All About Entitlements

Mitt Romney was on to something: about forty-seven percent of the country is repelled by the sense of entitlement he and his wife Ann, she especially, exude, along with their fellow one per-centers.  Meanwhile the one per-centers themselves and their useful idiots, another forty-seven percent of the electorate, regard the others as feckless moochers, locked into a victim mentality, who feel entitled – that word again! — to government handouts.

Then there is Paul Ryan, the Republican Vice Presidential candidate, enamored of the pseudo-philosopher and soft porn novelist Ayn Rand.  He would eviscerate all “entitlements” if he had a chance; no doubt, Romney would too – so long as he and his handlers feel he needs to shore up his Tea Party base.  What they want to undo are the social insurance programs installed by Democrats (with some Republican help) in the 1930s and 1960s.

They probably won’t get a chance because the six percent of the population that is unaccounted for, those vaunted “independents” courted by both Romney and Barack Obama, are unlikely to elect a ticket headed by a chameleon who chose a numbskull for a running-mate; a ticket supported by a base about which the kindest thing one can say is that they are appallingly scary.  But, of course, anything can happen if Republican judges uphold Republican efforts at voter suppression.

The one sure thing is that the plutocrats won’t lose.   Obama may be too kind and gentle for their taste, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing from their point of view.  Because he can bring Democrats along, he can deliver for them as well or better than Romney and Ryan can.

Obama has already demonstrated his eagerness for a Grand Bargain.  With the election over, he’ll no longer have any reason to hold back.  With Obama at the helm, entitlements may not go in one fell swoop.  But unless liberals wake up and realize which side the drone President is on — and until they fight back accordingly – the New Deal and Great Society will be even further along the road to becoming toast.

But entitlements are psychological attitudes only in a derivative sense, and retirees and other beneficiaries of our very feeble affirmative state have entitlements in just the way that winners of elections have entitlements to their offices.  According to “the rules of the game,” the winners have a right to claim their offices. Similarly, those who, for example, paid into the social security system have a right to receive the pensions they were guaranteed.

All this is additional evidence for what has long been undeniable: that when mainstream politicians wax philosophical, miasma is the result.  So much of it has been produced lately around notions of entitlement that it is useful to recall that there are uses of that concept that connect to serious, though flawed, theories of justice.

Getting straight about that can help cut through some of what we hear from the Romneys and Ryans of the world and from their academic and media flacks.  It can also help put talk about “redistribution” in a clearer light.

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Entitlements are rights; and rights are descendants of what was once a strictly legal notion.  Legal systems are comprised of rules; rules that assign rights.  The core idea inherent in the concept has therefore always been both forensic and social; Robinson Crusoe, alone on his island, could have no rights – because there is no one to whom he could address a rights claim.

It has long been understood that for every right there is a corresponding obligation to do or forbear from doing something.  If there is a right to medical care – as there is in societies more civilized than ours, where health care profiteers don’t always get their way — then others (the state, most likely) have an obligation to provide it.   If there is a right to free speech, then others (the state especially) have an obligation not to interfere with free expression.

In the course of the seventeenth century English Revolutions, the concept migrated out of strictly legal contexts into the broader terrain of moral theory and public policy.  It has proven useful there ever since – for articulating not just the rights we actually have, rights that are or ought to be legally enforceable, but also rights people think they ought to have, rights people demand.

The concept has also proven useful for defending, or challenging, the distributional consequences of economic, social and political institutions.  Thus the one per-centers and their backers think, for example, that the Romneys have an entitlement to their quarter-billion dollar fortune.  They also think that the entitlements claimed by the people Romney was caught saying he doesn’t care about lack a similar standing.

The Romneys’ entitlement is, in their view, a requirement of justice; the other purported entitlements are indefensible pleadings arising out of a culture of dependence and irresponsibility.  But for their political consequences, these one per-center ideas would not be worth taking seriously; I’ll therefore say no more about them.

On the other hand, there is a philosophical literature on rights and entitlements that is enlightening and that can also be politically consequential, if only for cutting through some of the drivel coming out of the mouths of leading politicians and pundits this dismal election year.

* * *

There are basically two ways of thinking about rights (and therefore entitlements) – sound ways and a libertarian way.

The sound ways derive entitlements from underlying theories of the right or the good – for our purposes, it hardly matters what those theories are — and reflections on the desirability of one or another policy from the vantage points those theories provide.

The libertarian way holds that entitlements, the kinds the Romneys endorse, come first.  It hardly matters where those rights come from – God, natural law, compelling intuitions, or even, for some American libertarians, the unsurpassed wisdom of the Founding Fathers (always fathers!).

The point is just that they are basic in the sense that they are not derived from anything more fundamental, and that public policies must accommodate to them, not the other way round.

The policy consequences may be similar, but from a philosophical point of view, libertarian theories of justice have nothing to do with Ayn Rand style celebrations of unremitting selfishness.  When intellectually serious libertarians claim that zillionaires have entitlements to their holdings, it is because they believe that there is basic and infrangible rights to hold property privately and (virtually) without limitation justify their wealth.

What Ayn Rand or Paul Ryan think is virtuous has nothing to do with it, and neither does their vision of a good society as an agglomeration of unabashedly selfish rich people.

John Locke (1632-1704) gave libertarian notions of justice definitive philosophical expression.  He advanced what amounts to a two-part theory of justice: an account of how (unowned) things can rightfully be appropriated privately; and an account of how owned things can be rightfully transferred from one person to another.

Locke’s theory of initial acquisition starts from a premise of collective world ownership according to which all unowned things are the property of the entire human race inasmuch as God gave “the world and all that dwells therein” to all the descendants of Adam and Eve.

It hardly bears mention that the premise is preposterous, especially i its Biblical form.  It should be noted too that whatever we make of its implications for theories of justice, the world has paid a stiff price for its environmental consequences.  This is not likely to change any time soon.

In any case, the problem, for Locke, was to go from collective world ownership to (unlimited) private ownership.  The details of his account are, if anything, even more problematic than his initial premise, but his actual arguments needn’t detain us.  It is enough to point out that they rest on
intuitions appropriate to simple societies where most of the things people want are still available for the taking.  The idea, basically, is that, subject to various constraints and provisos, we privately own whatever we mix our labor with.

Then, since we can do what we want with what is rightfully ours — so long as other conditions hold and so long as others are not harmed — we can maintain rightful ownership through exchange and gifting, provided the resulting transfers are unsullied by force or fraud.

Distributions generated the right way, without violating morally primary rights in the course of initial acquisitions and subsequent transfers, are just, regardless of how much (or little) equality may result.  So long as your holdings are rightfully generated, you have an entitlement to them – end of story.

Therefore even if it is agreed by all that it would be better if there was more equality than there actually is, it would still be wrong to deploy political (coercive) means to bring about a more egalitarian distribution.  That would violate morally primary rights.

Contemporary libertarians make use of a notion that also figures in Locke’s arguments — self-ownership.  The idea is that we have unlimited rights to control our bodies and powers and to benefit from their deployment.  The logic of neo-Lockean entitlement theories of justice becomes particularly clear if we shift the focus from ownership of external things to ownership of ourselves.

Suppose we agree that it is better to see than to be blind and consider a universe of two people, one with two functioning eyes and the other with none.  Suppose too that the means for transferring eyes from one person to another are not so dangerous or unpleasant as to outweigh the benefits of conferring sight upon the person who is blind.

Then it would make for a better outcome than the status quo if the state were to take an eye from the person with two eyes and then to give it to the one who is blind.  However most people would say that it would be wrong to do so – or, rather, wrong to do so coercively.

Were the sighted person to volunteer an eye, most people would consider her a moral saint, Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan notwithstanding.

The reason they might give to support the intuition that it is wrong to take one of the sighted person’s eyes is that we own our eyes absolutely, and therefore that no one can infringe upon our right to do with them as we please.   Because there is a morally prior right, making outcomes better is irrelevant.

Libertarian entitlement theorists regard holdings that are rightfully generated the same way.  They might concede that the more equality there is, the better, and they could hardly deny that capitalist market arrangements typically generate highly unequal distributions.

But, in their view, these considerations do not warrant state mandated transfers.  Property rights must be upheld regardless the consequences.

If you don’t like the distributions that result, perhaps because they are too unequal, you can always give some or all of your wealth away, just as you can volunteer to give up one of your eyes.  If you’re a Romney, you can tithe away millions to the Mormon Church or indeed to any charitable institution – though it’s unlikely, in that case, that your reasons would have anything remotely to do with diminishing flagrant inequalities.

Needless to say, this sort of argument pertains only to ideal capitalist markets, not to actually existing ones.  Therefore the most it shows is that even if holdings like those of the Romneys and the people in that room in Florida where Romney let it all hang out could be justified in theory — for some, historically unfeasible, possible world — they are not justified in the actual one.

Neo-Lockean libertarians generally pass over objections like these; their ahistorical purchase on capitalism allows them to ignore its history of rapine and plunder and its legacy of force and fraud.

It is also plain, to all but neo-Lockean true believers, that the most philosophically defensible theories of justice are not entitlement theories.  If this assessment is correct, as it surely is, actual entitlements, derive from more basic considerations.  What would make outcomes better or fairer would then be relevant in ways that neo-Lockeans cannot acknowledge.

It would be fair to say too that on any plausible non-entitlement theory, inequalities of the kind that give us the levels of inequality that are rampant today would be totally inadmissible.  The idea that the Romneys and their friends are entitled to their wealth while forty-seven percent of us are deplorable moochers is an embarrassment to any remotely plausible conception of what justice requires.

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There is, however, a spontaneous libertarianism abroad in our political culture that is impervious to demonstrations of the inapplicability or indefensibility of neo-Lockean theories of justice.  This is what accounts for the appeal of Republican tirades against “redistribution.”

In Democratic ranks too, “redistribution” is problematic in a way that “distribution” is not.  However, to their credit, Democrats at least have the decency not to vilify redistribution the way their electoral competitors do.

It’s not hard to see why Republicans rant on about the evils of redistributive taxation.  It is a way to link Democrats, who are “soft” on raising taxes on the obscenely rich, to social democracy and therefore to Europe – an association that always pays off with the Tea Party-Republican base.

On the other hand, when “redistribution” is used in a more colloquial sense, the way Obama speaks of it, it plays well with the Democratic base. There the idea is just to spread the wealth around a bit more, so that inequalities are not quite so obscene.

Who knows how sincere Obama is about this?  It is hard to put much faith in his “populist” posturing.  After all, he too feeds at the corporate trough.  But it’s not inconceivable that he means what he says.  Though he perpetrates murder and mayhem abroad and tailors his domestic policies to accommodate his paymasters’ interests, his attitudes towards the super-rich do not seem too wildly indecent.

It is telling, though, that he doesn’t even try to make a principled case the way Republicans do.  He lobs rhetorical gestures instead.

To the extent that his gestures express an underlying principle, it is some notion of fairness that is in play.  That’s a no brainer: wealth and income distribution in the United States today is ridiculously unfair.

What is striking, though, is how, despite a vast literature about what fairness involves, Obama and his co-thinkers appeal just to untutored intuitions.

True, the reempowered Clintonites in the Obama administration don’t claim to be the brightest and the best; just the lesser evil.  Even so, are they not embarrassed at being even less philosophically aware than Republican yahoos?

At least those yahoos advance views that are backed by a respectable philosophical tradition or, rather, they would if only Romney hadn’t opted to take a more mindless, Ayn Rand-Paul Ryan route.

* * *

But because he is, in the end, still a libertarian, albeit for reasons that no sane person could endorse, even Paul Ryan can distinguish redistribution (a very bad thing in his view) from distribution (an unabashed good).

The only way Obama and the Democrats can do the same is by making themselves  myopic, focusing just on a part of the picture at the expense of the whole.

And so it is that they focus only on marginal tax rates on market-generated incomes.  Even wealth is beyond their purview!

In short, they do what Republicans do – though not, like their rivals, for reasons that are wrong-headed or confused, but for no reasons at all.

Needless to say, taxes on market-generated distributions upset distributional patterns; in this sense, they are redistributive.  But the tax system also affects market-generated distributions directly.  Baseline (pre-tax) distributions are determined by an entire panoply of government policies – including, of course, the tax code.  This is particularly so in a highly financialized economy like our own.

Hedge fund managers, for example, become rich in ways that offend sound theories of justice thanks, in part, to the ways that the revenues they concoct are treated in the tax system.   The marginal tax rate to which their income is subject is only part of the story.

In other words, it’s the entire system, stupid, that must be taken into account  – taxes, of course, but also every other political factor that plays a role in the generation of income and wealth.

Neo-Lockean libertarians have a principled, though flawed, reason for treating post-hoc redistribution differently from all the rest to the extent that they can get themselves to think that individuals have morally prior entitlements to their market-generated holdings.  Proponents of sounder theories of justice have a better case for doing the opposite.

One would expect that a politician who postures the way Obama does as elections approach would tap into those sounder theories of justice.  But then he might have to do more than just posture, and that could upset his corporate paymasters.  If Obama has any settled convictions at all it’s that there’s no percentage in that!

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).

ANDREW LEVINE is 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).