Entitlements and Independence

This post is kind of a part of the series A Slow Read: The Non Nonprofit: For-Profit Thinking for Nonprofit Success.

I want to take this post as something of an aside about a sentence Steve Rothschild wrote back in chapter four regarding his fourth principle, ‘create mutual accountability’:

Too much public policy in the United States has tried to help people out of poverty by giving them something for nothing. But when people get something for nothing often enough, the things they receive lose their value. They come to believe that everything can be had for nothing and begin to act as though they have a right to whatever comes their way without making any effort of their own. Entitlements may help people survive, but long-term use doesn’t lead people to become independent. Accountability does.

Rothschild, Steve (2012-01-12). The Non Nonprofit: For-Profit Thinking for Nonprofit Success (p. 86). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added.

Two questions are immediately called to mind by the emphasized sentence:

First, why set entitlements at the level of ‘help people survive’?

Second, why are we interested in leading people to ‘become independent’?

Both of these questions may seem odd, especially in an American context where (1) entitlements are regularly seen as things that help people meet a minimum standard of living, (2) independence is an integral part of the way that our society describes itself both to itself and to others and (3) entitlements are seen as having a dangerous potential to create a sense of dependency that, of course, threatens the ideal of independence. However, it is precisely because these are odd questions that I think they should actually be examined.

The Minimum Standard of Living

The attitude taken by Rothschild in this paragraph – an attitude that I think is fairly normal in an American context – is that entitlements exist to help people meet a minimum standard of living. I mean that not only in the literal sense – of course one is entitled to a minimum standard, what else could one be entitled to? – but in a figurative sense as well: entitlements, as Rothschild puts it, “help people survive.” There are two things worth noting here. First, the minimal standard: entitlements to not help people thrive, but merely survive. Second, that entitlements are not taken here as making sure that people survive. Rather, they merely help people survive.

I am not, of course, meaning to nitpick Rothschild’s sentence construction here. I am taking this close reading of the sentence not because I think it is a peculiar position for Rothschild to take, but because I think that it is a perfectly normal position for someone to take in an American cultural context. No one expects Social Security or Medicare – let alone welfare programs like SNAP, WIC or Medicaid – to provide particularly desirable lifestyles on their own. Rather, one is expected to make private arrangements such as having a robust retirement portfolio in order to retire ‘comfortably’.

My purpose here is simply to point to the standard being set for entitlements. With this understanding of entitlements, people are taken to be entitled to some of the tools of survival – enough calories to live, enough clothing and shelter for some little protection from the elements, air that one can breathe and water that one can drink – enough to live, perhaps, enough to continue to exist, but not enough to thrive.

Or, as Fred Clark happened to smartly put it in commenting on the idea that people who are on welfare should not be allowed to play the lottery:

This effort reeks of that weird, seething resentment of the poor that twists so much of American policy — reshaping it around the driving principle that we must, at all costs, make sure no tax dollars are ever spent in a way that would give any poor person, anywhere, even a single moment’s pleasure.

It is the same attitude, in other words, that causes otherwise well-meaning people to become offended at the idea of food stamps buying low quality steak and five dollar merlot: entitlements – including welfare – are there because one has the right to live, not to enjoy the life one is living.

The Entitlement-Independence Divide

The other issue is, of course, the entitlement-independence divide. This is the idea that, as Rothschild puts it,

[W]hen people get something for nothing often enough, the things they receive lose their value. They come to believe that everything can be had for nothing and begin to act as though they have a right to whatever comes their way without making any effort of their own.

Or, put another way, having access to entitlements – getting something for nothing other than being a person – robs one of his or her will to be an agent in the world. Entitlements breed dependence.

There is, I will admit, probably some truth to this. When we say that someone is spoiled we mean precisely that such a person receives what he or she wants without putting in effort. And we have no difficulty believing that such a person might come to feel wrongly entitled, as though he or she has a claim to things to which he or she has no legitimate claim. But it is important to note two things.

First, even being spoiled does not actually rob people of independence. In real life, people live on a spectrum of dependence and independence, with some people being more to one or the other end of the spectrum and others being more in the middle. That is to say, most of us are to some degree dependent upon others: we rely on networks of people and organizations for food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, emotional connection, intellectual stimulation and so on. In other words, we are in a web of relationships of various sorts. Most of us are also independent, capable of acting in the world without the immediate support of another. This balance is, in a sense, what it is to live in a human society: we are independent agents entangled in complex and ever-shifting networks of dependence.

There are, of course, people who really are closer to one end or the other of the spectrum. Babies and children, as well as those with substantial disabilities, are often more dependent on other than most people. Similarly, there are those who, like hermits or survivalists, seek to sever many or most of their ties of dependence. The point remains, however, that most of us are neither fully independent or fully dependent.

What the attitude of the entitlement-independence divide gets at, however, is not the idea that people who are given something for nothing actually lose their capacity for independence. Rather, it gets at the idea that people who are given something for nothing may start behaving as though they are more dependent than they are. In such a case, however, it seems that the problem is not one of entitlements but of values. It is as though having enough stuff might threaten the will to actually be an agent. Of course, if this really were a threat, the question that would immediately rise is why Bill Gates or Warren Buffet continue to work. Having far more than enough has not robbed them or most other people who have enough of the will to ‘make an effort.’

Or, put another way, it is not ‘being spoiled’ or ‘getting entitlements’ doesn’t rob a person of independence. Indeed, it is precisely the fact that someone is independent but fails to act on that independence that we are criticizing when we say that person is spoiled. This is not to say that no one can be robbed of their independence. It is only to say that what commits that robbery is not simply having more than enough help to survive.

Second, we are not really in a discussion of dependence vs. independence, but of modes of dependence. By this I do not mean one’s location on the spectrum, but what sort of web of dependence one is in. After all, Rothschild’s organization does not seek to make welfare more efficient or get more people on nutritional assistance or in public housing. But nor does it aim to develop the skills a person needs build their own house and raise their own food supply. Rather, it aims to place people in jobs with adequate wages and benefits to lift them out of poverty.

The point here is that the concern here is not independence so much as a mode of dependence: making claims not on society as a whole, but on an employer; likewise, having claims placed on placed on him or her not by society as a whole but by his or her employer. This both severs relationships – one is not in relationship to society as a whole, but to an individual or a company or some such – and reduces them to transactions. In other words, to be ‘independent’ in this case is little more than to participate in capitalist modes of relation.

An Alternative

This final point is critical: what Rothschild is complaining about here is not really that entitlements – or charity or welfare or what have you – make a person less independent, but that they make people dependent in the wrong way. A primary reason that the attitude I discussed at the beginning of this post exists – that (1) entitlements are regularly seen as things that help people meet a minimum standard of living, (2) independence is an integral part of the way that our society describes itself both to itself and to others and (3) entitlements are seen as having a dangerous potential to create a sense of dependency that, of course, threatens the ideal of independence – is not that such an attitude reflects a truth about entitlements but that such an attitude allows entitlements, charity, hospitality, etc. to function as institutions that propagate capitalist relations.

Certainly we can provide you much needed assistance… but only if it gets you back to producing surplus value to transfer to shareholders.

What’s an alternative? Well, we could begin by asking whether one could be entitled to more than help surviving. We could ask whether one might be entitled – really and truly entitled – to the enjoyment of life. We might then ask further, if one is truly entitled to such a thing, upon whom that claim is laid. That is: if I have a right to enjoy life, who must give me that enjoyment.

The risk, of course, is that the answer is ‘everyone’. Perhaps we are not in a simple web of transactional relations with a select few, but in a far more complex network of relations where we can all make claims upon one another for material goods like food and water and air and shelter and clothing. And not only material goods but the fellowship and friendship and love necessary to enjoy such material goods. And not only adequate material and immaterial things – not only the minimal needed to survive – but quality things. Perhaps we can claim the right and power and resources to thrive.

That, of course, would be truly revolutionary thinking.

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