Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Charity as an Entitlement

I discovered that charity is a right in law school.  I remember the day very clearly when we were reading about laws that created government benefits for citizens deemed to be in need, benefits for "poor people."  Those benefits were not called "rights," they were called "entitlements."  I gained this insight in 1970, and I should not have been surprised.  After all, during the decade just before, President Johnson had introduced a package of legislation called "the Great Society," Congress passed it, and it was implemented despite a war going on.  During the Sixties, I had never quite understood that the Great Society package was really a package of artificial "rights."  The use of the word "entitlement" in law school, to describe the benefit and the process by which the beneficiary would receive his benefits, indeed to enforce his right to an entitlement, clarified the matter for me.

Was the choice of the word "entitlement" rather than "right" a deliberate strategy of the lawmakers to confuse the matter?  Maybe not.  Rights, after all, are for every citizen.  "Entitlements," on the other hand, are for the few and they are financed not by the promptings of charity but by the compulsion of taxation.  Government imposes on certain citizens the obligation to pay for the entitlements of other citizens.  These certain citizens are those to whom the market provides those benefits by means of transactions, involving production, buying, and selling, that is, through commerce.  Or they are people who otherwise do not need the benefits or who do not even want them and perhaps find them abhorrent (such as the case of government-provided abortion).

I had been raised on the idea that charity was a moral or a religious obligation, that the obligation was to God not to the recipient, that it was to be offered out of gratitude to the Father, and it was to be smartly done, because it was always better to teach a man to fish rather than to give him a fish and because men, being who they are, will abuse a gift and a blind giver.

The word "entitlement" clarified for me what government had set out to do in the Great Society.  It was interesting and it was disturbing.

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