Entitlement and Redistribution


The recent controversies over the concepts “entitlement” and “redistribution” in the US election have been deeply puzzling and disconcerting. Everybody seems to forget that the US is an original signatory to the United Nations Charter of Human Rights which reads, in part:

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

While (as near as I can figure) this doesn’t have the status of a treaty in the US, it was signed with great solemnity in a ceremony wherein Eleanor Roosevelt presented it to the nations of the world assemble in Paris in 1948. Now a certain sort of mind will argue that since it isn’t a treaty the United States is not obligated to it.

In a narrow legalistic sense, I believe that would be true.

But I think that having pretty much started the process in the first place under the aegis of Mrs. Roosevelt, we are at least obligated as a nation which seems to have had some enthusiasm for the document to at least give it a second thought when these matters are discussed. How could our predecessors have made such a commitment a mere two thirds of a century ago and yet have no notice taken of it now?

So I again plaintively ask everyone to reconsider whether full employment is really the right goal for a modern society, where we can relatively easily get machines to do all the degrading and unpleasant jobs and a good deal else.

Why not a modest entitlement? I don’t get it.



  1. We don't work 14 hours a day 7 days a week because people fought for their entitlements. So the principle's established, though perhaps it's also an argument about cleanly distinguishing leisure from labour.

    In that sense, we don't have 'full employment' - we already live in a time of negotiated peace between capital and labour where the definition of 'full employment' is how much labour we're willing to give in total. In some European countries the 6 day week is being aired as a genuine solution to their crises, which highlights that it's not a god-given thing. Though in the US, the amount of people working many jobs just to cover the rent - how has that changed recently? Worse?

    An old piece by J.K. Rowling passed by me today (mostly behind a paywall, but some chunks at crooked timber):

    I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism. On the available evidence, I suspect that it is Lord Ashcroft’s idea of being a mug.

    This is such a vast, unbridgeable contrast to the Randian bile seeping out of so many US politicians, of the rich as heroes and the poor as ingrate parasites. And as I say, the argument could so easily end up pushing in the other direction: existing entitlements we perhaps take for granted being further eroded. (I say 'we' - very different picture in the UK, of course, though Cameron's doing his damnedest to change that.)

    Perhaps in the US election people are beginning to see that's exactly what it's about. We'll see. I still remember going to bed in 2000 thinking Gore was going to win and waking up the following morning to a punch in the gut.

  2. > There was an interesting paper exploring this issue in the August, 2008 issue of Psychological Science by Eugene Caruso, Dan Gilbert, and Tim Wilson. They looked at the value that people give to things in the past and in the future. Consider, for example, an auto accident. A woman in her car is struck head-on by another car driven by a man who didn’t pay attention to a stop-sign. The man is clearly at fault. The woman is injured and it will take 6 months for her to heal. How much should she be awarded by the insurance company for her pain and suffering? The researchers asked this question in two ways. In one situation, the accident was 6 months ago, and the woman is now completely healed. In the other, the accident just happened, and she is beginning her recovery period. They found that people were willing to award the woman twice as much when the pain and suffering was yet to happen than when it was now over. So, future pain and suffering was more valuable than past pain and suffering.


  3. I would have thought that this effect is partly due to uncertainty. The woman may take a year to get better, or she might even die. (Of course, she could also get better more quickly.) The jury perhaps awards more under future uncertainty than for certain past damages, weighing the potential bad outcomes more, perhaps out of sympathy for the injured party.

    The instinctive (and wrong) response to climate uncertainty is, oddly different. Uncertainty is often taken as a signal to do less, at least by skeptics. Perhaps it is easier to demand increased payments under uncertainty when it is someone else paying the compensation.

  4. Why no a modest entitlement?

    Some fifty years ago, in his inaugural address John F. Kennedy asserted that the United States had made a “pledge” to all those who were poor to give “our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required, not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.”

    This was said within a larger context, but it was a correctly seen to be one of the prices necessary “to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

    That President also observed that:

    “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

    In my own view, the reason that notion (that it is right and proper to render assistance to the poor) is considered abhorrent amongst the leaders of the right, is because those leaders of the right no longer hold with “the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”

  5. On further thought I would like to amend the last sentence of my previous comment.

    What I believe to be implicit in the general thrust of "conservative" thought is that those things we call rights in so far as they come from God are God's lookout, and the subject of individual whim in support of those rights. People like Kennedy instead held that "here on earth God's work must truly be our own." It was understood that the government was the instrument of the people, that it is our own. As such what would be proper for an individual to do is also proper for the government to do. For those on the right it would seem that any action no matter how good simply by the fact that it is done by the government by means of something like magic becomes an evil.

  6. The UDHR is not a treaty, but the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights IS. Article 11 of that treaty reads "The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent."

    This treaty has been signed by the US, but not ratified. According to Amnesty International:
    "The United States signed the Covenant in 1979 under the Carter administration but is not fully bound by it until it is ratified. For political reasons, the Carter administration did not push for the necessary review of the Covenant by the Senate, which must give its 'advice and consent' before the US can ratify a treaty. The Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations took the view that economic, social, and cultural rights were not really rights but merely desirable social goals and therefore should not be the object of binding treaties. The Clinton Administration did not deny the nature of these rights but did not find it politically expedient to engage in a battle with Congress over the Covenant. The George W. Bush administration followed in line with the view of the previous Bush administration.


    The Obama Administration has said that "the Administration does not seek action at this time" on the Covenant."

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