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What's in a Word?

The Bi-Partisan Siege on “Entitlements”


“Entitlements” are again in the news because our Grand Bargaining President has set them in his sights.  This is deplorable, but Barack Obama’s crimes against decency and common sense are not my subject now.

I want instead to point out how the way we name the target of this latest round of austerity mongering reflects a pervasive shallowness that is deplorable in its own right.

The phenomenon is hardly unique.  It is just one of many signs of the increasing moronization of a political culture that, even at its best, was never very salutary or enlightened.

For instance, why doesn’t it irk “progressives” that Republicans have been assigned the color red?

Part of the reason may be that now that there is no longer anything vaguely reddish, or even pink, about Democrats, they are content to be represented by a fine corporate blue, and are happy that, with red states red, they can no longer be redbaited, not that they ever merited that honorable denigration.

It surely also has much to do with the power of corporate media to lay down the line, even on language.

And never underestimate how insubstantial the typical American’s political culture and historical memory can be.

In any case, this is how it has been since the TV networks started using red and blue to report on the Bush-Gore horse race in 2000.

Bipartisan railing against “entitlements” is even odder.

Our captains of industry and finance have never been fond of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  But, for decades, they were reconciled to these and other social insurance programs.

Once it became clear that there was no fundamental challenge to capitalists’ power from our always feeble welfare state institutions, and that so-called entitlements help to mitigate otherwise dangerous social tensions, some comparatively enlightened capitalists even welcomed them.

But, then, we have always had politicians who, in all sincerity, oppose social progress, and others who, for opportunist reasons, are eager to do whatever their paymasters want.  In our political system, it never hurts to curry favor with the grandees.

And, although entitlements provide a lifeline for everyone who is not super-rich, challenging their existence can also be expedient in “red” districts full of deluded and poorly off  “red” constituents.

Not long ago, were anyone in elected office seriously to go after entitlements, the chances are that he or she would be a Republican.   Then Bill Clinton came along.  He made dismantling New Deal and Great Society programs, and “Reaganite” (neoliberal) politics generally, respectable for Democrats too.

Of course, there are still Democratic legislators who are not entirely retrograde.  Some of them have even vowed to resist Obama’s on-going efforts to turn back as much of the progress achieved in the middle decades of the last century as he can.

But, in the end, “progressive” Democrats almost always acquiesce, especially when there is a Democrat in the White House.  This is one of the many downsides of electing a Lesser Evil, especially one who is hell-bent on out-Clintoning the Slickster himself.

In short, whether out of conviction, opportunism or sheer pusillanimity, our politicians are all Reaganites now.

One consequence of this unfortunate turn of events is that libertarianism, a long outmoded ideology relegated to obscurity, has come back with a vengeance.  Libertarian ideas are everywhere.

This is why it is so peculiar that “entitlements” are now under bipartisan siege.

I am referring, of course, to the word.

Why what the word refers to is now in jeopardy is complicated, but the general contours of an explanation are clear.  The proximate cause is the demise of the old liberal-labor coalition.

Much of the blame for that lies with neoliberal ideologues and their political champions – Republicans, of course, but also Clintonized Democrats and, more recently and most
importantly, our drone-wielding, deficit-slashing Commander-in-Chief.

Ultimately, though, the deepest causes lie with the vicissitudes of capitalism itself.

To address those issues, even the more superficial ones, would require delving into some of the most vexing economic, social and political problems of our era.   But, again, my concern here is not with the struggle over what the word “entitlement” designates, but with what the use of that word reveals about the debility of our political culture.

*   *    *

Neoliberal economic doctrines are too implausible and too counterproductive to win broad political support on their own, especially when they imply austerity for the many and accord carte blanche to banksters and corporate moguls.

The fact that neoliberalism has won over some of the commanding heights of the economics profession is just not enough of a selling point for most people; it is only further evidence of how corrupt our intellectual culture has become.

Therefore to seal the deal for the plutocrats, what was needed was a more compelling justifying theory than neoliberal economists could offer, one that draws on widespread intuitions about what justice requires.

And so, if libertarianism did not exist, it would have had to be invented.  What actually happened was a little of both.

Classical liberalism, what Americans call “libertarianism,” is an individualist doctrine that accords preeminence to freedom or liberty (the words are interchangeable).  For classical liberals, it is individuals, not groups, that are free or unfree; and the freer they are, the better.

Absolute freedom is out of the question; as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) had shown, it would lead to a devastating “war of all against all.”  That was why, in Hobbes’s view, states, political institutions that restrict liberty by the use or threat of force and that monopolize that right, are indispensible.

Liberals agreed; they were statists, not anarchists, but the states they defended were minimal states, states that restrict liberty as little as possible.  Because market transactions are by definition voluntary, classical liberals were, from the beginning, disposed to promote the invisible hand of the market and to impugn the very visible hand of the state.

Classical liberals championed “negative liberty” – freedom from coercive restraints. What mattered to them was not how able individuals are to do what they want, but how much they are blocked by the deliberate activities of others.

Their first and for some time their only concern were with state interferences; non-state, societal interferences with individuals’ lives and behaviors did not enter the liberal purview until much later.

For classical liberals, therefore, and for liberals today who follow their lead, unemployed workers are free to start their own factories, though they are, almost without exception, unable to do so because they lack the means — thanks to countless deliberate activities of others.

But, though they are able to do so, they are unfree, say, to occupy the factories that have laid them off, and then to run them on their own, because that would violate state established and enforced property rights.

Needless to say, this kind of freedom seems hollow at best.  This is one reason why most modern forms of liberalism depart from the classical version, and therefore from libertarianism.

For classical liberals, economic and political liberties comprise a seamless web.  It is as important that individuals be free to engage in capitalist acts like buying and selling what they rightfully own as that they be free to worship as they please or to conduct their lives according to their own designs.

In the nineteenth century especially, and for the first half of the twentieth century, liberals of all stamps, not just proto-libertarians, defended their views by invoking utilitarian justifying theories.

Utilitarianism is, in the first instance, an ethical doctrine, an account of right action and of what individuals ought to do.  The general idea is that individuals should maximize overall goodness.

For utilitarians, the good is welfare or well-being (the terms are interchangeable); where welfare may be conceived as pleasure or happiness or in some other way, provided only that it is always and only a good for individuals.

“Utility” is a measure of welfare.  Utilitarianism therefore enjoins us to maximize utility.

If the good, welfare, is identified with, say, happiness, utility would be a measure of happiness, and we would be enjoined to bring about as much happiness as we can or, as the text books say, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

This injunction gives rise to important, and perhaps unsolvable, measurement problems, but these need not concern us here; utilitarianism’s merits and shortcomings have little, if anything, to do with whether or not these problems can be satisfactorily addressed.

What matters more is whether utilitarianism identifies the connection between right action and utility maximizing in a defensible way, and whether its account of what individuals ought to do is sound.

Because utilitarianism is a moral theory, it views individuals impartially and equally.   Therefore, in the utilitarian view, the way to maximize utility is to maximize the sum of individual utilities, counting each individual’s utility equally.

An action is right, then, if it maximizes overall utility; and if it is right, it is what we ought to do.

After more than two centuries of active debate, this remains a controversial position.  Utilitarianism’s extensions into social and political philosophy are controversial too.

In its social and political applications, utilitarianism holds that social and political institutions are justified to the extent that they maximize overall well-being, where overall well-being is, again, the sum of individual well-beings.

For classical liberals who were also utilitarians, the idea, then, was that the way to make outcomes as good as can be is to minimize political interference with individual liberty – without, of course, lapsing into an anarchic war of all against all.

This was, for example, the main contention in perhaps the best known of all classical liberal tracts: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1869).  Mill defended the idea that states can rightfully interfere with individuals’ lives and behaviors for one reason only — to prevent harm to identifiable others.  He justified this position by arguing that, as a general rule, non-interference is a better policy than any other because it gives rise to more well-being.

Some contemporary libertarians are utilitarians too.  They hold that in both the economic and political spheres, the way to bring about the best outcomes is to minimize coercive interference throughout the economy and society.  They think that the government that governs least, governs best.

Somewhat independently, they also hold that economic and political liberties are mutually reinforcing and therefore that the more the libertarian ideal is realized in the economic sphere, the more secure basic political rights and liberties will be.

By the 1960s, however, utilitarianism was beginning to fall out of favor.  Among its opponents was John Rawls (1921-2002).  Rawls has dominated English-speaking political philosophy up to the present day.  His magisterial A Theory of Justice, published in 1971 but circulated in manuscript form for some years before, still enjoys an almost preternatural influence.

Rawls’s work was highly theoretical, but it expressed an identifiable political orientation – more or less of a piece with the New Deal-Great Society liberal settlement of the preceding period and with European social democracy.

This is one of many reasons why academic political philosophy and real world politics got remarkably out of joint: the most influential political philosophy of the last third of the twentieth century defended a political orientation that was, in the same period, rapidly fading from the political scene.

Rawls’s colleague, Robert Nozick (1938-2002), was not an especially political person, but he was fiendishly clever and an enfant terrible.  In 1974, he published Anarchy, State, and Utopia, a book that would serve as a libertarian counter-weight to A Theory of Justice in countless philosophy and political theory courses for the next quarter century, and that continues to draw a large and appreciative audience.


Nozick’s book helped legitimate libertarianism in academic circles and, for thoughtful libertarians, it provided sounder intellectual ammunition than had previously been available.

Like Rawls, Nozick opposed utilitarianism.  But, unlike Rawls, he opposed redistributive taxation along with almost every other facet of New Deal – Great Society liberalism and social democracy.

His purchase on libertarianism was backed by a theory of justice more or less of his own concoction that rivals Rawls’s in comprehensiveness and that accords well with widely held, pre-reflective beliefs.

It was especially appealing in the American context because it revived a way of thinking developed by John Locke (1632-1704), the philosopher who, more than any other, is associated with our Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

As a preeminent early classical liberal, Locke was a founding father too — of libertarianism.  But his way of defending libertarianism had long ago given way to utilitarian strategies.  Nozick changed all that.

The Lockean theory of justice Nozick developed construes justice in way that is similar structurally to the way logicians understand deductions.

A deductive argument is a string of sentences, each of which is either a premise (taken as given for the purpose of the argument) or an inference that follows from preceding sentences according to truth-preserving inferential rules.

The conclusion of the argument, the last sentence in the string, is therefore as true as its premises.  If the premises are true, the conclusion is too.

Now Locke famously argued that unowned bits of nature could become the private property of individuals if and only if they expend labor upon them.  This was a vague doctrine: how much labor?, subject to what constraints?, and so on.  But the idea that individuals own previously unowned things that they work on or otherwise improve does have intuitive appeal.

Nozick struggled, with great ingenuity, to put Locke’s “theory of justice in acquisition,” as he called it, into a defensible form.  And he supplemented it with a carefully developed “theory of justice in transfer” that accounts for what individuals can rightfully do with what they own.

The basic idea, emblematic of classical liberalism, is that, in addition to using their assets in any way they want (provided they don’t harm identifiable others), individuals can rightfully exchange or give away what is rightfully theirs, provided force and fraud are excluded; in other words, provided the transactions are voluntary.

Then, in the way that truth preserving rules of inference, applied to true premises, yield true conclusions, justice preserving rules of transfer yield just outcomes, provided individuals transfer only what they have justly acquired.

For Nozick, as for Locke before him, when rights are scrupulously respected all the way back, the outcome is just, no matter what the resulting distribution may be.   Even if, in the end, one percent of the population owns everything and ninety-nine percent own nothing, this would be just, if that distribution came about through just acquisitions and just transfers.

A Lockean doctrine, crucial to the theory of justice in acquisition that Nozick reconstructed and defended, is the idea that individuals own themselves; that they have unrestricted rights to control and benefit from their own bodies and powers.

In recent years, this self-ownership doctrine has proven appealing to political philosophers across the political spectrum.

There are even Marxists who have maintained that it must be taken seriously.  Among other things, it helps make sense of the idea, endemic in colloquial understandings of Marx’s theory of exploitation, that, since labor power is the source of all value, workers, not capitalists, should own the entire economic surplus.

Nozickean libertarians construe redistributive taxation as an indefensible “taking”; according to some understandings of Marx, profit is an indefensible taking too – for much the same reason.

In effect, a Lockean (or Nozickean) theory of justice is an account of how, without violating rights, we can get from self-ownership, which Locke and Nozick assume, to  (unlimited) private ownership of external things.

To be clear, Locke and Nozick were not talking about rights that are assigned in virtue of antecedent rules.  There could be, for example, utilitarian reasons to adhere to market generated distributions; this is, in fact, what most liberals have always assumed.

If so, then there is a sense in which individuals have rights to their market-generated shares.  But these rights would be derived from something more basic; in this case, from the principle of utility itself (in conjunction with speculations about the likely outcomes of different social practices).

To resume the analogy with logical deductions, rights that are generated through applications of the principle of utility (or in any other way) are like theorems; they are derived from more basic contentions.  Lockean-Nozickean rights are like premises; as Nozick said, they “go all the way back.”

In this respect, his position is at odds not just with utilitarianism, but also with Rawls’s theory of justice.

For Rawls, rights are assigned by social practices and institutions, and are just to the extent that they accord with the principles of justice he identified and defended.  For Nozick, institutional arrangements must accommodate to rights that morally precede them, that exist in what Locke called a “state of nature.”

For Nozick, then, if an individual has a right to some distributive share, because it was justly acquired, it would be wrong to infringe that right – even for otherwise compelling reasons.

This, again, is just the idea of self-ownership transposed onto external things.  If I have an infrangible right to control access to my kidneys, even if it would be better in a utilitarian sense or more just in Rawls’s if one of my two healthy kidneys was transplanted into someone who would otherwise die of kidney failure, it would be wrong for the state (or anyone else) to force the transfer — because my kidneys are mine, and no one can take them from me without my consent.

Libertarians of the Nozickean kind view their market-generated shares in much the way that we all view our kidneys.  This is why they oppose redistributive taxation.  Even if redistributing market generated shares would make outcomes more equal or more just or better in the utilitarian way, and even if those are estimable objectives, coerced redistribution would violate infrangible, morally prior property rights and must therefore be proscribed.

Of course, in the real world of politics, opposition to taxes has more to do with political machinations and greed than with principled philosophical convictions derived from John Locke.  But just in case a libertarian – or anyone else in the larger neoliberal community – feels a need for a more principled justification for the political line they promote, Nozick provided them with one.

I don not mean to suggest that Nozick’s theory is incontrovertible or even that it is better than utilitarian or Rawlsian theories; only that it is intellectually serious and based on deeply entrenched and generally appealing intuitions about what justice requires.

In short, it is better than libertarians deserve.

* *  *

Nozick had a name for the theory of justice he concocted; he called it an entitlement theory.  The name is apt because it suggests that the shares capitalist markets deal us are rightfully ours in the most fundamental sense conceivable.  This is why we are entitled to them.

Of course, were we to accept Nozick’s arguments, his conclusion would apply only to an ideal capitalist system in which morally primary rights have been scrupulously respected from the moment the first human beings appropriated parts of nature by mixing their labor with unowned things, and in which there was no subsequent pillage or theft or fraud.

Real world capitalism is not like this at all.  No matter, though: libertarians in search of a justifying theory somehow manage to convince themselves that the actual and the ideal are close enough to warrant overlooking the difference.  How they can then convince anyone else is a different problem altogether.

But even apart from (fatally disabling) worries about the applicability of Nozick’s defense of market-generated distributions, the entitlement theory is not beyond dispute; quite the contrary.   This is why, in informed circles, it has always had many more detractors than adherents.

Still, it is, by far, the best thing libertarians have going for them.  It is therefore also the best philosophical justification for the economic nostrums that are nowadays causing so much harm.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that those who rail against entitlements don’t understand this – thoughtful, well-informed libertarians are rare outside a few, politically inconsequential academic precincts.

And maybe in their own warped way those who are leading this latest charge against progress have a point: who, after all, needs intellectually serious justifying theories when a massive media apparatus is at the ready to hammer mindless libertarianism into the hearts and minds of a depoliticized and increasingly disempowered populace?

Still, it is sad and more than a little unsettling to think of all those Tea Partiers, mainstream Republicans, and “conservative” Democrats impugning the name of what is by far their best, indeed their only remotely plausible, justifying theory.  How pathetic is that!

And it is even more unsettling that Democrats would follow slavishly along, and that Barack Obama would lead the way.  Unsettling for what it says about our mainstream political culture and especially for what passes for its liberal (in the sense of leftmost) wing; unsettling, but entirely predictable.

What’s in a word?  In one sense, not much; the real crime is the bipartisan war on entitlements, not the way Republicans and Democrats and media pundits talk about it.

But talk matters too because dumbing down political discourse and erasing historical memory is what makes the depredations of neoliberalism’s – and libertarianism’s – beneficiaries possible.  The Grand Bargaining over “entitlements” now going on is, at once, a symptom and a cause of a rottenness that is not just deplorable, but also profoundly disabling.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).