In the past few weeks, many people have taken fresh interest in “scientific evidence” that liberals are somehow smarter than conservatives. In all the excitement, one man claiming to have found such “evidence” admits, bald-faced, that liberalism is all about entitlement. So an old proverb bears repeating: entitlement is not freedom, Indeed entitlement and freedom work against one another. When one wins, the other loses. Every person, especially in a nominally free society, must choose.
Entitlement as a positive right
The man now holding office as President, Barack H. Obama, said something interesting while he was still a State Senator in 2001. He called the Constitution “a charter of negative liberties.”
It says what the…government can’t do to you, but it doesn’t say what the…government must do on your behalf.
Obama went on to call specifically for the government to redistribute wealth. Others warned of what Obama’s words meant for how he would govern, to no avail. People did not heed those warnings because they did not understand the difference between entitlement and freedom. Until Americans distinguish between the two, and unless they choose freedom, they will lose freedom, and with no true guarantee of entitlement, either.
Daniel Greenfield does an excellent job of distinguishing entitlement from freedom. He also explains what “negative liberties” means. Today, says Greenfield, Americans sometimes call for two kinds of rights: positive and negative. Greenfield defines them exactly as Obama did in 2001: negative rights are the rights to expect the government not to do something to you. Positive rights are the rights to expect the government to do something for you.
He then lays it on the line. Positive right equals entitlement. Negative right equals freedom. And the two are not equivalent, and cannot coexist easily.
Two examples can show what Greenfield means. The Constitution reads in part,
No person…shall be compelled to be a witness against himself.
Those are freedoms. A person whom the State suspects of a crime, is free to testify on his own behalf, or not, as he wishes. Similarly,
Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.
So a person is free to say, or not to say, anything he pleases. But; no one need give him a place to speak, or the means to publish his speech. The government makes him free to speak, but does not entitle him to speak, or to expect anyone to listen to him or cause others to listen. For that, he is on his own.
But the Constitution also says:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
Those are entitlements. The government entitles a criminal defendant to certain things, including to force others to testify in his favor, whether they want to or not.
And here, entitlement and freedom clash. A defendant’s right to compel someone to testify in his favor trumps the witness’ right to “stay out of it.”
Entitlement as liberals want it
Karl Marx. Portrait: John Mayall, 1875.
Saloshi Kanazawa wrote one of many studies that purport to show that liberals are smarter than conservatives. He defined liberalism this way:
Liberalism [is] the genuine concern for the welfare of genetically unrelated others and the willingness to contribute larger proportions of private resources for the welfare of such others.
The problem: Kanazawa is not talking about private charity. He is talking about entitlement. He says that a sound, liberal government entitles its citizens and residents to a certain level of specific welfare, whether their fellow citizens and lawful residents want to give them those things or not. Here is a classic clash: some people are entitled to certain things, and other people are no longer free to use all their own substance for themselves as a result.
The zero-sum game
The clash between entitlement and freedom is always a zero-sum game. Entitlement and freedom always work against one another. Sometimes this works out for one person only. Thus if you were free to refuse treatment for a mental condition that might lead you to commit a crime, you are no longer entitled to excuse yourself from punishment for that crime because your mind was not sound. (Thomas Szasz has long called on government not to commit someone involuntarily for mental health treatment, and for courts not to excuse anyone from punishment by reason of temporary, or permanent, “insanity.”)
But for most people, one person’s entitlement deprives another of his freedom. So if the government entitles one person to a home, someone else, or more likely several other persons, lose the freedom to buy the things that the price of that home would have bought for them.
The extreme working of the entitlement idea comes, of course, from Karl Marx:
From each, according to his ability, to each, according to his need.
This, as Ayn Rand observed, begs the question:
What’s whose ability and which of whose needs come first?
But Daniel Greenfield, in closing, makes this point about how freedom is more likely to survive in the long run:
When positive and negative rights collide, freedom is the first casualty, and the second casualty is the positive right which over time cannot survive the pressures of the self-destruction of the system that imposes it. Negative rights which require state inaction can be sustained so long as the state does not become too powerful. Positive rights can only be sustained so long as the money and power holds up. Their fate is thoroughly tied to the fate of the system. When the state that enforces them weakens, so do they.
Ayn Rand said something similar: that when the entitlement state collapses, the people remain. And the people can then take back their freedom. But if the people want to avoid such a collapse, they must choose—now—between freedom and entitlement, and select freedom.