Let’s not confuse entitlements with rights

Politicians and activists constantly propose new rights — the right to work, to education, and now to food. The word “rights” is being twisted to mean entitlements, and there is a big difference.

Rights are freedoms from oppression by the state or by society (through ethnicity, religion and gender). These rights do not entail government handouts.  Entitlements, however, are welfare measures entailing government handouts. Rights are not limited by budget constraints, but entitlements are. So, rights are universal but entitlements are not.

Historically, India has provided only limited welfare.  It can certainly afford to provide more as it grows richer. Yet fiscal crises in the West warn us that entitlements can grow so rapidly as to threaten even rich governments with bankruptcy. Because of budget constraints, entitlements must be limited. But rights should not be limited. So, don’t confuse rights with entitlements.

US economists calculate that three welfare measures — social security (for the aged), Medicare (for the aged) and Medicaid (for the poor)—will triple from 7% of GDP to 20% in the next decade, swallowing up virtually all federal tax revenue. Jagadeesh Gokhale of the Cato Institute calculates that, including social security, the US is headed for a national debt that’s 500% of GDP, and Europe of 434%. Laurence Kotlikoff of Boston University says welfare measures have become a Ponzi scheme, which work by constantly shifting burdens to future generations.

Greece, which prides itself on socialist entitlements, looks certain to default on its public debt despite a recent rescue by the European Union. Spain, Britain, Portugal and Ireland are seeking to cut entitlements to stave off a future debt crisis. Entitlements need to be narrower and better targeted.

Welfarism was once touted as the great Marxist vision, but is actually intrinsic to all democracies and capitalist systems.  Britain’s Poor Laws dating from the 16th century provided workfare to the destitute through workhouses, at very low wages. This was not called a right to work or to doles. It was seen as Christian charity, and as a way of stopping desperate people from taking to crime.

The British Bill of Rights in 1689 created a constitutional monarchy. The rights included freedom from royal interference with the law, from taxation without parliamentary approval and from martial law in times of peace; and free elections and free speech. These were all rights, not entitlements.

In 1776, the US Declaration of Independence said all men were equal with a fundamental right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The US Bill of Rights in 1789 provided for freedom of religion and speech; for the right to due process of law and peaceful assembly; for freedom against military confiscation in peacetime, unlawful seizure and arrest, excessive bail, torture, self-incrimination and excessive or cruel punishment; for the right to bear arms in a militia, to public trial by a jury, and to legal counsel.

The French Revolution produced its own Rights of Man. This declared that men are born free and equal, and have inalienable rights to liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression. It provided for equal civil participation by all, due process of law, freedom of speech and religion.

These three countries spearheaded the concept of fundamental rights. In all three, rights were about freedoms, not entitlements.

In subsequent centuries, people said this was not enough, and proposed entitlements — which some called second-generation rights. Marxists declared that rights to free speech, elections and personal freedom were bourgeois illusions that did not empower the poor. So Lenin proposed a dictatorship of the proletariat that took away all basic freedoms, and instead offered the right to food, shelter and work. Mind you, nobody could sue Lenin for poor provision. Nobody could throw out Mao for the Great Leap Forward that killed 30 million people. Nobody could topple Stalin for murdering four to six million peasants in the Ukraine.

The communist experience shows that giving welfare rights priority over basic freedoms is the road to serfdom. And the capitalist welfare state now shows that entitlements, although desirable and inevitable in democracies, must be limited and targeted at the needy, so that they do not hog all spending or bankrupt governments.

What lessons follow for India’s welfare reforms? Some changes — like the right to information — are true rights, requiring no budgetary outlays. Others, like the employment guarantee scheme or right to food, are entitlements. These must be restricted to the needy, not made universal, as some activists want. Mukesh Ambani must have the right to free speech, but why on earth should he be entitled to 35 kg of rice at Rs 3?

7 thoughts on “Let’s not confuse entitlements with rights

  • 2011.Apr.12 at 19:25
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    There are two sources of wealth in the world: nature and human labour. The fact of the matter is that 88% of the wealth in capitalist societies go to the upper 10% of the population while the working class creators of wealth, 90% of the population, get 12% back in wages. Labour is actually entitled to all it produces. The parasites at the top rake in most of the wealth because of the legalised system of robbery, enforced by armed bodies of men hired by their political State. Fortunately for the ruling class, most the producers see the employing class as the creators of wealth which is why they tolerate and even emulate them.

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  • 2010.Oct.29 at 13:59
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    Why have entitlements at all?
    Why should a person or an organisation be forced to pay taxes for the welfare of others? that should be a personal act of charity, not a government forced duty.

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  • 2010.Sep.07 at 13:59
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    I agree with you in terms of what directions are these rights taking today …. TV for all is being distributed to all people in tamilnadu is it to make ppl have 2 cable connections ?? The tough paid tax is diluted under the name of spreading education through TV. Where on earth does this happen ?
    Currently no one knows what is going to be the future directions of all the education/home loans that are going toxic in India . Especially the education loan for all courses .

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  • 2010.Sep.05 at 14:53
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    How come RTI is a right?? It is costing the government in terms of Systems and Employees. I do agree it is not welfare. But still I would like call it as entitlement as it is an entitlement to know the transparency in government schemes.

    Swami, What is your comments?

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  • 2010.Sep.04 at 12:31
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    but a govt which is able to afford inr 4400 to rub a non descript ass ,must be able to afford rs 44 to feed its citizen.
    and everyone who feels that its wiping an ass is more important must do it by providing his hands.

    wat n idea sir g!!

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  • 2010.Sep.02 at 19:03
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    Sir,

    I had always followed your articles and i’ve become a huge fan of you, though i sometimes beg to differ when it comes to drawing a conclusion without having a panaromic view on a subject. Here some of the entitlements (but not all) must be given as a right to its citizens like education. Everyone has the right for education and it is for their own good and also for the nation’s progress but do you think that everyone can afford? This is were entitlements come into play. I certainly agree that it will burn the pockets of the government but this is absolutely necessary. We need a honest census to determine who should receive the entitlements. Here is the case where entitlements and rights go hand and glove. Money spent today can be earned through taxes as more and more people will be coming into the tax brackets and spending power will also increase as the number of literates gradually increase. I certainly agree that it should reach the target audience though.

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  • 2010.Sep.02 at 14:48
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    The logic behind making right to food universal is that if it is made available to select category of people then lot of people would be deprived of it because they won’t be able to produce certificates to prove that they are entitled for such benefits as cheap foodgrains.it will be easier for them to grow or buy their food than to produce ration cards or certificates owing to red tape in the system.therefore universalisation of right to food is necessary because of implementation issues.benefit of making food and education a right instead of a previlege is that it forces government of the country which has enough resources to take affirmative action in providing basic services to deprived.an entitlement does not mean a compulsion for government.I cannot see why it should not be imperative for government to provide basic services which is it’s prime job.

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