How Markets Help Minorities: The Example of Daycare

Blog, Poverty, Ben Eisen

Recently, the government of Quebec announced a ban on religious instruction in publicly subsidized daycare centres.  Couple quick thoughts:

1. The practical consequence of this decision is that it will be difficult for parents who value religious instruction as part of their toddler’s childcare experience to find arrangements that suit that preference.

2. Heavy-handed government intervention and regulation inevitably squeezes the vibrancy and diversity out of the childcare sector, resulting in an inflexible one-size-fits-all approach. Canada  is a diverse, multicultural society and parents disagree about what constitutes a positive childcare experience.  Although many parents doubtlessly prefer a secular experience for their toddler, there are others who view religious instruction as among the most important purposes of early childhood education.

3. Markets for goods and services such as childcare, in which consumers value  different attributes, are poor candidates for government control. Stanford sociologist Bruce Fuller explains how government regulation homogenizes childcare in his outstanding book Standardized Childhood. Fuller convincingly argues that the bureaucratic and regulatory framework of a government controlled system inevitably homogenizes and standardizes the childcare system, diminishing its adaptability to the particular circumstances and needs of minority communities. Fuller has spent years studying the effects of government takeovers of childcare in different parts of the United States and has repeatedly seen the same homogenization we are seeing in Quebec. Fuller describes the phenomenon eloquently and is worth quoting at length : “once government gains broad authority and invokes its regulatory habits, it is tempting for advocates, governors, and legislators to intensify their Weberian ways, simplifying and standardizing what children are to learn and how social relations are to be regimented inside classrooms.”

4. Proponents of government subsidization and regulation of childcare often respond by arguing  preschools designed to meet the needs of minorities can exist independently, outside of the public system for those who want to use them. But the reality is that the existence of a heavily subsidized public system forces independent childcare providers to compete on an uneven footing with free or heavily subsidized preschools. The inevitable result is that it is extremely difficult for independent centres to stay in business. This means that parents who don’t like the public system have few options, and independent centres that remain are likely to be more expensive due to the depressed level of supply.  In short, government subsidies for the public system make it difficult for independent centres to survive, making it harder for unhappy parents to access options that are free from regulatory control.

5. This example shows why commercial markets and voluntary community-based systems of service delivery are usually better at meeting the needs of minorities than government-controlled systems. When we make decisions collectively, through political and bureaucratic processes, we often arrive at decisions that respond to what the majority wants, but which minorities don’t like. In a market, we don’t need to arrive at collective decisions which means that dissenting minorities can also get what they want.  Example: Only a minority of people like anchovies on their pizza. If we decided upon nation-wide pizza standards through political processes, anchovies probably wouldn’t make the cut. That would be fine for the anchovy-hating majority, but would be a loss for the anchovy lovers. Fortunately, we don’t have national pizza standards -individual consumers are allowed to choose. The result is that the minority and the majority both get what they want when they order in. Parents who want their children taught the tenets of the Jewish faith at daycare centres are analogous to the anchovy-lovers in this example. They’re in the minority, but there is no reason to use government standards, controls and subsidies to stop them from getting what they want. Yes, I know that childcare is more important than pizza – all the more reason it is important that parents have access to a wide range of choices.

6. Governments should provide vouchers to help poor families who want daycare but can’t afford it obtain high-quality care. Other than that, governments should  stay out of the way, stop regulating the industry beyond basic health and safety standards and let different daycare providers respond to the preferences of their particular customers..  A diverse society like ours needs a similarly diverse array of childcare options. Limiting that choice through regulations and competition-busting subsidies unnecessarily homogenizes the system and thereby hurts minorities.