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Monday, January 14, 2013


Nothing seems more polarizing in our political discourse than our discussion of "entitlements."

Gun ownership is an entitlement. So is social (health, income, shelter) insurance. Property is an entitlement and so is education. Safety and mobility are entitlements. So are privacy and profit. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness seem to be at the root of all entitlements in the US.

Most of us recognize that freedom, even to exercise rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, can only be maintained within boundaries. Boundaries both protect and limit rights that are never absolute. What those boundaries are should be worked out in civil society and expressed in law that is enforced by the police power of the state. That is the essence of politics. Conservatives err when they deny the boundaries to guns, property, exploitation of nature, corporations, hate, and money. Liberals err when they deny the boundaries to health services, education, welfare, speech, mobility, government, and protest.

In the discussion of entitlements and their boundaries, I've noticed that people often project their own feelings and values on other people. If they think that most people cheat and take advantage of others, it is probably because they would cheat and take advantage of others given the opportunity. If they think that most people are not out to hurt, steal, or otherwise take advantage of them, it is because they are that way themselves. Often we complain of the very faults and vices of others that we neglect in ourselves.

I love the story of the old man (probably my age?!) sitting by the side of the road as a car with an out-of-state license drives up. The driver rolls down the window and asks: "what are the people in this town like?" The old man responds: "well, what are the people like where you come from?" The driver responds: "they are most pleasant, always ready to help you out, have a great sense of humor, participate in neighborhood affairs." "Well," says the old man, "you'll find the people here are the same way." The driver smiles and goes into town.

Another car drives up. The driver asks the same question. The old man asks: "what are the people like where you come from?" The driver says: "They are mean and selfish. They don't take care of their kids or their property. And you can't trust them." "Well," says the old man. "You will find the people here are the same way." And the driver frowns and takes off.

Yes, of course, there are people that take advantage and use their "entitlements" unrestrainedly and irresponsibly. It is important for society, us, to put limits on entitlements to encourage their responsible use. But if we think most people are irresponsible so we should cut entitlements altogether, I think we are saying something wrong about ourselves.

The NRA member who fights all limits on gun ownership is probably a fearful, defensive little minded person who has a bad opinion of people, society, and himself. The persons who think that most people are "takers" who want to take advantage of the system and taxpayers are probably that way themselves. Let's not let them represent the "American people" (as the politicians like to say) in our discussion of entitlements. We are much better than that.

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