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America’s Economy of Entitlements

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Americans obsession with positive “rights” has a significant influence on the country’s economy. Over at the American Spectator, Samuel Gregg argues that despite the portrayal of the United States as a “dog-eat-dog” society where the most vulnerable are left to fend for themselves, the country actually spends an enormous amount on various forms of welfare. In fact, the U.S. is the second biggest “social spender,” following only France. Gregg explains how the country reached this:

On the one hand, there is what the [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] calls “public social spending.” This includes things like old-age assistance, unemployment insurance, disability payments, government-provided healthcare, etc. What, however, needs to be added to this, the OECD states, is what’s called “private social expenditure.” This is defined as “social benefits delivered through the private sector… which involve an element of compulsion and/or inter-personal redistribution.” One example would be government subsidies to employer-provided healthcare.

By these measures, almost 30 percent of America’s annual GDP is devoted to welfare-spending of one form or another. Let me say that number again: 30 percent. How much more, we might ask, could possibly be spent, especially given the sub-optimal results? One suspects that, for most liberals and the left more generally, the sky’s the limit. But they should at least concede that America is hardly tight-fisted in such matters. Alas, I, for one, am not holding my breath.

A significant cause of this entitlement spending is the obsession with “rights;” the government is now expected to provide or ensure anything desirable. Gregg argues that the impact of this view has been heightened by at least two recent developments:

The first is a virtual disintegration of any consensus about where rights come from. Not so long ago, people from disparate religious and political backgrounds held that rights were grounded in God, or natural law, or both. This mattered because it generated relatively tight philosophical and legal frameworks in which various rights-claims could be discussed, debated, and adjudicated with a certain degree of coherence.

The second development has followed in the wake of the gradual collapse in the public square of such frameworks. Rather than arguing that X is a right because it is grounded in some element of human flourishing, or human nature, and/or because it’s divinely ordained, rights to something are now simply asserted. The difficulty is that, without some common framework grounded in reason for deciding whether something is a right, the discernment-process becomes a matter of who is the loudest, more aggressive, or most powerful. Coherent argument is out. Assertions based on sheer will are in.

That, I’d argue, helps to explain the explosion of rights-claims in the economic sphere. We’re told, for example, that everyone has “a right to a pension.” Apparently it doesn’t matter if one person has behaved economically-prudently all their lives, while another has lived a hedonistic lifestyle but nevertheless has an expectation that he’s entitled to live off everyone else in his old age. But to even make that point amounts, some believe, to “disrespecting” the hedonist’s “right” to a pension.

There is a great danger that too much focus on these positive rights: right to a job, right to healthcare, right to a cell phone…etc will breakdown the original rights the government was created to protect: right to life, liberty, and property:

The problem, regrettably, is not going to be addressed until we face up to the fact that, for increasing numbers of people, rights are just another weapon to be deployed in an endless competition of wills to get what you want via the state. The noble idea of human rights is of course integral to the American experiment in ordered liberty and the broader Western tradition of moral and legal reasoning. In many instances, however, rights-discourse today is now undermining many of the very protections against government overreach that rights, in their classic form, were supposed to uphold.

And for that we will continue to pay a very high price, not least of all in the economy.

Read ‘Our Competitive Entitlement Economy’ at the American Spectator.

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Sarah Stanley

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