Since first writing about it a few weeks ago I have found myself thinking more and more about what I called ‘the paradox of entitlement’. I have even allowed for the possibility this could be a strong enough topic for a book. But as anyone knows who reads this blog at all regularly, when is comes to sustained intellectual projects my reach far exceeds my grasp. As under-promising and over-delivering is as sound a strategy for life as it is for politics, I will for the time being restrict my ambition to a few more posts examining various facets of the paradox.
To recap, the paradox of entitlement states that social rights are a good thing but their social benefits are much reduced, and their economic viability increasingly questionable, if people treat them as mere entitlements. This post and my next will argue that this contention has the virtue of challenging orthodoxies of both the left and right.
Forgive the generalisation but the right is uncomfortable with the idea of entitlement. The most obvious concern, especially in times like this, is financial viability. But while this makes a pragmatic argument for the limits to what can be guaranteed by the state (one which thoughtful people on the left would accept but to a different extent) there are deeper more doctrinal concerns.
Through the generation of moral hazard, entitlements – especially in the domain of welfare benefits – are seen as socially corrosive. To use a phrase favoured by columnists in the Daily Mail and Spectator (but also by Labour centrists) welfare rights create a ‘something for nothing society’ and trap the poor in ‘a culture of dependency’.
It is obviously more palatable to attack social rights on the grounds that they are bad for the poor but the right also believes they are bad for everyone else. On the one hand, financing social rights (whether protections, services or welfare payments) through taxation requires restricting the freedom of those who have become wealthy through their own choices and efforts; thus the rights of the unsuccessful and feckless are put above those of the successful and industrious. On the other hand, the provision of expanding universal social rights provides a pretext for the growth of the state and the wider imposition of a bureaucratic conformity; to use Hayek’s mordant phrase it sets society on ‘the road to serfdom’.
Many of these concerns are reasonable and can be seen to reflect genuine problems for policy makers. But the idea of social rights can nevertheless be defended. For a start, I want to argue that many of the problems the right links to social entitlements are contingent rather than inherent. The degree of moral hazard and the extent of central state interference can be altered by the design of benefits and social programmes and by the normative context of expectations and obligations in which those rights are exercised.
By portraying contingent problems of welfare regimes as inherent the right avoids confronting the core question; is it a good thing that as wealth, freedom and opportunity expand we should seek to increases the entitlement of all citizens to those basic aspects of life that research consistently shows to be the most important to people’s well-being, resilience and life chances? Or to put it another way, how defensible is the idea that in a rich society many citizens might through misfortune, mistake or even eccentricity be denied the basic building blocks of a decent life over which they can exercise some control? As John Rawls famously argued, if we were designing a society knowing we had to live in it but not knowing whether we would be privileged or talented, we would surely be inclined to design one which protected the interests of its less fortunate citizens.
A concern for the opportunities of everyone not just the successful also provides a defence of social rights from the argument that their financing through taxation infringes freedom. For if freedom is considered aggregately across society, then the freedoms at the margin lost to the well off by paying taxes are likely to be more than offset by the freedoms gained by the poor as a consequence of having various social entitlements and therefore being more able to exercise autonomy in their lives.
Interestingly, an emphasis on freedom also poses problems for the right’s general support for greater conditionality in welfare provision (a support shared strongly by the general public). It may be an unfashionable idea, but for a society to agree that all reasonably law abiding, reasonably sane, citizens should receive social entitlements is an important statement about the freedom of citizens to choose lives they consider valuable even if most of us don’t agree with their choices. The wider conditionality extends the less such freedom exists.
These are the bare bones of the first half of the case for the entitlement paradox; social rights are a good thing. I would, of course, be pleased to hear from my friends on the right why I’ve got this wrong, but bear in mind that my next post will focus on the second half; that for people to treat entitlements as entitlements may be both socially corrosive and financially unviable.