Entitlement, privilege and freedom


Like the Harry Potter film makers I have decided to divide the final instalment of my series of posts on 'the paradox of entitlement' in two. Sadly, despite the many helpful comments I have received to the earlier posts, I don't expect millions to be waiting with bated breath for my finale.

Just like when you buy a new car and suddenly notice how many of them there are on the road, so I’ve been noticing the issue of entitlement cropping up in other places. In America, former US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan has been saying that the looming fiscal crisis requires cutting back on social security entitlements. Meanwhile Labour’s Liam Byrne called for a return in welfare policy to the ‘something for something’ expectations of the Beveridge report.

But most interesting to me was David Cameron’s commitment on last Friday's Today programme to tackle excessive pay and Nick Robinson’s interpretation of the PM’s stance. The BBC’s chief political correspondent suggested that politicians have to respond to a hurting and angry 'squeezed middle' electorate which feels intolerant of what it sees as fat cats at the top and benefit cheats at the bottom.

The danger is clear: ugly economic circumstances can lead to an ugly politics of rage and resentment. Politicians have to respond to public anger but also offer more unifying and hopeful ways of thinking about the world. Although my musings today stray into well-trodden intellectual debates, my aim is not so much philosophical clarity as developing a credible political narrative about entitlement which spans the responsibilities of all sections of society.

When, in the first and second of these posts, I described some problems with state backed entitlements one critical response urged me to explore the entitlements of the rich, not just those dependent on state benefits and services. I agree.

However, when considering the responsibilities which might come with entitlements, it is important to recognise that people tend to see a difference between the right to receive something such as a benefit or service and the right to keep income or wealth which has been legitimately accumulated through work, saving or investment. Most people view the case for conditionality or reciprocity as stronger in the former case than the latter.

In John Rawls' famous thought experiment we are asked to imagine what kind of society we would favour if we had no way of knowing where in that society's hierarchy or distribution of talent we might find ourselves. Surely we would want a society in which everyone was guaranteed dignity and where inequality was only tolerated to the extent that it was necessary for the effective functioning of the economy?

In fact, in what may be a reflection of our tendency to be too optimistic about our own prospects, it seems most people favour a society in which it is possible for a fortunate few to achieve very high rewards, as long as they are deemed to have come into them legitimately through talent, hard work or even good luck. Not only is the public quite relaxed about unequal rewards but, to the chagrin of egalitarians, there is a suspicion of the motives of those who want to constrain the privileges of society’s winners.

But while it is not clear that we see being financially successful as itself creating social obligations (beyond obeying the law and paying reasonable taxes), I want to suggest that there are two privileges which do. The first is the entitlement to gain future advantage from current success; the second is the entitlement to pass on such privilege.

Think of it as a race. Regardless of how good or bad we are at running, it seems we are happy to accept the winner of a race receiving a much bigger prize than the runners up. We don't think the winners incur any particular obligations even if they are handsomely rewarded. However, what if we said that the winner of today's race could use their winnings to get a major head start in tomorrow's race? Or if we agreed that the winner of today's race could buy a life-changing hard start for his daughter running her first race? Both these consequences of inequality offend deeply held common sense ideas of fairness.

But in reality, and for various reasons, we do allow people to use today's success to buy advantages for tomorrow, and to pass on their advantages to their offspring, even though this necessarily means a relative disadvantage for everyone else. Arguably, the level of intervention and redistribution which would be necessary to stop advantages being exploited and inherited would have damaging side effects. Nevertheless, it can be argued that it is the freedom to exploit and bequeath advantage which provides the basis for arguing that the well-off in society have greater obligations than less fortunate citizens.

To recap, I have argued in earlier posts in this series that to survive in terms of financial sustainability and public legitimacy, entitlements to welfare and public services need to be accompanied by rules and expectations of obligation and reciprocity. Similarly, if society is not to be unfair and seen to be so, the freedom we provide to the well off to exploit and pass on privilege should also be tempered by rules and expectations.

In my final post in this series, by connecting the RSA’s mission of enhancing human capability to my thoughts about entitlement and obligation, I will try to weave a story about the social values we need to deal with decades of austerity.

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