To mark Dominion Day (as you’d expect a squaresville loser like me to call it), the New York Times asked 11 Canadian expatriates to write on “what they most miss about home.” The cutting-edge funnyman Rick Moranis riffed on toques and beavers and the lyrics of God Save the Queen, raising the suspicion he’d simply recycled his beloved Dominion Day column of 1954—which is not just environmentally responsible but very shrewd given New York Times rates for freelance contributors.
But thereafter the expats got with the program. The musician Melissa Auf der Maur, after years in the “American melting pot,” pined for “the Canadian mosaic.” But the great thing about the Canadian mosaic is that it engages in “a national conversation about literature like a big book club,” so the bookseller Sarah McNally said she missed “the pride and simplicity of a national literature, which probably wouldn’t exist without government support. We even have a name, CanLit, that people use without fearing they’ll sound like nerds.”
Multiculturalism, government books, using phrases like “Canadian mosaic” with a straight face, hailing the ability to say “CanLit” with a straight face as a virtue in and of itself . . . These are all excellent answers. But David Rakoff, “the author, most recently, of Don’t Get Too Comfortable,” cut to the chase:
“There is no contest about what I miss most about Canada. It is universal medical coverage. Just thinking about it, and its absence here, can send me into complete despair.”
Well, the natural reaction is just to roll one’s eyes. But don’t try that at home, kids: the wait time for eye-roll dislocation-correction surgery is up to two years at the Royal Victoria. So Colby Cosh, a rare non-expat Canadian, chose instead a hoot of derision, paraphrasing Mr. Rakoff thus:
“Yeah, I got so upset I almost thought about packing my shit and going home so I wouldn’t be in complete despair anymore.”
“It’s not like Canadian medicare is related to the risk-averseness, deference to authority, and cultural greyness that makes all the funny creative people leave, right?”
That’s a very pithy distillation of a rather profound point. Full disclosure: when I parted company with the National Post, I recommended Mr. Cosh as my replacement. A few months later, after I’d made some mildly critical observations about the post-Steyn Post, Mr. Cosh wrote a response called “Your day is done, you whiny clapped-out geriatric has-been” (I quote from memory), thus vindicating entirely my faith in him. He’s a libertarian, I’m a social conservative. But I’m with him on this one: America’s “health care” debate is not about “health” or, as President Obama likes to say, “controlling costs.” It’s about something more basic.
On the “costs” point: most Western governments decide how much they’re going to spend on their citizens’ health and then stick ’em with the tab every tax day. Americans make millions of individual decisions about what they’re going to spend on their heath, and the combined cost of those decisions is a little higher in terms of GDP per capita. But that’s neither here nor there—and, in any case, there are a lot of elements that aren’t factored into the economics of health care, such as the hours without end the average Quebecer spends sitting around a CLSC waiting room, staring at the peeling lino’s mesmeric pattern, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel, never ending or beginning on an ever-spinning reel. So forget about the money.
Forget about the “health,” too. Proponents of government health care like to point out that in the United States life expectancy is 78.11 years, whereas in Ireland it’s 78.24 years, Germany 79.26, New Zealand 80.36 and Canada 81.23 years. For a while now, I’ve taken to responding that, once a society gets childhood mortality under control and observes basic hygiene, it’ll swing through its three-score-and-ten with the bonus of a few frequent-flyer miles at the end, and then I’ll usually cite a less obvious comparison: Libya? 77.26 years. Albania? 77.96 years. Bosnia and Herzegovina? 78.5. Boy, nothing like civil war and ethnic genocide to ramp up those life-expectancy numbers! And any American approaching his 78th birthday and minded to emigrate to Canada or, better yet, Macau (life expectancy 84.36 years) should bear in mind that these variations likely owe more to factors other than the health system—i.e., the high homicide rate among the African-American community, and other subjects from which the multiculturally squeamish would rather avert their gaze. And sure, when you’re getting up there, an extra three years in Thunder Bay or Trois-Rivières sounds pretty sweet, even if you’ll be spending much of it with your legs crossed: a recent report in Le Journal de Montréal revealed that severely incontinent Quebecers (that’s to say, going to the bathroom 12 times a night) wait up to three years for a simple half-hour procedure that could give them a decent night’s sleep.
It’s not about “health.” It’s about the acceptance of the proposition that a government bureaucrat has sovereignty over your bladder—that you’ll be getting up 12 times a night, seven nights a week, 52 weeks a year for three years simply because the state has so decreed. And so, to return to the question Colby Cosh raises, what does the state’s annexation of the individual’s responsibility for his own health—the nationalization of your body, so to speak—say about the broader society?
Canada has done everything David Rakoff, Sarah McNally and Melissa Auf der Maur want—not least in their own fields. It taxes convenience-store clerks to subsidize books and writing and publishing and that wonderful “national conversation about literature like a big book club” in which everyone’s membership dues are automatically deducted from your bank account whether you go to the meetings or not. And still Mr. Rakoff and Ms. McNally and Ms. Auf der Maur leave. They applaud the creation of a “just” and “equitable” society, and then, like almost all the members of the Order of Canada you’ve actually heard of, they move out. Despite commending the virtues of a social “safety net” for you and everyone else, they personally can only fulfill their potential somewhere else, without one. Usually in a country beginning with “Great” and ending in “Satan.”
But let’s nudge it on a bit from Colby Cosh—beyond the “funny creative people,” beyond Canada. A few weeks ago, Charles Murray gave a speech in Washington on “the European model.” Please, no Carla Bruni gags. Mr. Murray is a very sober political scientist, and he eschewed such time-honoured jests.
Nonetheless, it was an arresting address, beginning with this diagnosis of “the European model’s” principal defect: “It drains too much of the life from life,” said Murray. “And that statement applies as much to the lives of janitors—even more to the lives of janitors—as it does to the lives of CEOs”—or novelists or musicians. As Murray sees it, government social policy is intended to take “some of the trouble out of things”—getting sick, having a kid, holding down a job, taking care of elderly parents. But, when government takes too much of the trouble out of things, it makes it impossible to lead a satisfying life. “Trouble”—responsibility, choices, consequences—is intimately tied to human dignity. And thus the human dignity in working hard, raising a family and withstanding the vicissitudes of life has been devalued. And society is just a matter of passing the time.
When government prioritizes security, it does so at the cost of satisfaction. The “funny creative people,” repellent as they often are, are a good early indicator: in such a society, as Murray says, “the concept of greatness is irritating and threatening.” Where is the great European art? I don’t mean the Renaissance, but just the occasional glimmer of a movie scene as lively as France and Italy’s a couple of generations back. In a sense, it becomes impossible: if you take, say, a 19th-century social novel, a girl goes to a ball and accepts a dance from a certain man, and her life changes forever. There are choices and consequences. But, if the government makes all the choices and absolves you of all the consequences, what’s to write about? When life is drained of life, what art can you make of it?
For me, health care is a moral issue, and even a spiritual one. Not just because I don’t want to be in the bathroom 12 times a night for three years. But because conceding the bureaucracy’s jurisdiction over your urinary tract is a near parodic example of what Colby Cosh calls a culture of “risk-averseness” and “deference to authority,” part of the remorseless surrender of individual liberty to government security across this last half-century. It’s not about the state of your health, but about the health of your state.