Reforming entitlement

Political leaders are disagreeing on the definition of entitlement to ridiculous results.

by Matthew Hoy


It is common in Washington for politicians to misuse the word “entitlement.” The frequent inaccuracies weaken an already strained American discourse.

Entitlements are so often confused with rights that distinguishing the two is becoming a matter of bitter, pejorative branding. Rights are packaged as self-evident, basic freedoms that any democratic country holds dear, while entitlements are framed as ungainly attempts by the government to spend taxpayer money on unnecessary pieces of comfort.

In reality, it is much harder to distinguish the two. A common approach acknowledges that rights exist in and of themselves, while entitlements must be fulfilled by the government.

This definition works fine, but it runs into problems quickly. The rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are impossible to ensure without a vote, which is an implement of the government and, therefore, an entitlement.

This is the point that Justice Antonin Scalia tried to make when he referred to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as a “racial entitlement.” Of course, the difference is that Scalia meant to indicate that, as an entitlement, an act that ensures voting rights for minorities is unnecessary.

Many pundits took a similar position when President Barack Obama announced his preschool initiative, blasting the program as a spurious handout. This is not exactly in the spirit of our Founding Fathers. Free public education has been considered a necessary entitlement since the beginning days of our country. These positions, like the comments made by Scalia, cast the issue in a ridiculous light largely because the issue is ridiculous.

Attacking all entitlements as superfluous is a fool’s errand, but it is a position that can be heard in the media daily. It should be obvious that some entitlements, like voting, education and equality of opportunity, are positive and necessary. It should not be so difficult to remember that segregation was a dominant paradigm in the U.S. less than 50 years ago or that the 19th Amendment was ratified less than a century ago.

Entitlements are necessary for the U.S. to work, and, thus, the reputation of entitlements should reflect that.