August 15, 2012

"A Few Thoughts on 'Entitlement'"

I heard this on NPR's 'Fresh Air' segment, yesterday, and wanted to share. The link to the story, With Ryan's Ascent, A Few Thoughts on 'Entitlement' provides both the transcript as well as the audio story (7 minutes long) if you prefer to listen. 

"People are saying that Mitt Romney's selection of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate creates an opportunity to hold what Ryan likes to call an "adult conversation" about entitlement spending. In the present political climate, it would be heartening to have an adult conversation about anything. But bear in mind that "entitlement" doesn't put all its cards on the table. Like a lot of effective political language, it enables you to slip from one idea to another without ever letting on that you've changed the subject.

"Entitlement" originally had two separate meanings, which entered the language along very different paths. One sense of the word was an obscure political legalism until the advent of the Great Society programs that some economists called "uncontrollables." Technically, entitlements are just programs that provide benefits that aren't subject to budgetary discretion. But the word also implied that the recipients had a moral right to the benefits. As LBJ said in justifying Medicare: "By God, you can't treat Grandma this way. She's entitled to it."...The negative connotations of the word arose in another, very distant corner of the language, when psychologists began to use a different notion of entitlement as a diagnostic for narcissism...But it's only when critics get to the role of government that the two meanings of "entitlement" start to seep into each other."

I do believe that Romney's selection of Ryan does elevate the conversation of the campaign, or at least it should. There is nothing more important regarding the future of our country that the debate that needs to occur about how our country defines itself and what we are willing to do to ensure our children and grandchildren have as many opportunities and advantages as we enjoyed growing up. But for this debate to take place the American vote must take an interest and get involved in the discussion--at the dinner table, with friends and co-workers, and finally at the ballot box. Both aspects of 'entitlement' are important here...the legal definition that translates to large expenditures of public money and the cultural attitude toward 'rights', earned outcomes, and individual and societal expectations.

In my view both aspects of 'entitlement' should fall more heavily on the individual than on the government. To the extent we displace onto government our expectations for 'success in life' and the provision of wealth, we'll find ourselves wholly dependent on the government and less able to define for ourselves what it means to be an individual. Per Theodore Forstmann, “In a state-run society the government promises you security. But it's a false promise predicated on the idea that the opposite of security is risk. Nothing could be further from the truth. The opposite of security is insecurity, and the only way to overcome insecurity is to take risks. The gentle government that promises to hold your hand as you cross the street refuses to let go on the other side.”


  1. I really miss you in Fairfax, Virginia. Dwayne Phillips

  2. Dwayne - I regularly enjoy your FB posts/tweets! Hopefully we'll be back in a position enabling you and I to touch base again!