In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, there is a scene in which a beggar stands on the street of his small Russian village, chanting, "Alms for the poor." A passerby hands him a coin, saying "Here is one kopek."
"One kopek!" says the beggar, "Last week you gave me two kopeks."
The donor replies, "I had a bad week."
The beggar exclaims indignantly, "So if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?"
This dialogue comes to mind in connection with two recent lawsuits. The first is Dale v. the Government of Manitoba. Four "disadvantaged" adults entered a program designed to help put them through university. The province initially provided living allowances, tuition, books and transportation. After two years, the province reduced its funding, forcing the students to apply for larger Canada Student Loans if they wanted to remain in school.
The students sued to get their subsidies restored to former levels. The Manitoba court upheld their claim, declaring the province contractually bound to continue paying them what they had expected throughout all four years. Nobody had ever told them the funding might be cut, said the court, and they constituted "a class of persons who would reasonably be expected to rely on" what they were told.
Apparently, being smart enough to go to university doesn't make you smart enough to have observed that government programs come and go, and that governments have been running deficits these last few years.
The court even managed to find that the students had given valuable consideration to the province for this so-called contract. First, it said, they had dropped off the welfare rolls. Pardon me, but so what? If they didn't like the reduced educational subsidy, they could have quit school and returned to welfare. They still would have had two years of university under their belts and been better off than before. To say that they had lost anything, or that the province had gained anything, from their temporarily receiving their charity under a different name is absurd.
The other consideration, said the court, was that the students might some day, after university, get jobs and start paying taxes. This seems equally tenuous. The students are not obliged to repay their grants or even to remain in Manitoba after graduation. If they do eventually attain the coveted status of taxpayer, they might well decide to bestow their taxes upon another province.
The implications of this decision for democracy are disturbing. If transient government programs can be bootstrapped into binding contracts by the wishes and expectations of a few rather naive people, how can taxpayers ever free themselves of the obligations incurred in their name by a party that buys its way into power with extravagant promises? Voting the scoundrels out won't help--their "contracts" will linger on to plague their more fiscally responsible successors.
The very notion of government contracts should trouble lawyers and judges. Governments have no money of their own. The ultimate obligors are the taxpayers, a majority of whom have usually not voted for the government of the day. When the government commits itself to paying for a program, is it acting as an agent for its principals, the taxpayers? Or does the relationship more closely resemble that of master and servant? Except--who is the master, and who the servant?
A similar lawsuit was brought by 12 Ontario welfare recipients in response to the Harris government's cut in their welfare benefits. In constant dollars, the post-cut benefits still ranged between 18 and 29 percent higher than they had been back in 1980. But in a fine example of life imitating art, the plaintiffs became indignant when their benefactor--who had been having a rather bad week for the past few years--tried to make them share in its diminished fortunes.
The Ontario plaintiffs invoked the Charter of Rights rather than contract law, claiming that their right to security of the person would be violated by the cuts. This raises an interesting question: if one person has the right to security of the person by taking other people's money, what security of the person is there for those whose money is being taken?
Perhaps the most offensive aspect of these lawsuits is the plaintiffs' attempt to stake out the high moral ground for themselves. In the press coverage of the Ontario case, their attitude seemed to be that the government and the taxpayers should be ashamed of themselves. Taxpayers' moral duty, the plaintiffs would have us believe, is to shut up and give, give, give. But the plaintiffs' own actions will be just the reverse: they intend to take, take, take.
If the plaintiffs think morality means making sacrifices for the sake of others, why do they believe they're exempt? Why don't they seize upon these golden opportunities to demonstrate their virtuous natures by giving up something they want? But no--others are expected to do the sacrificing, and they intend to collect the sacrifices. They not only expect it, they demand it. They even sue for it. Yet by their own standards of right and wrong, these lawsuits should be unethical.
Or, to paraphrase a tired cliche, is there a morality for the rich and a morality for the poor?