Entitled to be a government dependent

First Published: 2007-07-13

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Orange County Register, copyrighted 2007.

Tibor R. Machan holds the R. C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at Chapman University and is research fellow at the Hoover Institution and Pacific Research Institute in the SF Bay Area. He is advisor on libertarian issues for Freedom Communications, Inc.

Entitled to be a government dependent

If the state gives you something, it also can set the terms for you to get it.


Back in the late 1960s and early '70s there was talk to the effect that welfare, health care, old-age security and similar government-administered benefits are among our basic rights.

Some people objected on the grounds that such a policy would obligate the beneficiaries to the government which, then, could insist on all kinds of conditions that needed to be met so as to receive the benefits. "Oh, no," came the answer from the proponents, "These are basic rights, and basic rights do not need to be earned and paid for with any conditions." (Take a look at Henry Shue, "Basic Rights" [Princeton, 1980].)

Indeed, if you consider the basic rights identified in the Declaration of Independence, there are no conditions that someone needs to fulfill for enjoying them beyond being human. Common sense, too, testifies to this: If one's right to life is respected by another, there is no payment due, nor even thanks. Yes, one needs to pay for the protection of one's rights, but not for their respect. If you don't kill me, realizing that I have the right to my life, you don't deserve gratitude. It is one's natural due, not a grant or gift from others. That's true about basic and even all derivative rights: If someone returns a debt due you, you don't need to be grateful, not the way you would be for a gift or favor.

But because entitlements involve more than people simply abstaining from intruding on others – namely, making provisions for the entitlements – there has, of course, always been the urge to specify conditions for receiving them. For example, "You are entitled to receive unemployment compensation, provided you do this or that, such as looking for a job and reporting on your search to the bureaucracy."

There now is a term, "means test," used to describe the conditions one must meet to qualify for entitlements. No means tests are required to qualify for the possession of one's basic individual human rights and whatever is implied by them. If you have the right to laugh or sing or clap your hands, no one may impose some qualification for possessing such rights. But consider that when you have the right to education, health care or old-age security payments, you must jump through a bunch of hoops before these benefits may be obtained from the authorities.

Which again pretty much shows, even without elaborate philosophical argumentation, that there is a great difference between one's negative individual rights and so-called positive rights. Negative rights come by virtue of one's humanity alone, while positive rights are political grants for which someone soon gets to pay dearly. Put another away, positive rights aren't really basic rights at all but privileges and grants doled out by those in power.

And therein lie their fraudulent nature – unlike basic and derivative negative rights, these entitlements must be paid for and earned by doing what those in power demand.

That realization also makes pretty clear that such entitlements do not belong in a free society but show up in dictatorships, monarchies, welfare states and similar authoritarian regimes. It is only in such political societies that the kind of power needed for handing out entitlements can exist because only in such societies can people's labor and other resources be conscripted and expropriated to pay for the entitlements.

Historically, this was often done by invading and conquering other lands and looting their labor and resources for the benefit of the invader's monarch and subjects. These days the resources to underwrite entitlements are obtained by extorting the people via taxes and other forms of "taking." In the process, of course, the proud status of citizenship, whereby one is deemed a sovereign, is sacrificed for the sake of turning into a de facto subject of the government, a dependent.

Which brings us to this point: The widespread contemporary public policy of redistributing wealth or resources isn't really what its champions insist it is, namely, progressive. It is out-and-out reactionary, because it drives us all back to the era of feudalism. No way are these socialists and communitarians taking us forward toward a great new age of humanitarianism. No, they are returning us to the times when a few men and women purportedly ruled us in the name of certain ideals but, in fact, ruled in order to impose their agenda on us, to deprive us of our basic rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

Click here for the original article in The Orange Grove at the Orange County Register. First published Monday, June 18, 2007

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