An entitlement is a legal benefit available from the government to individuals who are within a defined category of recipients, such as needing insurance for unemployment or health services.
The topic of entitlements is a kind of political hot potato now, what with Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, vowing to cut Social Security benefits. It is hard to know where the multifaceted Mitt will come down with this. He is quite dutiful in efforts to concoct congruence between himself and the multiple Republican bases he seeks to represent. He is a pleaser and we cannot really know just how his cloudy promises might precipitate in a reign of deeds.
For Republicans especially, entitlements suggest the largesse of big government dispensing money taxed from the haves, to the ever-enlarging numbers of those having less and less. Beyond the problems of recession and unemployment, there is the largely ignored issue of structural inequality in our economic and social ranks, which is far and away the greater culprit.
At the same time, the Republicans feel quite strongly that the well-to-do are fully entitled to their economic gains, as reflecting superior skill within business and the capitalist economy we have. The word they use is “deserving.” They have earned their advantage, and have the right to take full advantage of it. After all, don’t the economic benefits created cascade down to all? Simply put, NO. We have in place some well-established programs seen as necessary for a responsible society, but the Republicans are always anxious to turn back.
Theirs is the claim of those who prosper, to credit themselves as individuals who have had the initiative and skill to get ahead of their brothers. Alternately they are sometimes those who also had the guile to turn a blind eye to sufferings that result from their activities. If profit-taking is not a neighbor to extortion, then government efforts to establish fair safety nets are not simply “nanny state programs” to redistribute wealth.
But what is the limit to the dictum “what’s mine is mine”? What balance governs the morality between greed and need, between surplus and survival? What defines the duty incumbent on one having more than he needs in the face of others in really dire straits? We quickly find ways of distancing ourselves from any sense of responsibility, don’t we?
It is hard to define how to limit taking advantage of those who are already at a disadvantage, which is happening all the time. When a person is subject to disillusion about finding equal opportunity, that is divisive. Despair can spread like green mold on a pudding, contaminating the health of the whole society.
This is a political issue. Can we allow ourselves to feel responsibility for the social injustices that beset “them” but skip over “us”? Raising such questions arouses the ire of Tea Party types whose orthodoxy insists that every individual does have equal opportunity. The president was called divisive when he reminded us we are all in this together.
That is not class warfare or socialism. But equality is easier said than found. Actually, equal opportunity would mean change. The conflict is about whose ox would be gored. When those who already got “theirs” get affected, we hear from the power of riches, most commonly, the Republican Party. The Democrats have the edge in numbers, but anyone calling for change gets tagged a trouble-maker — especially when government is the facilitator.
In the ‘60s, blacks seeking to get white boots off their necks were called radical and dangerous for trying to rectify the injustice of their experience. That injustice tends to be invisible to many, so that we are surprised even when informed that some kids go to school hungry.
Moral segregation and self righteousness are a legacy too easily associated with the Republican ideology, where reform means doing less and advancing tough-minded rhetoric “encouraging” everyone to take initiative as individuals to lift themselves up (by the bootstraps). That is what the well-to-do classes like to think they have done. Republicans, as was once said of General Motors, seem to believe that what is good for them, is good for the country.
What has to be realized is that entitlements are always a reciprocal matter, a two-way street. It is the same issue we all go through as children, learning to share. Not sharing comes close to defining bullying. Right now there is serious hoarding at the top, and justice would suggest a somewhat different distribution.
William Masters can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.