“Entitlement Derangement Syndrome”

David French writes of what he calls “Entitlement Derangement Syndrome,” which he thinks is motivating what we’re seeing in Wisconsin—namely, aggressive protesting over benefits and pensions, as if we had some kind of natural right to them. He likens the Wisconsin protesting to what went on in France last October when they wanted to raise the retirement age to 62.

I think this points to an unanticipated negative consequence of the welfare state: It corrupts people’s moral sensibilities. More specifically, it encourages people to ignore, violate, and even pretend does not exist a central, foundational moral premise of politics, namely that it is wrong to live at others’ expense.

Now of course that premise has to be properly qualified. Children may live at their parents’ expense; adults who have entered into marriages, partnerships, contracts, or other voluntary associations may live at each others’ expense; and sometimes people have to live at the expense of others’ charity.

But able-bodied adults should not live at the unwilling expense of others. And they certainly have no right to live at unwilling others’ expense. That is why forced labor and slavery are wrong. Forced labor and slavery are wrong not because they are costly or because they are inefficient; they are wrong even if they were inexpensive and efficient. They are wrong because it is wrong to live at unwilling others’ expense.

The welfare state clouds that moral intuition, which should be among our most deeply held. Indeed, the welfare state has not only clouded that intuition, it seems it has entirely inverted it. Thus we have people who believe they are entitled to live at others’ expense, even when those others are in debt, having great difficulty of paying their own way, and thus want to pay less.

It is demeaning for adults to live from the charity of others, even when the charity is voluntary. Even when offered with the best of intentions, it can weaken the recipients’ moral fiber and the power of their independent judgment, reducing them to “kept” status—which is why it is to be avoided except when absolutely necessary. But when the support is not charity and thus not voluntary, it is all the more morally suspect.

The fact that so many people, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, can behave and speak as if they nevertheless have a right to the fruits of others’ labors does not change the character of the reality. If they thought that their case warranted overriding the standard moral prohibition of living at others’ expense, then they should, and presumably would, make the case for why that is. But they make no such case. That suggests they don’t believe any such case has to be made. And that is the kind of moral confusion that I think the welfare state can foster.

10 thoughts on ““Entitlement Derangement Syndrome”

  1. Yawn! Always the same story: if there’s no more valid economic argument available we can always resort to some moralizing.

    PS: Public employees also have an employment CONTRACT which was agreed upon between employer and employee without coercion. Pensions are part of this contract. Why this contract is not protected by the holy cow of libertarians – sanctity of contract – remains a secret of libertarians.

    1. Of course, the controversy is over changing the institutional framework within which future contracts are negotiated. Last time I checked, the controversy did not involve eliminating compensation awarded in the past.

    2. It’s easy to answer why the contract is invalid by means of an analogy. If you agree with a third party to obtain their services in exchange for my money, without my knowledge or consent, does that contract have the force of law? The so-called public servant who rewards a union for their support by offering them money to be paid with money not yet earned by people not yet born to be confiscated by a politician not yet elected is bartering with others’ money. Whether you believe it belongs to the taxpayer it was withheld from or the politician who will take it, the politician OFFERING had no moral right to do so. Further, the taxpaying public, who ultimately foots the bill, was never consulted, by referendum or otherwise, on whether they desire their money to be spent in such a fashion.

  2. @Marc
    “Of course”. I would be very careful with such a phrase. Once you open the Box of Pandora it is very difficult to close it again. NYT Alabama Town’s Failed Pension Is a Warning

    Then Prichard did something that pension experts say they have never seen before: it stopped sending monthly pension checks to its 150 retired workers, breaking a state law requiring it to pay its promised retirement benefits in full.

    My latest info in regard to Wisconsin is: The bill empowers government to abrogate worker contracts in case of “emergencies.” Hand out some tax cuts to your favorite constituents, check the balance sheet only afterward and voila your fiscal emergency is in place.

    But OK you guys seem to be totally excited now about the opportunity of worker/union busting.

  3. Stephan, talk about moralizing! Perhaps this is too fine a point for you to see from your high horse, but public-sector employees do not, sorry to say, negotiate their contracts in the same way that private-sector employees do. The problem is that the taxpayers, who pay for the contracts, are not part of the negotiation. The politicians sitting across the table from the labor leaders are risking other people’s money, not their own.

    Although it is true that the politicans are elected by (a relatively small, often special-interested) portion of the citizenry, that hardly implies that the taxpaying citizenry has any real say in what’s going on. Often they are not made aware of what is going on, when the negotiations are, or what is being negotiated; often they are not allowed to participate in or see discussions; often they don’t know how much it will cost them until much, much later—when it is too late and it’s not clear who is to blame.

    I have no problem with unions, as long as they are organized freely—meaning without coercion of workers who do not want to participate—and as long as they have no special legal protections or privileges that others do not have. Workers should be free to organize, collectively bargain, and strike if they see fit, just as employers should be free not to negotiate with unions or to fire unionized employees if they see fit.

    But that assumes that all parties are operating on their own dimes, and at their own risks. Such is not, alas, the case with public-sector workers, which is what distinguishes the cases, and which is what explains libertarian opposition to public-sector employee unions.

    1. Oh, for heaven’s sake. Are stockholders part of the negotiations in the private sector? Look up “separation of ownership from control.”

      1. That’s a horrible comparison: stockholders are not legally required to invest in a company and can withdraw their money at any time should they have a gripe with the company’s personnel decisions. I have a feeling if we were able to escape our mandatory annual investment in the government Professor Otteson wouldn’t mind the collective bargaining quite as much.

  4. Oho. Mr. Charles G. Koch Senior Fellow fires back. Very good. I always appreciate opposition.

    Look we invented here the concept of unions. And there seems to be some things you don’t understand about unions. There are crystal clear rules about unions and how collective bargaining works. There is a special protection for union leaders in Germany. And you can’t simply fire workers just because they are on strike and you don’t like strikes. That’s one of the points of belonging to a union. Every 2-3 years public unions here bargain with the government about wage rises. Not always pretty but I’ve never seen politicians giving in to demands. At the end of the day it is always a give and take. Maybe you should concern yourself more with the practice of campaign contributions from both sides of the aisle who pervert democratic procedures. Summary: in regard to unions you have no idea what you are talking about.

    PS: But I think you are biased and confronted with what I would call a conflict of interests. Don’t worry! This is really nothing new for the economic profession in the US. Maybe you would like to have another look at the proposed bill by Mister Walker. Look out for 16.896:

    16.896 Sale or contractual operation of state−owned heating, cooling, and power plants. (1) Notwithstanding ss. 13.48 (14) (am) and 16.705 (1), the department may sell any state−owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best interest of the state. Notwithstanding ss. 196.49 and 196.80, no approval or certification of the public service commission is necessary for a public utility to purchase, or contract for the operation of, such a plant, and any such purchase is considered to be in the public interest and to comply with the criteria for certification of a project under s. 196.49 (3) (b).

    This is what I would call a nice entitlement for your beneficiary the Koch brothers. What do you think?

  5. Nice post, Jim. Libertarians might argue with each other about what kinds of small deviations from the basic principle of not living at the unwilling expense of others we might tolerate (say the case of legitimate disability), but the reality on the ground is that our society has totally lost its bearings on this issue, as you ably point out.

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