February 19, 2016

What Are People Entitled To?

Like any person with Internet access, I’ve been exposed to the 2016 election. The one I followed the most was Bernie Sander’s surprising success, which made me think of one issue: entitlements.

I wondered, how would an ideal entitlement system work?

Know this isn’t a post advocating one party’s position over another. That’s an overcrowded marketplace and there’s too many requirements for me to succeed in it:

  • Spite
  • A condescending, dickish tone of voice
  • Rage, not limited to four or five-letter words
  • High level of attractiveness
  • Desire to alienate half my friends and family

The market is especially saturated this Election Year, as you’ve noticed.

So in this post, I’m looking at this without any present-day politics. This is pure philosophical pondering, no censors to block thoughts for the sake of the squeamish. Down and dirty free thinking. Let’s get to the action!

So…how to Define Entitlement?

The first question is obvious yet tough: how do we define entitlements? If I can’t do that, this is pointless. First stop: the dictionary.

Google defines “entitlement” as the fact of having a right to something. Seems straightforward, long as we know what it means to have “a right to something.”

So I looked that up and found a problem. Google’s definition of “right” is a moral or legal entitlement to something. Great, an infinite definition loop! It’s hard to define entitlements when it tries to use the same word to define itself.

So the “official” definition of entitlement is unclear. I’ll be using my own.

The first part: entitlements must be given to individuals by the state. If they’re given by family or friends by their choice, I don’t define that as entitlement. I define it as goodwill or charity. Entitlements must be collected by the state from all people (how much from each person is another post), then given to individuals the state choses.

For the sake of argument, entitlements given to people will be anything essential to living. Basics like food, water, shelter, education, health care, security, etc.

Then we’re at the hardest part of my definition: How should we give out entitlements? Make it universal or only to some? Who gets them and who doesn’t? Should anyone get them? Tough questions…

Answering that last part is what I want to answer in this post. I’m aiming for a definition of entitlements that helps everyone while still being moral and fair system. It needs to accomplish two things:

  1. Not waste entitlements on people who wouldn’t use them or could be argued don’t deserve them.
  2. Make sure all people who deserve entitlements get them.

How do we Give Out Entitlements?

First I’ll try a simple way to give out entitlements: people should have them regardless of circumstance. No matter where the person ranks economically, socially, age-wise or whatever, entitlements are something they will always get. Anyone who exists gets entitlements.

But this raises a question: do people deserve entitlements for simply existing?

This raises an obvious problem: people could deliberately do nothing their entire lives, be given all their entitlements, and not making use of them. It’s fair to argue that people who don’t add any value to society wouldn’t deserve anything from society. From through donations and charities, sure, but not the state. So I can quickly discard this way to give out entitlements.

Thankfully, my reason for rejecting this method leads me to my next one: What we’re entitled to is equal to the value we add to society. This is a better definition since the state has plenty reasons to help people making it better.

But there’s one issue I spot right away: What does bringing value to society mean? For the sake of argument, I’ll say it’s when someone consciously makes society better as a whole. Like repairing cars, producing thought-provoking art, informing or teaching the public, cleaning or repairing infrastructure, etc. Anything with a tangible, preferably measurable benefit to society.

Solved, right? No!

Even with my current definition has a big issue: the Problem of Opportunity.

The Problem of Opportunity

I’ve gotten as far as “people are entitled to how much they help society.” Leaving the specifics of how measure this aside for now (another blog post), there’s a huge issue: what if people aren’t able to contribute to society, even if they wanted to?

Lets say someone is born into a harsh life. They have little food and water, shelter is sporadic, and can’t treat common health issues. This person must work extremely hard just to stay alive, leaving next to no energy to contribute to society. The society they want to add value too makes it real hard to do just that.

To make my entitlement system work, people who want to add to society must be covered somehow.

Under my current definition, this person wouldn’t be entitled to anything and be left to struggle. My second criteria of “no risk of deserving people having no entitlements” is broken.

I’ll call this the Problem of Opportunity. Like I said, this problem makes my current way of giving out entitlements unworkable. Thankfully I don’t need to think of something different entirely, just adjust my current idea.

Three Kinds of Opportunity Issues

Thinking it over, there are three times when this lack of opportunity is an issue:

  1. The previous example, when someone is struggling so much for life necessities, they can’t add value to society.
  2. When someone who previously could add value to society no longer can, due to an injury or otherwise, and requires too much entitlements for their recovery. For example, they added X amount of value to society, but require more than X value of entitlements before they can improve society again.
  3. When someone is too young to add to society. These would be babies, toddlers, children, etc. People need time to develop before they can be independent, contributing members of society.

Thankfully, I’ve got a few solutions to address these three.

Fixing the Lack of Opportunity for the Young

This is a tough yet simple one. I’m assuming all people need to reach a certain age before they can consistently contribute to society. Up until that age they’re an exception to my rule. If their family and friends can’t give them the basics to survive, the state should make sure everyone in this age range (deciding that is another post) has access to the essentials, especially education. The better the education, the better a person can contribute, so it better be good.

I know the “giving children a good childhood education” position doesn’t seem controversial, but surprisingly it is. Likely because people in power don’t want citizens smart enough to question them. But once again, that’s another blog post.

Fixing Opportunity for the Older

The more complicated issue is a lack of opportunity for the other two groups. People who are in such bad circumstances, they’re too focused on surviving to contribute. These would be people in very poor communities, the homeless, the severely injured, or those in violent areas. How to fix this?

The “exception to the rule” solution I used for the young won’t work here. That only worked because there’s no other circumstances where the young could consistently contribute. People in these two groups could but can’t through circumstance. The solution here has to make sure people who can’t contribute through circumstance get their entitlements, and those who don’t through choice do not.

My answer is thankfully very simple: public work programs.

I’m taking a page from the New Deal, mainly the Public Works Administration. Citizens who lost their jobs were hired by the government to build infrastructure and do other jobs for the public good. My solution would make this a constant option for everyone. People in bad circumstances would always have the opportunity for a job, as long as they meet these criteria:

  • The job is either given directly by the state, or indirectly through another company that the state helps pay for.
  • People would always be able to get this kind of job, regardless of age or circumstance.

Public Works Programs must ensure everyone has a chance to work fairly for entitlements.

  • The job must add directly and substantially to society. Maintaining roads and bridges, for example, helps lots of people and is well-worth the investment.
  • People who can’t do certain kinds of jobs, like those with disabilities or recovering from serious illnesses, should still be offered ways to work. For example, someone with a physical disability could work in an area focused on intelligence or information gathering if needed.
  • It gives minimum entitlements for the person to keep living and working, including needed education to do it. I say the minimum since it would give an incentive to leave the job and independently add to society later on.

These would give people who couldn’t otherwise add to society a chance to, solving the Problem of Opportunity. If someone still chose not to, despite having the opportunity, they wouldn’t receive any. They wouldn’t be adding any value to society despite the opportunity to do so, and again I’d argue wouldn’t deserve entitlements anyway.

Entitlement Defined

This all seems to give me a solid definition. A quick recap of my points so far on my ideal way to give out entitlements:

  • Entitlements are only given based on how much value someone adds to society.
  • Those without the opportunity to do this must be provided a job by the state that gives them a minimum level of entitlements.
  • People who still chose not to add to society, despite these opportunities, receive nothing.
  • The only exception is people too young to add to society, and are entitled to life’s essentials until they’re old enough to do so.

In short, we’re entitled to nothing but opportunity. In my perfect world, this would be how entitlements would work (although I’ll likely revise it later).

Funnily enough, the current President (sort of) agrees with me. Democratic President Frank Underwood’s speech in House of Cards gave basically the same position (admittedly with a better accent and a sinister undertone).