Entitlements versus Rights
Tibor R. Machan
These days there is much consternation about entitlements. But what
exactly are they?
Having title means that within the law one has come to own something?a
home, a car, etc. To be entitled to something then means that one has a
proper legal claim to it. Being entitled to a minimum wage, for example,
means that when one works the law will require one not to be paid less
than that wage.
But does an entitlement signify a right? In a limited sense yes?the legal
authorities have established one?s legal right in whatever one is entitled
to. So here ?legal right? and ?entitlement? amount to the same thing.
But in the American political tradition what the legal authorities may
affirm as one?s right is limited by a system of basic, non-legal, natural
individual rights. These are laid out in the Declaration of Independence.
Since, according to that statement of basic political principles,
everyone has a basic right to his or her life, liberty, and pursuit of
happiness, no entitlements may be established by law that violates these
basic rights. So, for example, being entitled to a minimum wage is
actually unjustified, even if the law affirms it, because it violates the
rights of individuals to trade freely?one of the implications of their
right to liberty. If people freely enter into an employment relationship
that specifies certain work provided for a certain wage, this isn?t
something the law may void since it is their right to do so; the minimum
wage law violates this right.
This simply shows that a great many entitlements actually violate basic
rights?entitlements to health care (provided at others? involuntary
expense), to subsidies (again extracted form others without their free
consent), to regulations imposed on professionals (coercing them to suffer
a kind of prior restraint), etc. Nearly everything Franklin D. Roosevelt
called a ?right? amounts to such violation of basic individual rights
since to provide people with what he thought they were entitled or had a
right to, the basic rights of others have to be violated.
Now there are those who believe that rights do not exist as a matter of
our human nature but because governments grant them. This is what was
believed of monarchies?kings are superior people who could, by God?s
authority, grant or withdraw rights to others. Nowadays the story is that
rights are granted by governments by means of the democratic method. So if
by this method entitlements are established, then they do not violate
But this is to get things completely backwards. You see, the democratic
method itself rests on natural rights?no one had to grant us the right to
be participants in the political process. Simply being human beings in our
communities establishes this right. Otherwise the very right to take part
in the democratic process?the right to vote, for example?would be
vulnerable to being voided democratically.
So rights come before democracy and they also limit democracy to certain
issues on which voting is OK. But no one may vote to deprive others of
their basic rights! (Indeed, that is what motivated the inclusion of the
Bill of Rights in the US Constitution!)
Natural individual rights are basic principles for organizing human
community life. Legislation and the common law can elaborate them, apply
them to novel areas. But it may never violate them. Sure, there is always
the power to violate them?just as criminals can have the power to violate
one?s rights all over the place. But it is wrong to do so and having a
great many people agree to something that is wrong does not make it right.
So a great many entitlements people now have by law can be seen to be
wrong whenever they involve the violation of our basic rights. Sadly,
making such violations legal does encourage the unthinking belief that
they are OK. It also encourages the growth of a population that?s come to
be dependent on government?s violation of our basic rights.
In time, however, it will become evident that this is a very bad
development, for example, by way of enormous deficits and police actions
against innocent people who simply wish to hold on to what is theirs or do
what they freely choose to do. And we are beginning to witness such
developments around the country and the world.