Charest is no Putin. Poutine, Maybe.

06/08/2012 05:11 EDT | Updated 08/08/2012 05:12 EDT

How ironic that the most extensive demonstrations we have seen to date in North America have concerned not unemployment, global warming, or the notorious one per cent, but the tuition that Quebec students have to pay for the benefits of a college education. There are some interesting lessons in this, about protests and democracy.

As with so many contentious political issues these days, many people in Quebec have duly lined up on one side or the other. Left or right, it's all black and white. That's a lot easier than facing the ambiguities of a messy reality.

The New York Timesran an op-ed piece by two professors of political science at the University of Montreal, who likened Quebec to Putin's Russia, and called its government "rogue," one of the most right-wing here in 40 years. These commentators did not exaggerate the extent of the fee increases 75 per cent; they just failed to mention that it would be introduced over several years, finally to reach a total of less than $4,000 per annum -- not far from what I paid in 1960, adjusting for inflation. Moreover, the lion's share of the costs of that education would continue to be covered by the public purse. Had such facts been presented in the article, American readers would have laughed at these protests.

Come pay us a visit up here in Putin-land. You will find that, even under this government, Quebec remains the most socially liberal place in North America by a country mile. After months of disruptive marches, the government did grossly overreact. That helped the students, by bringing out other protesters, while it deflected attention away from the issue of tuition, toward that of democracy itself. Democracy should have been the issue all along.

These students have claimed to be on strike. Against whom? Surely they were not striking against the colleges and universities that provide their education. Could they have been striking against the government that funds most of that education? They are not its employees. By trying to have this seen as a strike, the students were justifying their demand for "negotiations" with the government. In this they have succeeded, although these negotiations have so far gone nowhere.

The students who joined the protests (in fact, less than one-third of all those in the colleges and universities) have seen their cause as noble. After all, education benefits all of society. True enough, but the prime beneficiaries of education are the educated themselves, who come out advantaged. Thus a party driven by its own self interest has maneuvered itself into a position of negotiating public policy in Quebec. Consider the parallel with the maneuvering by industry groups in the United States Congress, except that there it goes on in the back rooms rather than on the front streets. And the purpose, ostensibly at least, is to influence public policy, not negotiate it.

Should a social service for some be paid for by all? In the case of health care, the Canadian answer has been yes: for decades we have had universal, publically-funded coverage. But health care is not higher education. First, any of us can get sick, so we are all potential beneficiaries. Second, these benefits offer no advantage beyond, at best, being restored to one's previous state of health.

Canadians of modest income understand full well that the alternative to paying for this through taxes is two-tier health care, which would put them at a disadvantage. Two tiers are intrinsic in higher education: some receive it and others don't.

In some places, the state pays for all of this education, sometimes even living expenses as well. Go justify that to the middle income taxpayer whose child did not make it into university. In other places, the government pays none of it, which leaves many graduates overwhelmed with large debts. In Quebec, the government proposes to continue paying for most of education, which would leave those students who lack sufficient personal funds with moderate debts.

In these economic times, with social and health care programs being squeezed by governments on the left and the right, this seems like a reasonable compromise, indeed a generous one. The public purse is not a bottomless pit. Difficult trade-offs have to be made, and the subsidization of tuition for higher education hardly deserves priority. Don't fix the roads; subsidize the students? Freeze tuitions at the expense of the health care funding? How much easier it is to bang pots and pans on the streets, or resort to claiming that the colleges and universities are not making efficient use of the public money they receive, than to face such tradeoffs?

The protesting students of Quebec are mad as hell and claim they will not take it any more. Good. There are many issues about which to express outrage, by students and others everywhere. Near the top of that list should be every sort of challenge to democracy by special interest groups.