The Entitlement Trap
Tibor R. Machan
When back in the late 1960s and early 70s there was talk around the country about regarding welfare, health care, old age security, and similar government administered benefits as basic rights each of us have, some objected to this on the grounds that such a policy would obligate the beneficiaries to the government which, then, could insist on all kinds of conditions that needed to be met so as to receive the benefits. “Oh, no,” came the answer from the proponents, “these are basic rights and basic rights do not need to be earned and paid for with any conditions.” (Take a look at Henry Shue, Basic Rights [Princeton, 1980].)
Indeed, if you consider the basic rights identified in the Declaration of Independence, there are no conditions one needs to fulfill for having them other than to be a human being. Common sense, too, testifies to this: If one’s right to life is respected by another, there is no payment, nor even thanks due for this. Yes, one needs to pay for the protection of one’s rights, but not for their respect. If you don’t kill me, realizing that I have the right to my life, you don’t deserve gratitude. It is one’s natural due, not a grant or gift from others. That’s true about basic and even all derivative rights—if someone returns a debt, which by right is due you, you don’t need to be grateful, not the way you would be for a generous gift or favor.
But because entitlements involve more than abstaining from intruding on others—namely, making provisions for them—there has of course always been the urge to set terms for receiving them. “You are entitled to receive unemployment compensation, provided you do this, that and another thing—like look for a job and report on your search to the bureaucracy.” There is a term used now, namely, “means test,” to describe the conditions one must meet to qualify for entitlements. No means tests are required to qualify for the possession of one’s basic individual human rights and whatever is implied by them. If you have the right to laugh or sing or clap your hands, no one may impose some qualification for possessing such rights. But consider that when you have the right to education, health care, or old age security payments, you must jump through a bunch of hoops before these may be obtained from the authorities.
Which again pretty much shows, even without elaborate philosophical argumentation, that there is a great difference between one’s negative individual rights and so called positive rights. The former come one’s way by virtue of one’s humanity alone, while the latter are political grants for which one soon gets to pay dearly. Which is to say, they aren’t really basic rights at all but privileges and grants doled out by those in power. And therein lie their fraudulent nature—unlike basic and derivative negative rights, these entitlements must be paid for and earned by doing what those in power demand.
That, too, makes pretty clear that such entitlements do not belong in a free society but have their home in autocracies, dictatorships, monarchies, welfare states, and similar authoritarian regimes. It is only in such political societies that the kind of power needed for handing out entitlements can exist because only in such societies can people’s labor and other resources be conscripted and expropriated so as to fulfill the entitlements. And in olden days this was often done by invading and conquering foreign countries and looting their labor and resources for the benefit of the invading country’s monarch and subjects. But these days the resources for the entitlements are obtained by means of extorting the people via taxes and other forms of “taking.” In effect, of course, the proud status of citizenship, whereby one is deemed a sovereign, is sacrificed for the sake of turning into a de facto subject of the government, a dependent.
Which then brings up the point that the widespread contemporary public policy of wealth or resource redistribution is really not what its champions so often insist it is, namely, progressive. It is out and out reactionary, driving us all back to the era of feudalism. These socialists and communitarians are by no means taking us forward toward a great new age of humanitarianism. No, they are returning us to the times when some few men and women purportedly ruled us for the sake of certain ideals but in fact ruled so as to impose upon the rest of us their agenda, to deprive us of our basic rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.