David Frum

The Old Get Spared, the Young Get Burdened

04.28.12 1:08 PM ET

Local Input~ MONTREAL, QUE.: MARCH 7, 2012 -- Police and protesters clash on Sherbrooke St. west in Montreal Wednesday, March 7, 2012. A large group of students blocked the entrance to the Loto-QuÈbec building at lunchtime on Wednesday, leading to an intervention with Montreal riot police. Student leaders said the police action was excessive for a peaceful demonstration. Students targeted the building because it houses the offices of CREPUQ, the conference of rectors and principals which supports tuition hikes. (John Kenney/THE GAZETTE)

john kenney

In my column for the National Post, I look at the causes of some recent student riots in Quebec:

The rioting students of Quebec got scant sympathy even before they started smashing windows and detonating smoke bombs.

Polls suggest that Quebecers generally support Jean Charest’s government’s plan to raise tuitions in small increments over the next five years. Even when all the increases are phased in, Quebec students will still pay less than students anywhere else in Canada, only 17% of the cost of their own education.

So what have these kids got to complain about? Unfortunately — more than their elders care to admit.

The Canadian fiscal system, like those of all developed countries, tilts heavily toward the elderly. It’s not just that pensions and health-care spending outweigh education and college spending (although of course they do). In addition, the cohorts born before 1960 have received a better deal from government at every phase of life than will — in all likelihood — the cohorts born after 1990.

Members of the pre-1960 cohort paid less tax when young. More of that tax was used to buy things they themselves consumed; less to support the retirement of the (smaller and shorter-lived) cohorts before them.

As they age, the pre-1960 cohorts will enjoy more benefits from government than they themselves ever paid for. They will draw more support from the post-1990 cohorts than they themselves paid toward their elders. And because so many of the benefits for the pre-1960 cohorts have been (and will be) financed by debt, the pre-1960 cohorts will be drawing support from the post-1990 cohorts for years to come.

In the past, this redistribution from young to old could be justified by economic growth. When we taxed the young to support the old, we could assume we were taxing the (richer) future to support a (poorer) past.