© 1998  Karen Selick
A Very "Poor" Idea
An edited version of this article first appeared in the July, 1998 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


A Very "Poor" Idea

Michelle Falardeau-Ramsay, head of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, is one of those people who should be very careful about what she wishes for.  If she ever got her wish, she and a lot of other people would find it very unpleasant indeed.

Since her appointment in 1997, Ms. Falardeau-Ramsay has been campaigning to have "poverty" included as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act.  She writes in the commissionís annual report: "Poverty is a serious breach of equality rights which I believe has no place in a country as prosperous as ours."

Thereís a new breed of socialist around who realizes that Canada has reached its limit in redistributing income through taxation.  Our high taxes are discouraging people from working as long or as hard as they otherwise would, driving some of our most talented and productive citizens to emigrate, and pushing many people into the underground economy.  Yet despite half a century of increasingly aggressive wealth redistribution, Canada still has rich people and poor people.  What to do? 

The latest strategy focuses on consumption rather than income.  If the radical egalitarians can find a way to make having no money just as comfortable and advantageous as having lots of money, differences in income wonít matter.  Thatís why theyíre adamant, for example, that citizens not be permitted to spend their own money on better or speedier medical care than what the government provides.  Now they hope to pass laws making it illegal for anyone who provides goods, services, facilities or accommodations to discriminate on the ground of poverty.

A few momentsí thought might make them realize that businesses rarely discriminate on this ground anyway.  Doing so would mean turning away business and reducing profits.  If thereís one thing those greedy capitalist pigs canít be accused of, itís passing up an opportunity to make a buck.  So most businesses donít give a hoot whether their customers are rich or poor, so long as theyíre prepared to pay the going price and abide by the same contractual terms as anyone else.

Human rights activists, however, have developed theories of "adverse impact" and "systemic" discrimination.  They contend that even business practices which appear neutral on the surface can be discriminatory if they affect one minority group more than the population at large. 

Combine these concepts with protected status for a group called "the poor" and the result will spell the end of the market system.  Virtually every consumer transaction would become an illegal act of discrimination, because the poor, by definition, will always be less able than the middle class or the rich to afford any given quality or quantity of goods and services. 

"Poor" customers would be able to make merchants ridiculously low offers for merchandise, offers the merchants literally couldnít refuse unless they wanted to be hauled before the Human Rights Commission.  In fact, charging *any* price for a product would be discriminatory.   "The poor" could extend the rationale currently applied to medical care to insist that all goods and services be provided free of charge, in whatever quantities consumers might demand.

Ms. Falardeau-Ramsay would then have her egalitarian utopia.  Unfortunately, we would no longer have the prosperous country she referred to.  Our standard of living would plummet to bare subsistence.  Few people are willing to work and produce anything when not working gets you the same benefits, and everyone always want much more of everything when they donít have to pay for it.  The result would be chronic shortages, waiting lists and line-ups.  The people whom Ms. Falardeau-Ramsay wishes to help would actually be far worse off than they are today. 

Despite the rhetoric of activists who say 25 percent of Canadians live in poverty, the truth is that real povertyóthe lack of sufficient money to afford the necessities of lifeóis virtually unknown in Canada. Statistics Canada defines people as "low-income" if they spend more than 58.5 percent of their income on food, shelter and clothing.  That still leaves 41.5 percent for non-necessities.  This absence of genuine poverty explains why would-be immigrants from every country of the world are hammering on the doors to be let into this place where we will supposedly trample all over their human rights.

The best guarantee any country has against widespread poverty is a thriving economy, and the only way an economy can thrive is through the free market.  This in turn depends on the existence of two things:  freedom of contract and private property rights. Thereís not a word in the Canadian Human Rights Act about either of these.  In fact, the Act systematically violates both of these fundamental freedoms by forcing certain targeted classes of people (the providers of goods, services, facilities and accommodation) into transactions with members of legally privileged groups, against their will and on terms they havenít agreed to. 

Justice Minister Anne McLellan has promised a thorough review of the Canadian Human Rights Act, including the question of adding poverty as a prohibited ground of discrimination.   Letís hope she has the common sense to understand the destruction this would wreak on the country.

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June 20, 2000