A Need Despised: Do Entitlements Make Us Mean?

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To restore American jobs, President Trump has focused not on helping employees directly; rather he’s acting to make conditions favorable to job-creators. A similar approach to entitlements, removing impediments to voluntary private giving, would reinvigorate another element of America’s greatness — that is, her intrinsic generosity and compassion.

The Republican establishment is moving in the opposite direction. The leadership in Congress, for example, has revealed strong support for obamacare’s mandatory spending to “take care of” people in need.

Yet there’s one basic human need entitlements can never satisfy. I mean the need to help others in need.

“Private property, cultivates such virtues as generosity.” So observed Aristotle in the 3rd Century BC.  In fact, in his Politics, Aristotle writes, “kindness or service . . . can only be rendered when a man has private property. . . .”

Absent from today’s politics is an acknowledgment of the corollary: confiscation of private property cultivates selfishness.

The effect is magnified when money is taken specifically to fund entitlements. Mandatory programs not only take money; they also dispossess us of a reason to give. In this way, the laws inhibit our need to help others.

This unintended consequence is rarely if ever noticed, certainly not by lawmakers.

Conservatives have long focused on economic issues, or, in the case of self-described “compassionate conservatives,” the best interests of the recipients of aid. Marvin Olasky, for example, makes a compelling case that genuine personal compassion helps the needy more effectively.

It would be better if policymakers focused instead on the best interests of givers.

Every law mandating public assistance comes with an implicit proclamation. It says, henceforth, private voluntary giving is needed less.

To rationalize his refusal to make a donation for the poor, Ebenezer Scrooge appeals to the welfare of his day. “I help to support the [government] establishments,” he says, “they cost enough.”

What was for Scrooge a conspicuous ploy to enable his parsimony, has become for us a plausible justification. A 19th century “Poor Law” cited by Scrooge is not in the same league as our sprawling entitlement programs, which today constitute 80% of the federal budget.

As government purports to take care of more and more material needs through mandatory programs, the law propagates a sense that voluntary giving is superfluous, counterproductive, ultimately futile. When confronted by a beggar on the sidewalk, a prospective Good Samaritan is practically encouraged to avert his eyes, cross to the other side of the street, trusting that programs exist to “take care of” the problem.

Notably, the catalyst for Scrooge’s transformation is not more welfare.  It comes in the form of Christmas Spirits. Their mission: to reveal the character’s deeper need to help, to love his neighbors as himself.

Though dramatized in a fictional character, the need to give is real — as real as any physical need. To deny its power is to deny the ostensible rationale for government welfare in the first place!

Now when the universal need to help combines with an irrational fear that charity is not enough, government mandates are born. Insofar as entitlements encumber generosity, the fears and assumptions are self-fulfilling.

Has the New Deal and its progeny made America meaner?

Here again Aristotle is perspicacious.  In a state designed to impose equality by confiscating private wealth, he writes, “[n]o one will any longer set an example of liberality [i.e., generous giving] or do any liberal [generous] action; for liberality consists in the use which is made of property.”

Suppression of personal generosity prompts greater demands for government assistance. More government assistance, in turn, is like an official permit to be more self-absorbed, subverting again the individual’s need to help.  Stagnant giving is then used to justify even more entitlements, and so forth, until at last both private property and compassion fade away towards a vanishing point.

The self-defeating paradox of entitlements surfaced in a recent remark of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D. VT).  “We are not a compassionate society!” he exclaimed during confirmation hearings on the president’s nominee for Secretary of HHS. The outburst was part of his ongoing lament that healthcare entitlements have not expanded enough.

Sanders’ stated goal is “free” healthcare for everyone. According to Aristotle, such a regime is directly antithetical to the “compassionate society” Sanders complains “we are not.”  His system of forcible redistribution is a heavy tax on the reason for personal giving. As such, would be a real compassion-killer.
The socialist senator has forgotten that, like Shakespeare’s “quality of mercy,” compassion can’t be constrained by law. Compassion requires not only private property, but also individual freedom — freedom to choose whether and how much to give.

Of course, not everyone will choose to be generous. The need to give exists in tension with other aspects of human nature, such as fear, and wayward instincts of self-preservation that often lead to greed.  But unless every individual retains the opportunity to experience Dickensian transformations (maybe once in a lifetime like Scrooge, but more likely several times a day), the society as a whole is diminished. Entitlements enable our baser, self-centered elements, and may instill indifference and unkindness in society at large.

Ultimately, entitlements divest potential givers of a measure of their humanity.

Roger Banks is a writer residing near Washington, DC. Twitter: @RogerEsq.