By Jay Hansen
I know I’m supposed to be finishing our descent into Republican Insanity this week, but a couple of interesting things have happened that I had to write about right away. The first was something that happened this weekend at a party. There was a guy who had obviously had too much to drink that was discovered trying to crawl into his car and drive home (emphasis on crawl into his car). Naturally, we had to stop him. A long, drawn-out argument ensued that eventually ended in him reluctantly handing over his keys and agreeing to come back inside and sober up some before leaving. Apparently though, this drunk came prepared, because he had a second set of car keys hidden somewhere, indicating that he’s encountered this problem before. He got back to his car and drove home completely wasted, but thankfully still made it home okay.
Upon seeing the man so insistent that he be allowed to drive home, and especially upon hearing that he deceived us with a copied key, I couldn’t help but think one thing; I promise you this guy votes Republican.
Now, why would I think that so soon after the event? The fundamental core of this guy’s perspective on the issue was that he should be allowed to drive home regardless of his condition and the risks to himself and others it would pose. He believed he should have that personal liberty regardless of the damage it could cause to others. This valuation of personal liberty over the general welfare of the public or just care for others’ wellbeing also drives the heart of right-wing ideology, encompassing both Republican and Libertarian philosophies.
In other words, right-wingers often believe they’re “entitled” to do whatever they want.
Normally, when you hear the word “entitled” or “entitlement” in a political context in America you think of welfare programs like Social Security, Medicare, and many more. Many conservatives enjoy demonizing the idea of “entitlements” because someone with a sense of “entitlement” is generally considered a bad person. It’s true that someone with a sense that they deserve something simply because of who they are, where or how they were born, their income level, or any other inherent trait about themselves are assholes that are major drivers of what’s wrong with this country. The difference between a person with a sense of entitlement, however, and an entitlement program, is that in the literal definition of the word “entitled,” people are in fact entitled to entitlement programs. When you pay the payroll tax, for example, that’s your money going into Social Security and Medicare. When you turn 65, you get that money back by way of Medicare coverage and retirement through Social Security. You’re entitled to it because it’s your own money. To a lesser extent this is also applicable to programs like food stamps, unemployment benefits, and other forms of welfare associated with the general congressional budget because you pay the income tax that funds them. What people often don’t understand is why their money goes to fund these programs if they themselves are not actively benefiting from it on any particular day.
Many conservatives often believe programs like food stamps are a waste of money because from a closed-minded, subjective perspective of the program it may appear that way. Most people paying the income tax aren’t actively receiving food stamps, so they assume that those on the program are social leeches or the dreaded “welfare queens” that feed off of their hard work. The truth, however, is very different.
More than 40% of all households receiving food stamp are working households. One out of seven Americans use the food stamp program; if all of them were “leeches” that contributed nothing, our society would collapse. More than that, nearly half of all recipients are children; are they leeches? Should they be forced to work?
Those blinded by their subjectivity view such programs as “entitlements” in the negative connotation of the word as described above because it has been stigmatized as such by the poor excuse for a media we have in this country. Our perspective on these programs needs to change from that of “entitlements” to safety nets, which is what they are. While you yourself may not be benefitting from a particular program on any given day insofar that you are not receiving the food stamps our financial aid, but you are benefitting from it because that safety net is below you should you fall on hard times and require assistance. A majority of people on the program don’t want to depend on it, but they have to. Why else would the number of people on food stamps explode so dramatically right as the 2008 economic recession hit? Did millions of Americans all of the sudden make an active choice to stop working and become a leech on the system? Of course not; such notions are ridiculous. Most people are like Mike Cook in the above hyperlinked video; he opposed welfare programs until tragedy struck and he found himself in need of some help. He had a job, even his own business, until the recession hit and business slowed, eventually to a point where his company unfortunately collapsed. When he had no other choice, he applied for food stamps so that he could keep food on the table for him and his son. Mike was “entitled” to the help because he had been paying into it his whole life, and now he needed it, and the safety net worked.
We can have discussions about more efficient ways to run welfare programs of course; I’d even encourage it, but to regard them as “promoting dependency” and their recipients as “leeches” is simply untrue. They’re called “entitlements” for a reason; you’re entitled to them.
What people are not entitled to is unlimited personal liberty and freedom. If you have unlimited freedom, there would be now law at all, obviously. We have laws to protect society, even though that does mean less freedom. This goes for all laws, from drunk driving and traffic laws to gun control and even the health care mandate. You can’t drive drunk because that greatly endangers other drivers. Cars are very dangerous, so we need specific rules about operating them such as stop lights, blinkers, speed limits, and many more traffic laws. Guns are also very dangerous, so they should be equally well regulated as vehicles. In America, we don’t just let people die in a hospital if they can’t pay; that’s barbaric and not the policy of any civilized country. If the patient can’t pay, it ultimately falls unto the taxpayer to fill at least part of the bill, which means it costs society. By creating a mandate that everyone be part of some sort of pool of money (otherwise known as insurance) to pay for their medical costs we gain more than we could possibly lose both in terms of taxpayer dollars and an individual’s right to live a quality life with proper health care. Sure, it could do some harm because private insurance companies could overcharge for coverage, taking money out of individual’s pockets, but hey that’s why we wanted a public option. A public option would have essentially been an insurance plan that did not seek to make money, but rather to provide a public service that would be available to all Americans and wouldn’t subject people to increasing charges with the fluctuations of the markets. Obama’s health care reform, in that sense, was half of what we needed. The other half involves a public option or some sort of equivalent, which is why we are still in need of health care reform in this country.
But I digress, and I think you get the point. We have laws, such as those prohibiting drunk driving, for a reason; they protect society. The real “entitlement” culture that’s harming America isn’t that of food stamps or Social Security, but that of far-right that supports the belief that individual citizens should have nearly unlimited liberty, regardless of the consequences to other individuals or the rest of society. If the “right” you believe you’re “entitled” to causes more harm for society as a whole than it does good, or poses a direct threat to the freedom and pursuit of happiness of other people, then you are in fact not entitled to that right. Where that line is drawn between personal liberty and the general welfare is a fair and interesting conversation, but some things are just obvious.