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The World Owes You A Living

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The problem with my schedule this term is that there isn’t any problem.  The actual schedule is great, and my students actually make me happy.

What that means, though, is that when I’m finished on Friday, I have a lot of good intentions about doing things like writing blog posts, which I never do because I’m relaxed, and it’s Saturday, or Sunday, and I’ve got a book, and…

And Frescobaldi this morning, to tell the truth.  Harpsichord pieces.  Nicely done by an academic in Indiana.

But in the middle of all this happy happy, I’ve been reading other people’s blog posts, and FB posts, and articles in magazines, and I have discerned a trend.

It’s remarkable how many people out there, and especially young people under thirty, think they are entitled to things like food, clothing and shelter, a college education, a job…

Or, to put it the way they tend to put it, they have “a right” to these things.

I’m getting to the point where I think we ought to retire the use of the word “rights,” because almost nobody knows what it means any more.

Rights inhere in the person–they are part of ourselves whether any particular government observes them or violates them.   Rights are also both negative and absolute–they are restrictions on what your government can make you do (or not do), and they are uncompromising.

You can’t have a “right” to anything you can only get if somebody else gives it to you, for the obvious reason that to have such a right, you’d have to own the person who must supply you.

If you don’t own that person–if he cannot be coerced into giving you what you’ve decided you have a “right” to–then he can always simply refuse to play, and your “right” evaporates.

Obviously, most people don’t think through the issue of what it would mean to declare that people have a “right” to this sort of thing, and they won’t think it through no matter how hard you try to get them to.

What most people mean when they say this kind of thing tends to be muddled at best.  And not everybody means the same things.

Some people simply mean that they are aware that there are some things they need to have to survive, and that the prospect of trying to get these things and not being able to is scary.

This is, in fact, true.  It is very scary to realize that you could come to a place where you just couldn’t manage it.  And there isn’t a single one of us who could ever be sure that we could manage it all the time, always.

There is a variation on this theme that is the realization that if you can’t get access to some things (like a college education), your life might be less accomplished and happy than it would have been otherwise.

Maybe it’s just that we have been told so often that we can be “anything we want to be” that we’ve lost sight of the fact that that is virtually never true.  The world is full of people who will never be what they could have been because they had to drop out of school to support a family, or because a mother or father or sister or brother because catastrophically ill and needed somebody to care for them, or for a whole lot of other reasons that are not “fair.”

These sorts of things are evidence of a failure to grow up.  and they’re not necessarily catastrophic.  Most of the people making these kinds of arguments are not in fact grown up–that is, they’re chronologically young. 

It’s a little disturbing to look at pictures of the Occupy camps and see just how many  aging hippies there actually are, but that’s another discussion.

One of the other reasons for this kind of thinking is sentimentality–we secure enough ourselves, but we hate the idea that other people are insecure, or without resources, or suffering.

The actually adult version of this can be a very good thing indeed.  There are good cases to be made that we should support people unable to support themselves, that we should provide schooling for every child, and maybe even that we should help to minimize the impact of catastrophic life events on family members.

The non-adult version of this, however, is a form of sentimentality that lacks any connection to reality whatsoever. 

It begins in the mostly unstated assumption that these things–providing a livelihood, taking care of family members who are sick or disabled–are the responsibility of individuals and families, even when the tasks are difficult, or even onerous, and even when meeting those responsibilities means we are cut off from opportunities we might otherwise have.

We none of us has a “right” not to be burdened by those things.  It’s largely the luck of the draw. 

A few years ago, I had as a student a man who had come to America as one of the Vietnamese boat people.  He and his wife had worked like crazy and built up a huge fund of savings to make sure their two sons could go to college.

Then my student had a massive stroke that made him unable to work ever again.  The two boys quit school and went to work to support the family.

Was this “fair”?  No, of course not.  It was a tragedy.  But it was also reality. 

It is one thing to say that there are good, practical reasons for instituting systems that would help to lessen the impact of events like this.  It is another thing to say that we have a “right” not to have reality impinge on us, or that it is the state’s responsibility, and not the family’s, to respond when such events do happen.

The sentimentalized version of this does a couple of other things as well.

The first of these is that it divorces itself from the actual practice of providing government help as a “right” completely.  And it divorces itself from that practice in two ways.

The first of these is the obvious one:  it flat out refuses to accept the fact (and it is a fact) that some of the people getting the help are free riders gaming the system, and that those free riders will always make up a significant proportion of recipients.

We are told–on the basis of statistically evidence that doesn’t answer the objections–that such free riders are only a small minority of recipents, or that they don’t exist at all because nobody would prefer to live in the kind of penury a government stipend provides if he had any other option.

We are presented with anecdotes of people whose needs are real, and people who have used the system to get themselves out of the holes they were in.

And these stories are true.  What they aren’t is proof that the system isn’t being significantly gained and that the existence of it isn’t causing something even worse–that sense of entitlement we’ve been talking about so far. 

But what else is going on here is that people move inexorably toward the position that relieving the sufferings of their fellow citizens is the job of the government and not of the individual–that is, they move to the position that we don’t have to grow up at all, we don’t have to make the sacrifices necesssary to actually help other people.  That’s the government’s job.

This, by the way, is why I have no use for “Republican budgets are unChristian because they don’t help the poor,” and why I have no use for modern Catholic social teaching about the welfare state. 

Christ did not say “go get your government to help poor people!” He said, “go do it YOURSELF.” 

What Christ was asking for was not a welfare state, but a world of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohys.

Yes, of course, private charity does not meet all the needs, and never could.  But that’s really not the issue here.  One of the things private charity does do–when it’s really private, and not a matter of a technically private agency that acts just like your local welfare office–is that it makes it possible to know things about inidivual cases that are invisible to social welfare agencies and case workers.

Your ne’er do well Uncle Buck may fool the caseworker who shows up once every couple of months, but he won’t fool you, because you’re there all the time. 

The last kind of person who makes this sort of argument–for a “right” to food and shelter or an education or whatever–is actually trying for something else: he’s trying to get the government to put its imprimatur on something he wants to be a social norm that isn’t one yet, and that might never be one.

This is how we get “rights” to birth control and abortion that are not actual rights–the right to be free of government interference in your pursuit of same–but that are mandates on the public purse.   You are the slavemaster. Nobody is allowed to disagree with you in any substantive way.  Everybody is required to acquiese that your position is the only right one.

I don’t know how we got here, exactly.  I think in large part the issue is that we just have, in this society,  far too much money.

But I do know this.

We cannot survive for long in a world where most of our citizens feel entilted to things that, in reality, they’re only entitled to work for.

 

Written by janeh

September 24th, 2012 at 9:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'The World Owes You A Living'

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  1. I agree that “rights” is used so broadly that it has become meaningless. I’m not even sure about negative rights. There are good utilitarian reasons for freedom of speech but the claim that being human entitles me to free speech makes no sense to me.

    A question – is the concept of equality under law consistent with rights? For example, if coal miners have the right to strike, can the government insist that police do not have the right to strike?

    If skilled workers such as carpenters and plumbers have the right to set their own fees for service, why can the government set the fees for surgeons?

    jd

    24 Sep 12 at 7:17 pm

  2. “Checkbook rights”–the sort someone else has to provide or pay for–are very handy things. For one thing, they short-circuit debate. If the cause of the day is just something it might be nice for the government to do, there might be other priorities–or reasons why it might NOT be nice for the government to do that. Claiming something as a right–especially when there is no logical basis for that right or set of rights–moves you past debate and to the top of the list. Also, of course, you never have to do (or learn} the math. If it’s a right, the costs of “affordable mass transit/affordable quality day care/quality education” don’t come into play. And it puts you morally ahead of the fellow who actually made or saved the wealth: HE’s defending property rights, while YOU are defending human rights, so there! The discouraging thing is that this doesn’t represent a competing coherent political theory to the Elnlightenment conception of natural rights: it’s just the campus claiming that anything they want a lot MUST be a right–basically the logic of a five year old, and not a very well brought-up five year old at that.

    But let’s not forget the “gag and handcuff” rights: don’t post THAT on the Blog, and get THAT off your desk: I have a right to dignity, a right not to be offended, and a right to a working environment I find congenial. That surely trumps freedom of speech, religion and the press. After all, those are mere individual rights. These new rights are things “we” do as a nation–or better still, as the human race–and anything done collectively just HAS to be morally superior to anything done individually.

    I’d say “welcome to the 21st Century” but we’ve been on this path since at least FDR’s “Four Freedoms” if not since Bellamy decided poverty was the moral eqivalent of war and thus justified conscription.

    And JD, I think conscription’s part of your answer: a theorist can think through to the natural rights of life, liberty and property–but the government needed to sustain those rights by keeping the other governments out may sometimes need to resort to conscription, censorship and confiscation of property. I think it’s important to maintain our understanding of what rights are, but hard times will certain fray them at the margins. They’re still different in type from the checkbook rights, which are simply the cause du jour with the logic circuit disconnected, and the gag and handcuff rights which are just an excuse for violating natural rights.

    In the cases in question, though, I think you can make a case that a profession can’t claim both a monopoly of a trade and a right not to practice it. A coal miner can go on strike–but anyone can mine coal. If a policeman doesn’t want to work on the existing terms, he can’t be compelled to–but he also can’t be legitimately outraged when his employer replaces him and won’t hire him back. And no, I don’t think the government should set a wage for the surgeon or the plumber. It may refuse to hire one above a certain figure, but it has no business telling other people they can’t, or telling the skilled worker he has no choice of employers. In one thing at least, even Trotsky was right: “when there is only one employer, the only choices are submission or starvation.”

    robert_piepenbrink

    24 Sep 12 at 8:06 pm

  3. “checkbook rights” – I like that expression. But what will happen when the 99% find out that the 1% don’t have big enough checkbooks?

    jd

    25 Sep 12 at 4:02 am

  4. JD. They will clap their hands over their ears and sing loudly. I once pointed out to a Marxist friend living in the UK that since military spending was only 2% of their GDP, and the government was already spending about 50% of GDP, even closing down the Ministry of Defence wouldn’t buy her much more government than she already had She wasn’t in the least impressed. Affordable mass transit was a RIGHT, you see, and thus above mathematics.

    OK, I’m going to bring up currentn politics: run the numbers on how much of our deficit Obama’s proposed tax increase would cover–or how much of it ANY tax on “millionaires” COULD cover. At some point, you really do have to do the math. Declaring something a right is a way of refusing to do so.

    robert_piepenbrink

    25 Sep 12 at 5:35 am

  5. I am getting more and more convinced that rights talk is essentially meaningless. I used to think that the negative ones at least were a useful political fiction underpinning some of the better aspects of our society, but I’m even doubting that, now.

    I like Christopher Snowdon’s books on stats and money – thanks Mique for the pointer. He’s got lots of examples of implausible financial and medical statistics ‘calculations’. I saw one only this week, out of Switzerland instead of the original US (IIRC) claiming a 20% decrease in heart-related hospital admissions as soon as a smoking ban was imposed. Aside from issues of cause and effect – this is a BIG change, unless of course the hospitals in question normally admitted very small numbers of such patients.

    I’m interested in the point about Christianity being essentially individual. I agree, but a lot of Christians nowadays don’t, not much, and support publically-funded structural and organizational approaches to poverty and ‘inclusion’.

    I almost didn’t bother to see a presentation on social justice work in India, because I thought it was of this type. In fact, it was about a mostly-local group using local police and laws to help individuals who wanted to leave lives of prostitution or bonded labour. Much more appropriate to my mind than rambling on about systemic poverty etc.

    Cheryl

    25 Sep 12 at 7:53 am

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