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  • Victor C. Bolles

On the Nature of Entitlement

The first thing I do when I am writing about an abstract concept is to look it up in the dictionary to make sure that I am writing about the concept as generally understood and not writing based on some pre-conceived notion that I may have picked up along the way. When I looked at my dictionary it did not have an entry for the word “entitlement” but only for the word “entitle”. “Entitlement” was a sub-entry under “entitle”. Further, none of the three definitions of “entitle” included the concept of government provided benefits, the closest being “to give a right or legal title to”. The concept of a government benefit being an “entitlement” was foreign to the authors of the New World Dictionary of the American Language back in 1984.

Curious, I went to my library and found a more up-to-date dictionary. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2000) has an entry for “entitlement” which it defines it as “a government program that guarantees and provides benefits to a particular group.

So “entitlement” as a government provided benefit is a recent concept that has become engrained into our society as a right so powerful that it cannot be constrained let alone eliminated. But the concept of “entitlement” (in addition to the authors of my old dictionary) was foreign to the Framers of the Constitution of the United States as well. To them, the concept of entitling someone was anathema. The Queen of England recently entitled Meghan Markle as the Duchess of Sussex which is fine for a monarchy - but not for America. The Founders abhorred entitlement because it created a separate class of persons, which violates the essential (and self-evident) truth that in America ”all men are created equal.” To the Founders people are entitled by “the Laws of Nature and by Nature’s God” but not by kings, queens or any other form of government.

Entitlements are also known as positive rights, rights to something. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights do not include positive rights. They define negative rights, things that the government cannot do to you. I grew up calling them “liberties” (I guess because that sounds better than “give me negative rights or give me death.”)

In the minds of the Founders, the purpose of government is to enforce the negative rights of citizens from the actions of other citizens while refraining to infringe of the negative rights of those same citizens. This is obviously not an easy balancing act. In the mere act of instituting a government, the citizens of that society cede some of their rights to government. For example, the ability of a government to tax its citizens arises from the cession of a portion of their property rights by the citizens. But without such power government cannot function (as the Founders discovered during the period of the Confederation). But the Founders created a limited government because every expansion of the power of government requires an offsetting cession of negative rights (liberties) to that government.

The concept of positive rights was developed in Europe (where else) as originally conceived in 1979 by Karel Vasak, who was the first Secretary-General of the International Institute of Human Rights. Whereas negative rights require others to refrain from taking action, positive rights require others to take action. Positive rights to welfare, housing, food or healthcare require others to provide the property or services needed to fulfill such right.

The negative rights our ancestors enjoyed for much of this republic’s history required that people take responsibility for their own welfare. People that were very poor, lame or injured had to rely on the charitable impulses of their fellow citizens if they could not meet their own needs, a function fulfilled by numerous charitable and religious organizations.

But entitlement as conceived by the modern welfare state and its progressive proponents goes far beyond charity. Entitlement applies to everyone, not just the poor, the lame or the injured. And in this it changes the nature of our relationship with government. People cannot impose their own positive rights directly on other citizens (that’s defined as robbery). But through the authority of government citizens can confiscate the private property of other citizens for their own benefit. But this expansion of government power not only appropriates the negative rights (liberties) of the wealthy who fund the benefits, but also of the poor, the lame and the injured in like manner (although many do not realize this or just don’t care).

But the most insidious aspect of entitlements is that they don’t just change our relationship with government, they change us. Our ancestors were an independent lot. They took care of themselves. They had to. The scope and reach of the US government in the nineteenth century was very limited. Citizens had to take responsibility for feeding and sheltering their family. Prior to becoming president Ulysses S. Grant built an entire house by himself in order to shelter his family. He named the house Hardscrabble.

It was a precarious frontier life and it took grit and hard work to become a success. And with it came a sense of purpose and accomplishment in an exuberant exultation of the freedoms obtained through their liberties. Those nineteenth century Americans made America great.

We have exchanged our exultations for whining. We whine for our entitlements and whine for even more entitlements. People are outraged and angry that some people might want to keep their hard-earned money by denying them healthcare or some other entitlement. Americans now want free healthcare, free college education and universal basic income.

A dependent people are not fit to lead the free world, only to be led. This is why immigrants run more than 50 percent of tech companies and why immigrants hold 70 percent of the key management positions (according to a study by the National Foundation for American Policy). Most immigrants do not come to America for entitlements, they come for opportunity. They have more in common with our ancestors than we do.

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