Thursday, March 13, 2014

What are we entitled to?

This is the central question that pervades much of politics. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Public Education, Health Care, Food Stamps, to name the big ones. These are examples of programs that most people seem to believe are important for the Government to run because we have a 'right' to them, or are 'entitled' to them. I argue that in general, we are not entitled to anything. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the world doesn't owe us. It was here first. The only exception that I can think of might be parents. Parents owe their children, since it wasn't the child's choice to be born. However, society does not owe anything to the parents just because they have a kid. It is the parents' responsibility to provide and raise their children, and no one else owes the kids that. How the parents do this, either by subsistence farming, or working, is up to them. This doesn't preclude charity or outside help, only that individuals are not obligated to help. If the parents want other people to help them, then they first have to do something of value for other peoples in the form of a job.

Fundamentally, all products and services that we consume are the result of human labor at some level. Everything that money can buy is fundamentally buying labor, from the labor used to mine or acquire the raw materials, the labor required to refine the materials into a useful form, to the labor required to build the final product. This means that if people are entitled to a 'living wage,' or a 'baseline' salary just for living, they are entitled to someone else's labor. This can only work in a society that is wealthy enough to provide the excess that is required to support those that consume more than they produce.

In a subsistence society, this is especially clear. If a society is barely supporting itself, then feeding someone who is not productive, and will not be productive means that other people have to go hungry, and possibly starve. If we were to reduce to the simplest case of two people on an island with no contact with the outside world, but enough food to sustain both of them, is either one entitled to the labor of the other? Suppose that it takes most of the day to find enough food for one person. What if one of them gets sick or injured? Is the other person required to feed and care for them, if it means that they will go hungry? I'll grant that it is certainly possible that there is a beneficial exchange that is possible. If one person takes care of the other while they are sick, it is more likely that the same will happen if the situations are reversed, but there is no obligation to do so unless it has been previously agreed upon.

This previous agreement gets in to contracts and the ideas of contract law, which I think makes sense to be a different post, but I think that all that is necessary for now is that if you agree to give someone something in exchange for another good or service, then you are more or less obligated to give that good or service. But barring that, there is no obligation and no entitlement to anything.