Commentary | Our social system is endangered

Citizens in need are increasingly forced to pay for necessary services

Canada’s social systems are being systematically dismantled. There are two levels at which this process needs to be understood. At the “upper” level, we must consider what these systems are meant to do for society; this role is largely static. On the “lower” level, there is the physical implementation and management of the system, which is more dynamic and changing.

It is difficult to envision a state in which some combination of machinations from our legislature, economy, bureaucracy, or judiciary might accidentally cast an individual out of “society,” with re-entrance by her own means a near impossibility. It is easy, however, to imagine any number of scenarios whereby a person might, by no fault of her own, come to lack the material wealth, affluence, education, health, or will necessary to participate in society, and more fundamentally, to preserve her own dignity.

Broadly, the problems that persistently daunt societies include restrictions on access to physical and emotional health care, education, valuable employment, avenues of self-expression and self-determination, safety, and meaningful interactions with governance structures.

In the absence of publicly-supported systems designed to mitigate these problems, they grow. Unchecked, they can evolve into insurmountable class gaps, oligarchies, and tyrannies, which serve to undermine dignity – perhaps the most important endowment of all.

At that upper level, we recognize that there is effectively a static body of needs which can only be satisfied by acknowledging our interdependence: we are individuals who can only hope to guarantee that our needs may be more permanently addressed even when we ourselves falter, via the existence of robust and stable collective efforts. It is the cumulative contributions to this communal pot that allow an individual in a time of need to have access to a stable support system, even when that need may be protracted. At the upper level – what role the system should play in society – collective support is meant to nullify the transience of individual inputs and withdrawals.

At the lower level, we recognize that a number of factors involved in the physical implementation and management of our social systems are not necessarily static. The state of our society – its resources, capacities, needs, and aspirations – is not static, not deterministic (or at least does not appear to be), not homogeneous. This fact gives rise to a need for dynamic management of the physical life of our social systems. By this, I mean that we need to manage how, for example, our hospitals and schools operate on a day-to-day basis. However, we absolutely must resist the temptation to conflate the changes in these factors, and the requirements they impose on managing the system, with the static body of (perhaps more abstract) needs that these systems were born to satisfy. That is, managing the system shouldn’t change its goals. Unfortunately, that is exactly what we are seeing: transient solutions to resource allocation problems are changing the very nature and purposes of the system for which these “solutions” are proposed.

Presently, the purported guardians of our social systems have concocted the idea of applying escalating “user fees” in order to access them. This is ostensibly being done to address shortfalls in public financing. It is an offence – both intellectually and emotionally – to suggest that those availing themselves of these systems should be made to financially support the system that is supposed to be supporting them, precisely at the time when they shouldn’t be made to pay at all. This runs entirely contrary to the premise of such systems. This ideology seeks to turn our public social systems into businesses selling products to individuals and thus removing the systems from the collective pot. Such a commodification subjects these systems to the economic principles governing any business: those that can afford the product have access to it, and those that can’t, don’t. These ideas are totally contrary to the founding principles of our social systems and must be fought vigorously.

A consequence of the current “management logic” is that the very mandate of these systems, and what they are meant to produce, is being all but disregarded. Hospitals and schools are being cast as competitors within their respective arenas of service. What exactly they are competing for, and to what ends in the context of benefiting society, is not clear. Who are we competing against? And why are we competing at all? Aren’t our schools meant to educate people, and isn’t the purpose of research to advance the general state of knowledge and understanding? Who cares who publishes the paper first, who publishes the most papers, and how much cash can be generated? Competition is not what underlies education and research, and competition for a market share of the sick and dying is not health care. Sure, competition can be a useful tool for resource management, but it’s not the goal!
(With respect to post-secondary education, it has been demonstrated by the Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économiques that the complete abolition of tuition fees in Quebec could be implemented with a 10-year annual increase of 0.2 per cent in Quebec’s budget. It would cost about $500 million per year, which is, compared to the province’s budget, peanuts. The entire notion of modulating a “user fee” – tuition fees – as a means to finance our post-secondary education system is pure nonsense used to distract from the real trajectory that this system is on: commodification of education, and transformation of the post-secondary education and health care systems from fundamental constituents of a socialized society into simply so many cogs in the economic apparatus.)
When this management logic comes to define the ends of a social institution, the institution is destroyed from the inside out, ultimately eroding the larger social system network. If instead we consider the principles from which these institutions arose, it becomes evident that the current path of commodification undermines their purpose. There should not exist a requirement to perform a “cost-benefit analysis” when deciding to pursue an education, or open-heart surgery.

Adrian Kaats is a PhD II engineering student, and he is a member of several PGSS committees. The views expressed here are his own. Write him at