Myodicy, Issue 24, September 2005

The Right to Be Poor:
Reflections on
Mandatory Retirement

by Theodore Plantinga


We live in an age of efficiency -- or so we like to think. But some processes are still agonizingly slow. For example, consider this business of granting "rights": it seems to take forever. The discovery is made that a certain "right" has not yet been granted, and a campaign is undertaken to rectify the situation. Inevitably some mossbacks speak up -- often a great many of them -- and voice their opposition to what is proposed. A long political discussion ensues, and after much wrangling and wasting of time, the disputed "right" is granted. Those who pride themselves on being liberal and progressive regard the issue as a no-brainer, and one is left to wonder what possible point there could be in ever opposing the official granting of a "right."

As I survey this situation playing itself out in public discussion, the thought crosses my mind that we could save ourselves a great deal of money in terms of what it costs to run our governments and legislatures if we adopted a policy of granting all "rights" automatically -- just as soon as someone puts in a claim for them. We could say: "Goodness gracious! How could we ever have overlooked that? Let's set the matter right at once." Indeed, we could speed things up even more by hiring people to scrounge around for "rights" that are as yet undiscovered and therefore unclaimed. We could even set a target date by which all conceivable "rights" must be granted.

By now you will have guessed that I am not in favor of moving in such a direction. I have made these facetious opening remarks to highlight the poverty of our public discourse in Canada and throughout much of the Western world.

The point I wish to make at the start of this essay is that rights are not always to be embraced as something positive. Take, for example, the right to be poor. You may respond: "What's this? I haven't heard of that one. I'm not sure anyone would campaign for the right to be poor." Therefore some explanation is in order. But please permit me a small digression first.


"He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision." So we read in Psalm 2. But what is it that he laughs about? Does he find our efforts to grant "rights" amusing? Perhaps he thinks that if he were put in charge of the government in Canada and other self-styled progressive countries, he could greatly speed up the granting of "rights" and could eliminate those endless hours of debate in our legislatures. Being omniscient and omnipotent, he could set whole matter right in no time flat. After all, there are no limits to his powers.

Some philosophers, however, might disagree. Philosophy professors like to ask their students whether it would be possible for God, being omnipotent, to make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it. They then go on to explain that this is a variation on the classic philosophical question whether God could make a square circle. Reflect for a while on the concept of a square circle, and you begin to see the difficulties. Your conception of God and his relation to the world he has made gradually begins to change and mature.

So what about it, could God, if we invited him to run the show and thereby made ourselves into a genuine theocracy, bring it about that all rights were granted, with the result that the entire citizenry would be pleased as punch? William James would counsel caution on this score. In a telling passage in his essay "The Moral Philosopher and Moral Life," he points out:

If the ethical philosopher were only asking after the best imaginable system of goods he would indeed have an easy task; for all demands as such are prima facie respectable, and the best simply imaginary world would be one in which every demand was gratified as soon as made. Such a world would, however, have to have a physical constitution entirely different from that of the one which we inhabit ....

Such a universe, according to James, would serve up certain possibilities (or "compossibilities," as some philosophers would insist on calling them) that strain the bounds of sense. He then gives examples, telling us that in such a universe the following would be possible:

... spending our money, yet growing rich; taking our holiday, yet getting ahead with our work; shooting and fishing, yet doing no hurt to the beasts; gaining no end of experience, yet keeping our youthful freshness of heart; and the like. There can be no question that such a system of things, however brought about, would be the absolutely ideal system; and that if a philosopher could create universes a priori, and provide all the mechanical conditions, that is the sort of universe which he should unhesitatingly create. But this world of ours is made on an entirely different pattern ...." [NOTE 1]

The difficulty to which James here draws our attention would, I suspect, prove a challenge for God. In other words, it might turn out that demands and rights are not simply goodies of which one can simply say: "The more, the better! Makes sure everyone gets one." When rights are awarded (or demands met), they often restrict the freedoms, privileges and prerogatives of others.

Take the business of rental accommodation. Of late we have granted quite some rights to tenants and prospective tenants, partly as a way to combat racial discrimination. But what about the people who own the rental housing? They are human beings as well, and they might appeal for rights too. Moreover, we could ground their rights in the broadly understood concept of property rights. Does it not make sense to suppose that one has the right to a certain degree of control over one's own property? Is one not entitled to exercise some discretion when it comes to renting out that property?

Another example is the legal tug-of-war between human beings who grew up as adoptees (and never knew the identity of their birth parents) and the birth parents who surrendered them to the adoption process in the first place. Of late many have championed the rights of these adoptees to get information about their birth parents; the adoptees want to be informed about their genetic and ethnic and racial ancestry. They may also desire to encounter their birth parent(s) in person. But folks who oppose abortion vigorously and advocate the route of putting up one's child for adoption as a responsible alternative would presumably want to award a certain degree of protection to the women to whom this course of action is recommended; without such protection, the adoption route might become unpalatable. Think about it: the women who agree to adoption have made a very difficult decision. Do such women not have a right to privacy as well? Can maximal rights be granted both to such women who have given up their babies for adoption and to the children they have given up? William James would say no. When we enact laws and draw up social policies, we cannot avoid making some hard choices.


Now, back to the issue I raised in the title of this essay. What about it: Is there a right to be poor? If we understand the term "right" in a weak or relative sense, it would be hard to deny that there is. But when one begins to push the issue a bit, it is no longer so clear that our society recognizes such a right -- or that it should do so.

I may have the right to walk around in shabby clothes and thereby suggest that I can't afford to dress well, but do I have the right to sleep on the sidewalk? I suppose I do: the homeless are a fact of life in cities and towns all over North America. Do I have the right to freeze to death while sleeping on the sidewalk on a bitterly cold winter's night? This one is not so clear, for the police and other social service workers may put considerable pressure on me to come into some sort of shelter for the night in an effort to prevent that very thing from happening. Do I have the right to erect a minimal shanty, constructed of bits of tin and cardboard and other scraps, on a vacant lot down the street? Clearly not. Moreover, in a great many neighborhoods there are very specific restrictions on the nature and size and quality of the residential units that can be constructed. After all, one does not build without first obtaining a building permit. And so, in a significant sense, it does not appear that I have the right to be poor.

But this is too easy an answer. I cannot let the matter rest here. Perhaps I can shed some light on the question by asking whether we recognize the right to be rich -- or better, to get rich. The obvious answer is yes. For some people, the phrase "the American dream" points to this very possibility. The USA, they believe, is the land where there is opportunity to get rich, and the law will not stand in your way -- not much, anyway. Indeed, you are encouraged to try to get rich. Other Western democracies seem to follow suit.

Folks who are enamored of the right to get rich will not easily be put off if they are told that when one compares our material possessions and physical standard of living with that of people in the Middle Ages or that of people in the poorest countries on earth today, we are all rich. It seems that there's not much point in being rich if you are not conscious of it in a strong and continuing sense. In operative terms, it might be said that to be rich is to be richer. Richer than whom? Richer than some folks in Somalia? That doesn't do me much good, for I never get to Somalia, and if my travels do take me to a genuine Third-World country, I am not likely to linger for long to enjoy my status as a man of wealth. In fact, the obvious disparity between my material abundance and the poverty of the people in such a country makes me downright uncomfortable. And so the truth of the matter is that I would like to be richer than other folks in my own community. It's not enough to keep up with the Joneses -- the idea is to get ahead of them, so that both you and they will know it. "Conspicuous consumption" is the order of the day.

If we had a social order and political and economic system that aimed at equality in income and assets for all people, the right to get rich would evaporate. But we do not have such a system, and hardly anyone would want such a thing. The system we do live under makes it possible for some people become more wealthy even as fellow citizens become poorer as a result -- a genuine redistribution of assets. What I'm referring to is not, strictly speaking, a deliberate scheme for the distribution of money or of income, because the result is not brought about by any mechanism. It's a matter of opportunity. We might profess to wish for equality of income, but in our hearts we accept economic disparity in about the same way that we accept constant change in the weather. It's simply the way of the world.

Take the lottery, by way of example. The complaint is often made that the lottery is a tax on stupid people. Not all the money that is thrown into the pot, so to speak, is distributed to the winner or winners; when figures are released, one is surprised at how low a proportion of the money gets paid out in the form of winnings. And so, if one could buy all the tickets to a given lottery and thereby be guaranteed of pocketing all the winnings, one would get back only a percentage of what had been paid out in the first place. That's why government use lotteries so extensively as ways to raise additional revenues.

Even so, it remains true that it is possible for a lottery winner to be instantly catapulted into the ranks of the millionaires and to have his lifestyle radically changed. And when this happens, the newfound millions have, in effect, come from the pockets of the other lottery participants. In view of these simple realities, we cannot escape the conclusion that our country recognizes the right to get rich by winning the lottery. In effect it also recognizes the right of people to impoverish themselves gradually by buying lottery tickets.

There other forms of gambling that could be mentioned here by way of example. A much more genteel form of gambling is the buying and selling of securities. Now, many securities are quite stable and therefore can be considered as serious and responsible investments; I am thinking especially of blue-chip stocks, bonds issued by governments and certain corporations, and guaranteed investment certificates. But there are also volatile and speculative stocks. And then there is the world of options and futures and derivatives. When one studies the riskier forms of investment, one cannot help but think that it all comes painfully close to relying on chance. And so it could be argued that at least part of the world of buying and selling securities is in effect a gambling den.

Just as in the case of the lottery, you might strike it rich. And if you do, you can rest assured that some other people just like you who invested in the same market wound up losing heavily. Some of their money has now made its way into your pocket. You have gotten rich, and they have gotten poorer. Here we see again that the right to get rich and the right to become poor are closely linked.

The issue I am touching on is the background to the discussion underway especially in the United States as to whether public pension moneys, such as Social Security funds, should be eligible for investment in the stock market on an individual basis. A broader question of the same sort faces pension fund managers on both sides of the border. Should there be restrictions on the risks that such managers take when they invest those massive sums of money? Our pension and Social Security entitlements are designed to provide us with badly needed income in our old age, when we are no longer able to work productively to support ourselves. And so the general question is whether we are entitled to gamble with those future sources of income. Is this another right (perhaps we could call it "the right to gamble") that should be awarded just as soon as someone makes an issue of the fact that it has not yet been done?

I find it interesting that the liberal element on the political scene, i.e. the people who are usually so eager to grant rights, rights, and still more rights, are opposed to what has been called the "privatization" of Social Security in the USA. Perhaps we should conclude that the right to get rich and the right to be poor have certain limits.


Let's explore even more dubious rights. Some "privatizers" would advocate the right to sell body parts. The good Lord gives us two kidneys, when we could actually make do with one. Once in a while one hears of a noble person who has donated one of his kidneys to save the life of someone dear to him, someone whose kidneys are failing and therefore faces death. We applaud this generous deed. But it may occur to someone to ask: why could one not simply sell one's "spare" kidney to the highest bidder? And then there are our eyes. Again, the good Lord has given us two of them, when many people make do with one. Shouldn't we have the right to sell one? And in a pinch -- perhaps to repay gambling debts or to stay a step ahead of the Mob -- we might even feel moved to sell both of our eyes. This might seem a foolish thing to do, but shouldn't we have the right to do so? It certainly beats being murdered by the Mob because we are unable to pay our gambling debts.

There are many more possibilities along this line. In some jurisdictions one sells blood for use in hospitals; here in Canada we generally donate it. Could a woman with more breast milk than her own infant needs sell some to the lady next door, who is running short? Are we allowed to sell our sperm? Many jurisdictions say yes. What about ova? If the answer is again yes, how about selling both sperm and egg as already fertilized? Of course one could sell mother surrogacy services as well and make the package deal complete.

Nowadays there are progressive folks in the political world who campaign on behalf of what they call "sex workers." What they are referring to are the people whom many still insist on calling prostitutes, whose way of making money is illegal in most jurisdictions. What is demanded on behalf of these "sex workers" is the right to sell their sexual services without harassment, legal opposition, or public disapproval. What about it? Is this another of those no-brainers of which we say: "Goodness gracious! Why were we blind for so long? Let's grant this right at once."


In seeking to answer these questions properly, we must bear in mind that there is such a thing in human society as subtle coercion. Once the "right" to sell one's sexual favors is recognized, it will become a factor in what public officials try to do about poverty. Most middle-of-the-road people believe that able-bodied folks need to work to provide for themselves and their offspring. But some people seem to have difficulty finding or holding a job. If a person who falls into this category is being dealt with by a social worker and happens also to be an attractive woman, would the social worker be out of line if he were to say: "Why don't you become a sex worker? You have to do everything you can to support yourself before you accept public assistance. Have you considered that possibility yet?" Christians and many others who share traditional Judeo-Christian moral sentiments would be aghast at such a suggestion, but I see it as a logical possibility once the "right" of sex workers to sell their favors is recognized in law.

Here's another example to illustrate my point about subtle coercion. There are jurisdictions in which people campaign for the right to physician-assisted suicide. The idea here is that if you are dying of some disease that is causing you considerable pain, you should have the right to end that pain by summoning a physician who is obliged to give you a lethal injection. After all, you are autonomous and entitled to do whatever you please with your own body.

This is one right that Canada has not yet granted. And it should not be granted, for the subtle coercion problem would come up here as well. Consider carefully what could happen.

The dying process is in some cases protracted and places a great deal of strain on family members -- both emotionally and financially. If physician-assisted suicide were to be normalized, there would soon be a subtle pressure placed on some old folks who are dying to make that one phone call -- or to authorize someone else to make it -- that would set into motion the process by which a physician would administer a lethal injection. Thereby a new source of unpleasantness and anxiety would be introduced into the very final stage of life.

A reader might object and say that something akin to physician-assisted suicide is practiced in the case of pets. True, and I am not disputing this practice here. But there is a very significant difference in that pets, as animals, are not able to understand and anticipate what goes on in these situations and foresee what might happen. Their awareness of their mortality is radically limited. Because human beings possess rational understanding and are charged with moral responsibility and must therefore participate in the decisions that are made about their own end-of-life circumstances, they cannot be dealt with on the same legal and moral footing as pets.

One of my reasons for making a point of my opposition to physician-assisted suicide is that I was born in the Netherlands and therefore pay attention to the Dutch situation when it comes to end-of-life issues -- and all sorts of other matters as well. The Netherlands is still the old country for me. Just for the record, I am a proponent of the right to discontinue treatment and the right to have a living will, which is a document that spells out that under certain circumstances one would wish to discontinue treatment and allow nature to take its course. But I am convinced that physician-assisted suicide creates more problems than it solves. I hope this declaration does not make me sound like a person who is insensitive to the pain and anguish endured by people dying of certain diseases.


The subtitle of this essay promises some reflections on mandatory retirement. It happens that my own jurisdiction (Canada's province of Ontario) is in the process of abolishing it. It appears that yet another "right" has been discovered and is in the process of being granted. A great many people welcome this development as a good thing. I have my doubts whether it is wise to abolish mandatory retirement; this essay is my roundabout explanation for my dissent.

Readers who have labored with me thus far will have figured out that I'm an old-fashioned and essentially conservative thinker when it comes to political matters. Therefore I favor discrimination. Now, I am well aware that "discrimination" has become a negative and pejorative term in the minds of many people, but I don't think it needs to be such a thing. I agree with Prof. Graeme Hunter of the University of Ottawa, who declared in his 1998 Redeemer graduation address (he was the invited speaker): "Acquiring a liberal education is, in the best sense of the word, learning to discriminate." I would also appeal to Wendy Shalit, who assures us: "Our capacity to discriminate is what built civilization." [NOTE 2]

Now, if we are to engage in deliberate discrimination, we need to establish certain categories as legitimate for such a purpose. One set of categories we have long used for discrimination is a division of human beings into three types based roughly on age: children, adults, and seniors. The abolition of mandatory retirement is a step toward the dismantling of the category of senior citizen.

Our society is still strongly committed to the protection of children, especially when it comes to what we call "child pornography" and the misuse of the internet. Such concern is well placed. The project of protecting children also involves many laws that restrict what children may do by way of gainful employment. But it occurs to me, when I think about the push to abolish mandatory retirement, that we might likewise feel moved to chip away at the restrictions on child labor. Indeed, why not drop the child labor laws altogether? Why not confer upon children "the right to work"? Are we brave enough, in our determination to award all sorts of rights, to run the risk of returning to the social and economic conditions sketched so hauntingly by Charles Dickens in the nineteenth century? And should we go a bit further by encouraging children to play the lottery and to gamble, telling them that they have the right to get rich, while perhaps cautioning them at the same time that they also have the right to become poor? I suspect that the universal answer will be no. Children need to be protected.

What about child poverty? This is an issue on the agenda of many a political party and candidate at election time. I think we all sense what a shame it is and how much damage it does not just to individual children but to our society as a whole. All children need opportunities for normal development, and if they are to enjoy those opportunities we try to provide, they must be protected from certain pressures. Hence they must be forbidden to sell their body parts or their sexual favors. (Remember that there are great many adults who would welcome the opportunity for sexual interaction with children in the form of child prostitutes, even if they were called "sex workers"; the so-called "sex tourists" often turn out to be seemingly respectable citizens of Western democracies.) Anyone who keeps up with the news about certain Third-World countries that are not as well-governed as they should be will realize that the children in those countries do, in effect, possess such "rights."

I don't believe that child poverty can simply be abolished by a set of laws. But our society should work to minimize it. The protection needed by children represents, in part, a restriction of their "rights." We restrict the age at which a child or a young person can consent to sexual intercourse. We restrict the age at which a child can sign a binding contract. We restrict the age at which a young person can sign up for military service, and we are shocked when we see television reports about armies in Third-World countries that include twelve-year-old boys in their ranks.

Most of us are well aware that we need to have public programs in place to provide nutritional support for children whose parents or guardians are not caring for them adequately. Traditionally, much of this sort of thing has been done through the schools the children attend. And we should not forget that the provision of free public education for all the children of the community is also intended as part of our effort to do something about the cycle of poverty as it affects children.


Now let's get back to the seniors and the question of retirement, which is my main focus in this essay. My thesis is that the abolition of mandatory retirement smacks of "right-to-work" legislation. Such legislation, of course, has long been used to undermine the power of labor unions and other organizations that were trying to improve the lot especially of people employed in industrial settings. By conferring upon seniors past a certain age, e.g. 65, the "right to work," we are in effect telling them: "You're on your own." Now, this is the message we are not willing to give to children (another category of human beings who are subject to discrimination). Why would we feel we should give such a message to seniors?

Perhaps I can rephrase my point by maintaining that the abolition of mandatory retirement reminds me of the famous remark attributed -- probably in error -- to Marie Antoinette (wife of Louis XVI) some time before the French Revolution, who, when told that the peasants have no bread, replied: "Let them eat cake." [NOTE 3] A Marie Antoinette of our time, when told that certain seniors had fallen so low as to buy dog food at a local discount supermarket (and shouldn't something be done about this?), might then reply: "Let them get a job." After all, no one is forcing them to retire. Adults of all ages have equal access to the workforce. There's no law that says that people who are 65 -- or even 70 or 75 -- are not supposed to be working.

The attitudes that concern me also function as presuppositions in the thinking of various folks who are out to "reform" public pensions and the system we use to provide seniors with income. A helpful resource for anyone who wants to think through the issues we face here is Monica Townson's book Pensions Under Attack . Townson observes that critics of our public pension system claim that the reforms that have been undertaken (she is thinking especially of Canada and what happened in the 1990s) don't go far enough:

They would like to see the CPP [Canada Pension Plan] replaced with individual savings accounts -- whether as a mandatory replacement for the public plan or as a voluntary arrangement which would allow people to opt out of the CPP and have their contributions directed to their own individual savings accounts instead. Such a move would do away with collective responsibility for and to our older citizens, which has been the fundamental basis for Canada's social programs. Instead, individuals would be expected to provide for themselves: to sink or swim in the maelstrom of "free markets." [NOTE 4]

The desire to abolish mandatory retirement looks like a close cousin of the desire to privatize public pensions and thus do away with public responsibility for the welfare of our seniors. The presupposition in both cases is that everyone in our society -- with its recognition of the right to get rich and the right to become poor -- is supposed to look out for himself. By conferring "the right to work" on everyone (perhaps even on children), we are minimizing society's responsibility to care for the needs of its weaker members. ("Let them eat cake! Let them get a job.") The implications for publicly funded health care are all too obvious; I will not take time to go into them in this essay.

I am not denying that the system of benefits we assign to seniors in our society is in need of refinement and improvement. Neither am I turning a blind eye to the growing financial pressure on the system that is being felt because of the impending retirement of the Baby Boomers, of whom I am one. Even so, I am of the persuasion that our social safety net for seniors needs to be strengthened. One of the indicators of the quality of life in a given society is the care and protection that is extended to those who stand at the beginning of life, i.e. the children, and those are near its end, i.e. the senior citizens.

A final disclaimer is in order. When it comes to the prospect of retirement, I am not a defender of the status quo at all costs. Indeed, I have become convinced that the very concept is of limited use. Retirement in the classic sense applies especially to male workers in an industrial world: one day, at a magic age somewhere between 55 and 65, they are sent on their way with a small party and a presentation and a gift, to face what many experience as an empty future, living on their pension and largely cut off from work and the network of contacts and social acquaintances that have been a major part of their life for decades. Many do very poorly and die within a year or two. This is what is often called "cold-turkey" retirement.

I advocate phasing in what we are probably fated to continue calling retirement, but I recognize that such an approach works much better in some situations, such as university employment (I'm a professor), than in certain others. Moreover, I would point out that there is great merit in the writings of Charles Handy when it comes to retirement and work and our economic future. [NOTE 5]

When you head into your late fifties, especially if the children are grown and out of the house, it is time for something of a shift in your understanding of your work. It may also be possible to restructure your financial life and to begin to draw on your private endowment fund: see my Myodicy essay "Well Endowed." I am tempted to expatiate on these matters but will restrain myself for the simple reason that the process of retirement still lies in the future for me personally, although I must acknowledge that I am getting closer to it.

I believe I have made my point. When I get old, and become more dependent and less able to provide for my own needs, I would not appreciate being greeted with "Let them eat cake" rhetoric. I would not like to be told that I should simply look after myself and get a job, or perhaps a "mcjob." There may well be a "Help Wanted" sign hanging in Wendy's window just down the street, but I'm not sure I could keep up with the fast-food pace. [END]


In The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Dover Publications, reprint of 1956), pp. 201-202.

A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1999), p. 133.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau often gets credit for first having recorded a version of this heartless remark. Near the end of Book 6 of his Confessions he writes: "... I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, `Then let them eat pastry!'"

Pensions Under Attack: What's Behind the Push to Privatize Public Pensions (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2001), p. i.

I think especially of Handy's books The Age of Unreason (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1990) and Beyond Certainty: The Changing World of Organizations (London: Arrow Books, 1996) and The Hungry Spirit: Beyond Capitalism -- A Quest for Purpose in the Modern World (London: Arrow Books, 1998).

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