In Women Are Key for Future Growth: Evidence from Canada the International Monetary Fund recommends that Canada spend eight billion dollars annually on a daycare program that would pay for itself. The catch? Mothers must be forced to work. The authors reveal their political leanings early on, and hence their framing of the research. In so many words, they are saying: Our purpose as human beings is not to find our own way, to make choices that serve our own objectives and to pursue personal self-fulfillment. Rather, our purpose is to work; earn an income; and to pay taxes to feed the Leviathan (to use Hobbes' accurate term for the State). Oh, and most of us have one other function - as reproducers. That function is particularly important because it provides to the system ever more future workers who will pay more taxes to fatten up the already obese and highly intrusive State.
The appeal to "women's equality" is an interesting and convenient device in making their case for a bit of social engineering. For the authors, any differential between female and male participation in the labour force must be due to artificial barriers and cultural issues (i.e., discrimination) and not to women making personal and often difficult decisions about how they wish to use their time within a family context. So, if there is a "gender gap" in participation, the State has the ability (and the authors argue, the obligation) to provide incentives to tip the balance on a very personal choice towards paid employment and away from staying at home. Why should the State do this? Because our birth rate is declining and longer term demographics show a decrease in the proportion of working age people. The solution is to put more women to work. The paragraph at the top of page 17 makes it clear that women need to do more to help solve our "economic problem."
Put more honestly, the authors want the State to ignore the natural choices and wishes of women and trick them into working to help feed the system. Without State interference, they would have made the decision to stay at home and absorbed whatever reduction in material living standard because they have determined that they (and their) family were better off by doing so.
Perhaps the matter can be put more plainly: Is women's equality and women's rights all about nudging them into the paid labour force or is it about respecting women's choices?
Besides the problem of the State interfering with the freely made choices of women and their families, these kinds of policies always have serious drawbacks. Here is a partial list:
- There is mounting evidence to suggest that there are adverse effects (both behavioural and cognitive) for children in daycare.
- While the cost-benefit calculation for the State may well show a positive value before these incentive policies begin, State programs and policy reach tend to expand rapidly and become more bureaucratic, costly, and legalistic. The "net-benefit-to-society" argument is highly uncertain because of this. And it is rare that these calculations are revisited once the program had been in place for a period of time.
- Do stay-at-home mothers, once we control for other variables, have more children than working mothers? If the answer turns out to be "yes", then pushing more mothers into the workforce could make the original problem (that prompted the call for more working moms), ie., declining fertility, worse.
A final concern relating to the paper would be the surprising willingness to penalize stay-at-home mothers for their decision by withdrawing existing benefits from them to pay for additional or enhanced benefits for working moms. This is part of the "incentive to work" that the IMF researchers feel is needed to push more women into the labour force. This is a form of discrimination. There is little rationale for the State to be involved at all in either favouring or discouraging procreation. This matter is a very personal, intimate decision by parents and one that ideally involves a lot of factors (like income, readiness, maturity level, and support systems). Choices like this are strictly private. The State ought not to be using other people’s money to try to sway such decisions.
In my view, it is best to opt for virtues like personal responsibility; respect for the choices that women and families make; respect for the principle of 'consent', and a respect for strictly private solutions to any problems that arise. History teaches us that much harm has been done by governments that claimed they were simply trying to help society.
Christopher A. Sarlo is professor of economics at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario.