Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Entitlement Means Right

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By U.S. Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Democrats* have gotten at least part of the message–language matters. They know the GOP has long been using language to advance their agenda, and they know they want to as well.  Unfortunately, often this means simply denying Republicans’ framing and offering bloodless alternatives.

A good example involves talk about Social Security and Medicare, lumped together under the term ‘entitlements.’ Political elites (not, it should be noted, limited to Republicans) talk incessantly about the need to ‘reform entitlements’ because, they say, entitlement spending is out of control. To listen to this talk, our greatest threat as a nation is ballooning entitlement spending (not climate change, or inequality, or mass unemployment, or mass incarceration or anything the rest of us actually care about).

Now, this is utter nonsense. I’ve written about this before.  But for now I want to talk about the politics, not the substance.

The standard liberal rhetorical move when faced with this is denial.  Even more than the facts, the typical response denies the label.  “Social Security (or Medicare) is not an entitlement”, they insist.  “It’s an earned benefit.”

This is awful framing.  For one ‘earned benefit’ is just a weak term.  For another, it’s false. Social Security and Medicare are entitlements (more on that in a minute.)  But mostly, it misses an all important opportunity to go on offense.

Here’s why. Entitlement meant right.  Look, it’s right here in the dictionary:

1   a :  the state or condition of being entitled :  right
     b :  a right to benefits specified especially by law or contract
2:  a government program providing benefits to members of a specified group; also :  funds supporting or distributed by such a program
3:  belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain privileges

When people who want to cut Social Security and Medicare sneer while using the word ‘entitlement,’ they are literally using it according to the second definition while trying to call to mind the connotations of the third.  It should be obvious that the third is not in any sense a neutral term. But that’s what it was–or used to be. Entitlement was meant to distinguish categorical programs that created rights to benefits from those that did not create such a right.

But as you can see, the core definition is clear: entitlement means right.  A right specified by law. (Some people get confused by this, because they only associate rights with the constitution.  But if that was true, the term constitutional right would be redundant. In fact, there are all sorts of rights that don’t derive from the constitution.)

We should be expanding Social Security. We should be expanding Medicare. Entitlement means right. “Entitlement reform’ is about taking away your rights. ‘Entitlement reform’ is about lowering the standard of living for the majority of Americans while enriching speculators. It’s about expanding the Predator State. The reason no one says they want to cut Social Security and Medicare is that this position is deeply unpopular with everyone but the donor class. Whether people use this language because they are intent on attacking these programs or because they are bad at politics doesn’t matter. We should call this what it is and point out the reasons for it and demand those who peddle this tripe to defend it. No one will mobilize for “earned benefits’ but if given the opportunity, damn near everyone would for their rights to Social Security and Medicare.

*I’m talking here about those Democrats who don’t support cutting social insurance.

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Written by David Kaib

October 11, 2013 at 9:50 am

2 Responses

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  1. […] recently argued against a common framing when it comes to fending off attacks on Social Security and Medicare, […]

  2. […] Mentions. Entitlement Means Right and Defending Social Insurance: Solidarity is More Powerful […]


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