If you want to think clearly about entitlements, you need the concept of “individual rights.” This is a point I’ve known for a long time, but it became strikingly more clear to me the other morning when I read Paul Krugman’s latest column. Specifically, this line:
[T]he G.O.P. is more committed than ever to policies that take from most Americans and give to a wealthy handful. . . .
“Give” and “take” by themselves are morally neutral terms. If Suzie takes Wynona’s Barbie doll without permission, that’s bad. But if Suzie’s mother takes it from Suzie and gives it back to Wynona, that’s a good thing. It all depends on who the Barbie belongs to, i.e., who has a right to the Barbie.
I would argue that the same thing applies when we’re thinking about government policies. Generally speaking, if the government takes your property (e.g., your income) and gives it to someone else, that’s wrong. If it stops taking your property or gives you back what it has taken, that’s right. The essential thing to be clear on is the rights of everyone involved.
But that perspective is totally absent in Krugman’s analysis. For him, morally assessing “taking” and “giving” doesn’t require any sort of rights-based analysis. What he, and the left more generally, chooses to focus on is the groups involved. They see a bunch of collectives—“the rich,” “the middle class,” “the poor,” “the needy”—and they ask: does this policy make groups more equal? If a policy—say, Social Security Disability, to use one of Krugman’s examples—takes from a group with more or gives to a group with less, then it’s a good policy.
The power of thinking in terms of rights is twofold: First, it keeps our focus squarely on individuals, and reminds us that, politically, all individuals are equal—the government should not, for instance, treat our property with less respect just because we have a lot of it. Second, the concept of “individual rights” allows us to retain our moral clarity. We don’t lose sight of the fact that each individual is an end in himself, and even if he has earned a lot of wealth while many others have not, a person’s effort and the product of his effort are not ours to dispose of.