Deconstructing Democracy, Part 4: Entitlement.

datePosted on 01:41, June 10th, 2009 by Pablo

One of the most divisive issues in modern democracies is the notion of entitlements. In NZ the dividing line mostly centres on interpretations of Te Tiriti and its sequels.  In this discussion I shall try to unpack the concept in order to phrase its importance to sustainable democracy in broader terms.

To that end let us clarify what entitlements are not. Entitlements are not objective rights. Objective rights are universal standards guaranteed and enforced by the State. Contrary to what many believe and the desires of constitution-makers, they are not naturally given or divinely ordained. Rights are not  “objectively” or materially given (contrary to what natural law and capitalist theorists believe).  Instead, people are born into social contexts in which the notion of inalienable or universal rights may or may not exist, and may shift depending on circumstance (think the US government stance on torture under W. Bush). Individual and collective rights are not guaranteed deus ex machina but by human invention. They are a human artifice encoded, enshrined or ensured by human instrument. Thus, be it the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights or civil liberties statutes in any given country, universal rights standards are effectively enforced by States, which are also the primary abusers of individual and collective rights. Universal rights in principle are selectively upheld in practice depending on the disposition of States and the regimes that govern them. In reality they are not natural, innate, inherent or immutable, but instead are the intellectual product of human beings (elites, for the most part) acting upon notions of collective interest in specific historical contexts.  

Although they may overlap with universal rights and are often confused with them, entitlements do not originate in the State and are not always universal or objective. Instead, entitlements are subjectively driven assessments of what is deemed to be expected or “due” a person or group based upon their location in the socio-economic and political context. Such assessments are group and context specific in origins, although “outsiders” may believe in their validity.  Thus, Kazak goat herders may feel that they are entitled to guaranteed pasture; Taiwaneese teenagers may feel that they are entitled to MP3s; Cubans may feel entitled to first class health and education services; Singaporeans may feel entitled to cheap public housing and food; Argentines may believe that they are entitled to a daily ration of “bife” (steak); Tongan fishing villagers may feel entitled to a portion of any day’s catch; Salafists may believe that they are entitled to religious freedom in Christian societies; Pashtun fathers may feel entitled to marry off their daughters as they see fit; African-Americans may feel entitled to affirmative action; physically disabled people may feel entitled to accessible facilities; religious, ethnic and linguistic minorities may feel entitled to observe their differences in a preferential way; Maori and other indigenous groups in post colonial societies may feel that they are entitled to the land, sea and air that comprise the physical boundaries in which they exist, and to continuing the cultural practices of their ancestors.  The point is that all people have a sense of entitlement to something, and that something is a product of historical events and practice translated into current perspective, grievance, and approach, all subjectively assessed from the standpoint of the individual or group in question. Although they may be well-founded and quite necessary for the people in question to lead fulfilling lives, and may in fact be universally shared, these notions of entitlements are not, by definition, rights.

Authoritarians do not much have to worry about reconciling their political projects with notions of entitlement.  They can recognize or disregard entitlements as they please, using force as the ultimate arbiter of disputes arising from differences over who is entitled to what. For democracies however, particularly those in heterogeneous societies with past records of oppression, exploitation and expropriation, addressing the issue of selective group entitlements is central to regime stability. That is where the so-called rights (entitlements?) of the majority may run in conflict with the rights (entitlements?) of minorities. Rights are always universal and State-granted; entitlements may or not be. The question in democracies is how to reconcile them.

Depending on the political strength of any given actor, selective notions of entitlement can be pushed onto the policy-making agenda.  If successful, the promotion of entitlements can lead to legislative recognition, which in turn can lead to the treatment of entitlements as rights. The key to democratic stability is for selective entitlements to be accepted by the majority as if they were universal rights. That assumes majority consensus on the historical record that produces a shared definition and perspective on selected group entitlements as well as their means of achievement or redress. That is, above all, an ideological project.

Rights are defined, bestowed and enforced by the State, in a top-down process of elite attribution and mass application. Entitlements are construed “from below,” originating in grassroots conceptualisations of what is (historically) due to or expected by a given group or groups. In the measure that selective notions of entitlement enter into the majority consciousness as reasonable and fair given a particular history and current context, they then have the chance to become part of the policy process. In the measure that they enter into the purview of the State (as the operational agent for the implementation of policy), they can become synonymous with the general interest. At that point they become State-sanctioned and enforced.  But however conflated their usuage may become, entitlements can never be construed as rights unless they are universally shared. That is why debates on selective entitlements are so heated and divisive. Be it on matters of cultural identity, resource extraction or political representation, the conflict between selective entitlements and universal rights is a permanent feature of the social landscape in modern democratic societies. 

I admit to not having a complete grasp on how to reconcile group entitlements and universal rights in a democracy. Yet in seems that it is one of the most important and intractable issues in the reproduction of the democratic form. Better said, it is the resolution of the entitlements versus rights conundrum that lies at the heart of sustainable democracy in the early 21st century. And that, again, may be in the first instance more of an ideological project than a matter of policy.

Next post: contingency and self-restraint.

5 Responses to “Deconstructing Democracy, Part 4: Entitlement.”

  1. jcuknz on June 10th, 2009 at 07:34

    The problem is people insist on their rights and forget their responsibilities. You cannot have a ‘responsible society’ unless the populace are in turn responsible to society.

  2. SPC on June 10th, 2009 at 17:53

    There is a new one here at the moment.

    The government, citing the lack of a budget surplus, has chosen not to fund saving (Cullen English Fund) to reduce the inter-generational burden of supporting the baby boomers in their future retirement.

    But the argument against borrowing to do so (speculate on the stockmarket – as to a faster rise in value than the cost of the debt) applies more strongly against borrowing to afford the tax cuts given or more tellingly to subsidise savings (the $1000 placed into Kiwi Saver accounts each year). This is borrowing by all to finance subsidy of those with Kiwi Saver accounts.

    Why has a government chosen to forgo saving for the provision for all, but continue to assist the savings of some (with borrowed money)?

  3. Ari on June 12th, 2009 at 21:48

    By the way, you typoed divisive as “devisive”. :)

    Personally I’ve always viewed rights and entitlements the opposite way, but otherwise I agree with you. (ie. rights are derived by social contract and are “bottom-up”, eventually becoming reflected in law, while entitlements are often top-down grants or bribes by the government)

  4. reid on June 13th, 2009 at 00:30

    I’m always struck by the concept of:

    it’s not what you get, it’s what you give.

    Agreed it’s naive and idealistic.

    However, in your context Pablo, is it possible that the answer lies in education of this concept for those on the bottom, combined with force-majuere enforcement from a higher authority?

    Freedom means nothing without a good life. Freedom is something you turn toward once the basics are sorted.

    How does one practically implement that concept when one’s world is disintegrating around them?

    ??

    Coercion (done with benevolent intent) seems the only answer.

  5. Pablo on June 13th, 2009 at 02:35

    Thanks Ari–I have been traveling and have not reviewed the post to edit typos etc. It is now corrected. Your view of rights versus entitlements is the more prevalent view, which I think clouds the real issue and which is why I offered this counter-point.

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