Friday, February 11, 2005

The Rhetoric of Choice

The Rhetoric of Choice

The Fraser Institute recently issued a report condemning the proposed national day care system. The arguments, at least as reported on the news, are interesting because they illustrate the ways in which rhetoric is mobilized to accomplish political aims. In particular, the Fraser spokesperson claimed the government restrictions were onerous, that government should subsidize private, for profit day care facilities, and that if it did not parents would be robbed of “choice.” This argument is politically astute – what parent doesn’t want choice in the care of their children? – by bizarre.

I’ll quickly declare my bias: my daughter gets after school care from a private, for profit day care. They provide wonderful care for the children under their supervision. The staff are kind, helpful, and loved by the kids. It would be difficult for me to ask for more. Would I like my day care facilities to be subsidized? You bet. I like these people; they run on a very tight budget and anything that can help them out would be good. The issue, as I see it, is not “would I like” but “should private businesses be subsidized by the state”? I hate to say it, but I don’t think so. Why?

First, child care is already subsidized. My wife or I can deduct child care expenses from our taxes and do. In other words, Canadian tax payers are already helping to pay for my children’s after school care. Should those same tax payers now be on the hook for even more? Perhaps. I don’t think the answer is a straight “no.” In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that most Canadians feel the state should subsidize child care generally (because it is good for kids and for society) and should, in particular, help out those people who are less fortunate. I’m less certain and I think Canadians are less certain that they should pay much more for the child care of middle class kids, like my own. The truth of the matter is I can afford it and because I can, should I not pay for it? Subsidizing a private child care enterprise amounts to precisely this: it is a way to give me an even further subsidy on my kids care. To be clear: I think this should be done for poorer kids. Child care facilities (private or public) can really help out poor kids. I’m not convinced that middle class people like me should benefit from something that they don’t actually need.

It would work like this. Child care centre gets government subsidy, ergo they can lower the rate I pay or not increase it. Ergo, I get extra money. Everyone wants extra money, but is this the best use of public funds? If I were being honest, I can think of a whole bunch of better ways to spend money than giving it to me (hospitals, new roads, farm subsidies, the armed forces).

Second, is choice hampered by not subsidizing for profit businesses? I don’t actually see how. Those businesses will exist or they won’t exist depending on the market. If people want them and will pay for them, they will be there. If they don’t, well, should they be there? I was surprised to see the Fraser Institute, a right wing think tank, making such an uncapitalist argument. Personally, I’m not a fan of capitalism, but I do think there is some role for consumer choice. The Fraser Institute’s argument actually defies choice in that the subsidies support businesses that are not profitable, meaning that consumers don’t want them. Is this a good thing? Perhaps, but I don’t think it is a slam dunk.

Finally, let me rant: what regulations is the Fraser Institute talking about? The law isn’t in place. To complain about a law that is not yet drafted as onerous, hmmm …. I’d at least wait until I saw the law before I complained about it. The fact that the Fraser Institute is willing to condemn a law it hasn’t seen on the basis of no evidence does not speak well for it. In fact, it is a good reason to stop listening to their press releases.
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