If red wine was free, we'd all be alcoholics. That's how it works. When offered something for nothing, we take more of it. Currently all parents are given the opportunity to avail of one year's free preschooling for their children. Over nine in 10 take up that offer. Now there's a suggestion from the Minister for Education that a second year should be made available for free. The numbers signing up would go down somewhat – not all three-year-olds are ready to swap the one-on-one attention on which they thrive at that age for life in the collective – but most parents would probably still avail of the service. Why turn down a few hours' peace and quiet each day if it doesn't cost anything?
Let's not pretend, though, that universal preschooling is some great one-size-fits-all solution to inequality, as Ruairi Quinn was hyping it last week. At one point he even declared: "If we could get two years as distinct from one, it would really have the potential to transform the learning outcomes and the educational outcomes of a whole cohort of young people."
Hmm, debatable, to say the least. There's no credible evidence that the finger-painters and dressing-uppers of today will magically transform into the A1 Leaving Cert students of tomorrow. The reason children with more preschooling behind them end up doing better in exams as teenagers and earning more as adults than the children who stayed at home until they were five is not because they learned the alphabet or how to count to 10 when they were barely out of nappies; it's because they were more likely to be the children of higher-earning, higher-achieving, preschool-using parents in the first place.
Studies demonstrate that children from lower socio- economic backgrounds can replicate the same results if they have stable home lives with mothers and fathers who read regularly to them; just as they show that US states where universal preschool programmes have been implemented at vast expense don't enjoy any improvement over neighbouring states where they don't have such schemes.
It was the way that Quinn proposed funding this extra free year's preschooling that was really revealing, however. Speaking on radio, he suggested that the cost could be met by cutting child benefit, which presently costs €2bn a year.
"No way, Jose," parents immediately replied. Some because they couldn't afford to give up any more money, others because they didn't see why they should have to pay for services they wouldn't be using, either because they didn't want to send their three- year-old to preschool, or because their children were now too old to qualify. Still more suspected that the Government was merely flying a kite on this one to prepare the way for further cuts to child benefit in the next Budget. It wouldn't be the first time.
If so, they should just have the decency to come out and admit it, rather than dressing up the move as some altruistic act of social improvement; as if they're cutting child benefit for our own good rather than theirs. Maybe that's psychologically comforting if you're in the Labour Party and have found yourself targeting child benefit despite promising that the payments were sacrosanct, but they really shouldn't expect the rest of us to go along with the act just so that they can feel better about their mendacity.
Once again, a mindset was being displayed here that the Government knows best how to spend your money, so you should just let them get on with it and not make a fuss. In fact, the more of it that you can give to them, the better, because then there's less temptation to be spending it on things of which the Government disapproves.
That undercurrent is always there in the child benefit debate; a sneaky insinuation that the money isn't being spent "properly". Quinn was at it again last week with the suggestion that child benefit in many families was going into a "holiday fund" rather than being spent on essentials.
He's a clever man. He must know what he's doing when he says such things. But what exactly is he doing? Are we supposed to regard this condescending paternalism as tough, sinewy plain speaking? It's populist poop-stirring, is what it is. There may be a few families going skiing in the Dolomites with the child benefit money (though it does bear all the hallmarks of an ideologically convenient urban myth, like a Leftie version of those asylum seekers driving around in new 4x4s that rural redneck county councillors are always claiming to see).
Most people are using child benefit to pay day-to-day bills or to offset the mammoth cost of childcare if they happen to be in work. Quinn is merely chucking around extreme examples to manipulate the debate to his liking, and we shouldn't fall for it. Even if better off people are receiving child benefit which they don't "need", what of it? They've already paid through the nose for it, as they pay for everything else the Government spends, through taxation.
That's the thing politicians seem to forget. The Government doesn't have any money of its own. It doesn't make or create anything. (Except, possibly, misery.) It only has other people's hard-earned cash to distribute and they constantly want those same people to feel grateful when they do.
The preferred end game for these masters of our universe is for Ireland to become a neatly ordered Scandinavian-style society in which the little people gladly let those who profess to know what's good for them run their whole lives from birth to death, wrapped like babes in swaddling clothes in the suffocating embrace of the State.
It might even be a tempting dream, as the Anglo-American model of individualism that we opted to follow instead loses its shine in the recession. But even if we did let them have their way, in the hope of a happier and less stressed-out existence, our overlords would probably make a mess of that as well. Ireland isn't Sweden. We'd just end up with Abbageddon, adopting the worst bits of Scandinavian welfarism whilst still working too hard, sacrificing family life to pay mammoth mortgages, and feeling ever more tired and unfulfilled in the process.