Some of us think the welfare state is already way too big. That it is so embedded in every aspect of our lives, from day care to granny care and everything in between, including helping us reduce our utility bills, that there's simply no room for it to grow anymore. How naively cute we are. We forget Quebec politicians' unbounded ability to imagine new redistributive schemes.
That the welfare state has backed itself into a trap is a central theme of French political philosopher Anthony de Jasay. His book The State argues that modern democratic governments have become so good at trading social-program benefits for votes that they have no resources left to pursue their own social-engineering schemes. Moreover, because the process is very nearly perfected, there's not much difference between party platforms anymore. Anyone who wants to get elected can't afford to tamper with the present deal because whatever they offer will be less attractive to key voting blocs.
Mr. de Jasay is no naif. But he may have underestimated politicians. If they can't compete with other parties, they can still compete with other levels of government. Witness the Quebec government's response to the evacuation of Lebanese-Canadians from the Middle East.
Remember the huge organizational disaster of the federal attempt to pluck thousands of Canadian citizens stranded in a war zone? How Canada was botching things so badly compared with France, Britain and the United States? Ahem. As the Citizen reported Tuesday, "With only 7,500 of 39,000 Canadians in Lebanon offered passage out of the country taking up the offer, Foreign Affairs is meeting the slackening demand by throwing the doors open to anyone with a Canadian passport." Yes folks. Messing up so badly we're running out of evacuees after only one week.
Oh, but I know. There wasn't even air conditioning on the ship. Anyway, the rapid successful completion of the mission didn't stop Quebec Premier Jean Charest from pouncing. Speaking from Paris a week ago, he announced that out of solidarity with Lebanese-Quebecers his government would implement measures to welcome as many evacuees as possible as comfortably as possible, even the ones who haven't set foot on this side of the ocean in years.
As the Montreal Gazette described it, the scene at the Montreal airport couldn't have been more heartwarming. "The evacuees were given help collecting bags off the carousel, were given vouchers for meals, got a hotel room for the night (or two, if they were really tired) and were put on shuttles to the next train or flight home -- all free."
Those who require it will also be given up to a month's worth of financial assistance and if, after that, they still need help, the government will assist them in finding the right mix of programs from the province's myriad social services. As a bonus, everyone gets immediate access to the health-care system (the Ontario government promised the same). The Education Department will even help find a school for the little ones in time for la rentree.
No wonder evacuees were impressed. "In Lebanon we were treated like sheep. Here, we're treated like human beings," Linda Habib told the Gazette before taking off with her friends for a little downtown shopping expedition. (I'm guessing that she had completely recovered from her hardships even though long hours in transit must have been especially tough on her given that she is, the paper thought it necessary to inform us, seven months pregnant). I wonder if somebody reminded her that while Montreal is famous for its aggressive potholes and expensive boutiques, it's still a darn sight easier to organize luxury accommodations there than it must be in the middle of a, er, whatchamacallit, oh yeah, a war.
No matter. Quebecers, and not just those of Lebanese descent, will notice the contrast with the somewhat cold and distant reaction of Stephen Harper to the refugees' plight, even though the prime minister did divert his jet so he could pick up a few dozen of them on his way home. That wasn't good enough, you see. But helping evacuees fetch their suitcases at the airport and booking them at the Hilton for as long as 72 hours on the government's tab, now that's service.
Winning the hearts and minds of voters by offering better services and more luxurious accommodations than the other level of government, using untold amounts of taxpayer money: There, dear reader, is where the welfare state is going next. How naive of us not to have seen it coming.