to take over what was formerly a government responsibility.  Sometimes they forget to ask the crucial question:  Is this really privatization, or merely a more insidious form of collectivization? 

A good example arose following the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Bracklow v. Bracklow.  That case involved a couple who had cohabited for seven years (four before marriage and three after), then separated after the wife developed several psychiatric and physical illnesses.  Unable to work any longer, she asked the court to award her spousal support.   Both the trial judge and the B.C. Court of Appeal refused.

The Supreme Court ruled that she was "eligible for support" from the husband, even though he had not caused or contributed to her needy condition in any way. 

Columnist Diane Francis, writing in The National Post, praised the Supreme Court for its decision.  She recommended we adopt a law like the Swiss have, making relatives pay for the support of their impoverished kinfolk, be they spouses, children, grandchildren, parents, grandparents or siblings.  Her reasoning:  it’s unfair for taxpayers to end up supporting these people when their relatives can afford to. 

She describes the Bracklow decision as "the beginning of the privatization of welfare, the way it used to be before the state became Nanny to the population."

Now, I’m certainly no fan of the Nanny state, but when I examine my reasons, I find that they apply just as firmly to a state that robs and coerces people individually or selectively, as to one that robs and coerces them collectively or uniformly.  The source of my objection to the Nanny state is that it robs and coerces—not that it uses overly inclusive criteria in selecting its victims. 

Switzerland’s system is not significantly different in its underlying ethical principles from Canada’s.  A support obligation mandated by the legislature and enforced by the courts is still a creation of the state, not a spontaneous private expression of brotherly love. 

If a man surreptitiously stole money from his grandmother’s purse, or confined granny in a closet until she handed over her bank card and PIN number, we would call him a thief and punish him.  If instead he petitions the court to make his grandmother support him, why should we look upon him any differently?  If granny still thinks her grandson is an undeserving lout and defies the court order, she will find her bank account just as surely looted, or her person just as surely confined, as if her grandson had acted directly.   This use of the courts simply transforms the state from an enforcer of justice into an accomplice in crime. 

While making unwilling relatives pay cannot properly be described as the privatization of welfare, Ms. Francis  nevertheless raises an important point.   The welfare state has, in effect, nationalized much of the private social apparatus that individuals previously relied upon for relief of hardship and aid in times of crisis. 

Before the welfare state, there were essentially three methods of making provision against hard times.   One was simply to save—to put aside money for a rainy day.  A second was to form social networks with family, friends and neighbours.  Grandparents would live with younger generations, contributing to household chores in exchange for support.  Neighbours would donate their labour to each other’s barn-raisings, knowing that if their own barn burnt down, others would reciprocate. 

The third method was to contract for assistance in a more formal manner—in effect, to purchase insurance against hardship.  The Institute of Economic Affairs in England has published a book called Reinventing Civil Society:  The Rediscovery of Welfare Without Politics, by David G. Green which describes the extensive network of "friendly societies" that existed in England before the welfare state usurped their role. 

Friendly societies were voluntary organizations, often made up of workers in a single industry or town, that insured their members against hardship.  Members would pay dues, which entitled them to sick pay in case of illness or accident, medical care for themselves and their families, pensions for the elderly or for dependents, death benefits, and travel assistance when seeking work. 

More than 9 million people belonged to some 27,000 organizations of this kind in 1911 when the British government made social insurance compulsory.  The compulsory system, predictably, killed off most voluntary societies, although some still survive. 

Why are voluntary methods of social assistance superior to compulsory ones?   Because they go beyond ministering to physical needs alone.  They promote good character. One must learn self-discipline in order to save.  One must practise honesty, reliability, constancy and benevolence towards one’s neighbours and family in order to expect help from them in return.

Even the contractual aid societies explicitly promoted virtuous behaviour.   For example, many friendly societies denied medical benefits for illness or injury caused by drunkenness, fighting, or venereal disease.  Some refused admission to those guilty of "bad character …or quarrelsome behaviour." 

Contrast today’s welfare system, which tolerates every kind of debauchery, and today’s spousal support laws which reward misconduct such as adultery and addiction.  Yes, it’s time to privatize.

- END -


..... ..... 


June 20, 2000