Monday, August 15, 2011

Words mean things.

I've been thinking about the word "entitlement."  We hear it bandied about a lot these days, as in "slashing entitlements" or "keeping entitlements in check."  Screams of protest when "entitlements" are threatened, and yet to say someone has an "entitlement mentality" is an insult.  But what is an entitlement?

As usual, I went to a dictionary.  An "entitlement" in the legal or government sense just means that the government lays out the qualifications for receiving a particular payment or benefit, and if you meet those requirements, you are then "entitled" to the payment.  Think of it like a contract:  if you enter into a contract with another party and fulfill the conditions set forth in the contract, you are then entitled to payment as stipulated in the contract.  That's it; there are no further rights involved or created. 

But in "real life," an entitlement is something you deserve because you are, well, YOU.  If I am entitled to something, I have a right to it.  Oh, there comes that word, a right.  And if something is a right, then it can't be taken away.  See how that happened?  You fulfill the requirements of an entitlement program, so you are (legally) entitled.  But that isn't how we non-lawyers talk, so you feel entitled to ("deserving of, having a right to") the benefit.  And so if someone touches those entitlements, they are trampling on your rights!  All because the legal definition doesn't match up to the everyday usage of the word.

Personally, I always thought that only Social Security and Medicare are entitlement programs, because you could only have benefits if you or your fiduciary had paid into them.  Then you had a "right" to those programs because of the social contract that Social Security represents.  But that is wrong!  Do you see how I was confusing a right to something with mere entitlement in the legal sense?

It turns out that an entitlement program is just a government spending program that imposes restrictions on the category of person/company receiving the money.  Social Security and Medicare, yes, but also unemployment, food stamps, agricultural price supports (I despise that one), and a host of other programs. 

We must let go of the idea that entitlement program recipients somehow have a right to payments which continue for all time.  There are no rights involved.  The language problem also means that two different classes of government payments get combined into one thought.

It seems that we need to have two labels, not one.  The first would apply to the benefits that you have paid into, like Social Security or military retirement.  For those payments, what you eventually receive has some relationship to the amount you paid in.  Maybe just "Benefit."  Maybe something else.

The second label goes to all the other payments that the Congress comes up with.  For those, I'm in favor of "Other People's Money," or OPM for short.  Just to make it crystal clear where ALL of that money has come from. 

What do you think?  Any other ideas for a change in language?


Sherri Shaw said...

There is no such thing as "federal dollars," as government can NOT create wealth. They can print money, which is the antithesis of creating wealth. So "federal dollars" should be replaced with something like "confiscated dollars." The terms "less fortunate" and "more fortunate" are also misnomers, because it implies luck is involved in someone's financial situation. That is rarely the case; it is usually the result of hard work. The word "fortunate" should be replaced with "industrious" or "willing to work hard and sacrifice for a better future." Finally, would someone PLEASE abolish the phrase "fair share" or at least make that term a slur against the people who pay NO taxes rather than a slur on the people who pay the majority of taxes (for the record, I am NOT one of those people, so it's not like I'm trying to protect my own wealth...those people actually don't pay their "fair share;" they pay exceedingly more than what is fair.).

HMS said...

Cheryl, someone as interested as you are in the politics of the English language (as Orwell would have put it) is someone we'd like to invite to become one of our Authors in Alexandria.

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Come contribute your perspectives and opinions to the ongoing conversations there or, even better, start some new - and different - ones of your own. Contact us through the site for full invitations and instructions.