All Commentary
Thursday, September 1, 1994

Rights Versus Entitlements

A Government Which Knows Its Place Will Shun Entitlements

Dr. Yates is a visiting assistant professor, department of philosophy, University of South Carolina, Academic Year 1993-94; Salvatori Fellow, The Heritage Foundation, 1992-94; and author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1994) and recent articles and reviews in Public Affairs Quarterly, Social Sciences Quarterly, Reason Papers, IPI Insights, and other periodicals.

Many people today speak of rights. We hear of rights not just to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but to a host of other things as well, including rights to employment, education, a certain level of income, a certain quality of housing, race and gender representation in the workplace, freedom from economic insecurity, and health care. Often these claims are made on behalf of some group; thus we hear of women’s rights, the rights of minorities qua minorities, the rights of gays and lesbians, the elderly, children, the handicapped, and sometimes even the rights of animals. Usually a careful appraisal of what the advocates for these various groups are saying indicates their belief that their rights can be fulfilled only by acts of government. Hence they petition the government for new laws or other favors.

If we consider the original rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence and enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, it should be clear that there are massive differences between those rights and these new ones. The original rights were rights to live by one’s personal efforts without the interference of others, and in particular, without interference by government. That is what the founders of the United States were declaring independence from, after all. The Declaration of Independence speaks of the right to pursue happiness; it does not offer a guarantee that one will achieve happiness. This makes all the difference in the world; for in a free society there can be no guarantee that effort will meet with success.

Nevertheless, today we see plenty of demand for such guarantees, and more and more promises being made by government in response to these demands. Take the minimum wage. What this “right” does is force an employer to pay a higher wage than employees’ services might be worth under free market conditions. Or consider the “rights” to access now mandated by the Americans With Disabilities Act. This legislation requires businesses and other organizations to make extra-economic accommodations but does not clearly spell out what they have to do to comply. Such ambiguity is another characteristic of many recently discovered “rights.”

Given the vast differences between what is stated in this country’s founding documents and the demands we now see, accuracy and honesty call for a different term than rights. The term entitlements crept into our political and socioeconomic lexicon to refer to federal programs such as Social Security and Medicare. It is notable that the decision to partake of the fruits of these programs was not left up to the individual. By law, he had to participate, and this meant relinquishing an important aspect of freedom. Moreover, entitlements are always financed by compelling others to pay. Thus, they lead to more and more interference with individual freedom as government grows in size to administer its programs, seizing the fruits of individuals’ actions both to support itself and to fulfill its entitlement guarantees.

In other words, there is a hard and fast difference between rights and entitlements, a difference which the past seventy years of government policy has blurred to the point of indistinguishability. A free society must recognize the distinction. Otherwise, it has no way of knowing which claims of rights to acknowledge and which to reject as spurious. Legitimate rights are easy to recognize. They can be acted on by individuals without the assistance of government and without forcibly interfering with other individuals. Entitlements, on the other hand, cannot be fulfilled except through specific government actions which require forcible interference with others. Protecting rights is thus compatible with limited government. Granting entitlements requires an ever-expanding and increasingly meddlesome state. The more entitlements the state grants, the more it must extend itself to make good on its promises, and the greater its level of interference with people’s actions. Moreover, by interfering with successful actions, government becomes a drain on the individual’s energies. The individual must expend more and more effort to get the same personal benefits. This translates into a disincentive to produce, and when less is produced, there is less to seize and distribute. Soon, the state can no longer keep its promises.

Today, government sees itself as in the business of providing guarantees in the form of entitlements; new, spurious “rights” such as those named at the outset are manufactured by the hundreds of pages of new legislation our government churns out every day. A government which knows its place, however, will shun entitlements. Attempts to provide guarantees to citizens, no matter how well intentioned or how well orchestrated, cannot be made without introducing more and more interferences with genuine rights as the government grows exponentially in order to administer the programs.

The government that sees itself as in the business of fulfilling entitlements soon finds itself under pressure to grant more and more. Then, faced with burgeoning bureaucracy, declining opportunities, declining prosperity, and a general malaise, it soon finds that it cannot grant anything worthwhile at all. Today’s entitlement-granting machine is leading the country into the economic equivalent of a bottomless pit. Only time will tell if we can reverse the process by recovering the distinction between rights and entitlements and redefining the purpose of government as protector of the former, not guarantor of the latter.

  • Steven Yates, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy, is a writer and consultant living in Columbia, S.C. He is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (ICS Press, 1994).