Saturday, February 12, 2005


Mark Steyn in grand form describes the Canadian Health Care system and all of its socialist glory:

Canada, in Lloyd Axworthy’s famous distinction, wields enormous “soft power”, in contrast to America with its old-fashioned “hard power”. If you say so, Lloyd. But it seems to me the real distinction is more profound - between hard culture and soft culture.

That shrewd analyst of demographic and political trends, Michael Barone, recently published a book called Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs Coddling and The Battle For The Nation’s Future. It’s hard to imagine anyone writing a book called Hard Canada, Soft Canada: that question got settled a generation ago. We’re not the only ones, of course: a book called Hard Europe, Soft Europe would be equally improbable.

“Soft power” is wielded by soft cultures, usually because they lack the will to muster hard power. Can you remain a soft power for long? Maybe a generation or two. But a soft culture will, by its very nature, be unlikely to find the strength to stand up to a sustained assault by blunter, cruder forces. To take a small example, on the night of September 11th 2001, a gang of Muslim youths rampaged through the streets of Bradford, England celebrating Islam’s glorious victory over the Great Satan. They pounded on the hoods – or, to use the quaint locution of British English, bonnets – of cars, hammered the doors and demanded the drivers join them in their chants of “Osama bin Laden is a great man.”

Try that in Texas, and the guy will reach into his glove box and blow your head off. In Vermont, too. But in Britain you’re not allowed to own a gun or even (to all intents and purposes) resist assault. So the unfortunate burghers of Bradford went home cowed and terrified, and the Muslim gangs went swaggering off with their cultural confidence enormously enhanced.

This isn’t just about the right to bear arms. My bet is that, in this long twilight struggle brought into focus by 9/11, the hard cultures will survive and the soft cultures won’t. And, because I’d like my country to make it, I tend to look at every issue these days on whether it falls on the “hard” or “soft” side of the ledger. For example, Roy Romanow justifies the state’s monopoly on health care on the grounds that “Canadians view Medicare as a moral enterprise, not a business venture.” Well, if they do, they’re very mistaken. Medicare isn’t a moral enterprise: what’s moral about removing a citizen’s responsibility for his and his dependents’ health care and entrusting it to the state? If free citizens of advanced, wealthy economies are not prepared to make provision for their own health care, what other basic responsibilities are they likely to forego? Socialized health care redefines the relationship between the citizen and the state. Even if it worked – even if it wasn’t a decrepit, SARS-spreading sinkhole – it would still be bad in its softening effect on the citizenry.

But, of course, it doesn’t work. In April this year, Gérald Augustin of Rivière-des-Prairies, Quebec went to the St. André medical clinic complaining of stomach pain. He’d forgotten to bring his Medicare card, so they turned him away. He went back home, collapsed of acute appendicitis, and by the time the ambulance arrived he was dead. He was 21 years old, and he didn’t make it to 22 because he accepted the right of a government bureaucrat to refuse him medical treatment for which he and his family have been confiscatorily taxed all their lives. Clinic director Rouslene Augustin says it’s the policy to refuse all patients who don’t have their cards with them. No big deal, he wasn’t anything special, no-one in her clinic even remembers giving him the brush.

A few years back, when my little boy was a toddler, I had to rush him to Emergency at the Children’s Hospital in Montreal. They asked for his Medicare card. I didn’t have it. The missus usually has it with her, and she was out, and we don’t usually think to shuffle it back and forth between us all day. So the receptionist said we’d have to go away and come back later. In all my experience of American, British, French, Swiss, Austrian and other health care systems, I’d never heard such rubbish. I had my card. He’s my dependent. What would cause her to think he didn’t have a card or wasn’t entitled to one? And, given that the cards are generated by a computer anyway, why isn’t there a database of current card holders? Well, I kicked up a fuss, swore like Paul Martin reacting off-mike to a Gary Doer soundbite, and, after ten minutes of yelling, they agreed to see the kid. Perhaps if M Augustin had done that, he’d still be alive.

A year or so later, south of the border, another child had a fall on Thanksgiving and had to go to hospital for a couple of stitches. We pulled up at the door, the boy was taken to the examining table, and while they were looking at him the nurse handed me a release form to sign, giving them permission to treat him. Only after they’d looked at him and calmed him down and everything was underway did they suggest I saunter along to the desk to fill in the paperwork. Whatever the particular deficiencies of America’s or any other health service, any system that requires the operators to respect you as a client rather than tolerate you as a ward of the state is, in Romanow terms, more “moral”.

In a soft culture, the only hard power is wielded by bureaucrats – the fellows who told M Augustin that no matter what pain he was in they weren’t going to see him. But, what’s fascinating to me is that, no matter how inept the nanny state is, no matter how bad the health care system gets in reality, Canadians are still unwilling to give up on its utopian virtues – universal lack of access, equality of non-care. We believe it’s more moral to take poor government health care than to make arrangements for our own.

The Canadian system is supposedly designed for the weakest in society - the unfortunate person who needs medical treatment but, without the state, would have difficulty gaining access to it. But, by treating all of us as the weakest in society, the state softens us – and softens itself. When health care is the government’s responsibility, it becomes its principal responsibility. Imagine if we had as many high-profile conferences on national security as we do on health. But we don’t. Because the minute you make government the provider of health care, you ensure that, come election time, the electorate identifies health as its number one concern. Thus, in a democracy, the very fact of socialized health care seduces government away from its prime responsibility – the defence of the realm. In the Canadian cabinet, the Health portfolio is more prestigious than Defence. Think Donald Rumsfeld would regard it as a promotion if he were moved to Health?

In Europe, the soft culture is so advanced – public health care, state pensions, cradle-to-grave welfare, protected jobs from which you can’t be fired, 35-hour weeks, six weeks of vacation, lavish unemployment benefits if that all sounds too grueling – that the citizen is little more than a junkie with the state as a pusher. Faced with the perfect storm of swollen pensions liabilities and collapsed birthrates, even Continental politicians recognize the need to wean their citizenry off some of these entitlements. But the citizens don’t. What do they care if their country will be bankrupt in 20 years and extinct in 70? Not my problem, man. Call me when I get back from the beach.

If we’re to avoid that fate, we need more parties and institutions that talk up self-reliance and individual innovation, because free citizens are much more likely to turn back the tide in this war for civilization than nanny-state charges. Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting the charming if socialist Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh. “Take care in Iraq,” she advised me. “Those crazy Americans.” She flew back to Stockholm and got stabbed to death in a big department store full of “bystanders” who all stood by waiting for the police to arrive to save her. I think of that image now when I think of Europe – and I hope Canada’s not the same. The soft culture of Euro-Canadian welfare raises its citizens to be bystanders in their own fate.
The Western Standard, October 11th 2004

Read MORE of Mark Steyn here.

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