Sunday, June 17, 2012

When is a sense of entitlement justified?

I have been having a discussion with Jim Belshaw about the meaning of entitlement, stemming from my recent post ‘What are Australians angry about?’  On Saturday Jim wrote:
‘It seems to me that that word entitlements has become, to use an ugly but useful modern term, a code word for a much broader ideological debate. Entitlements used to mean the fact of having a right to something or the amount to which a person has a right. This is the neutral meaning. Now it has acquired a heavy semantic overload’.

I agree. When I wrote: ‘I think the problem is the growth of a sense of entitlement to be looked after by governments’, I was referring to growth in what I see as an unwarranted sense of entitlement. 

It seems to me that we have almost reached a stage where people say: ‘I’m unhappy, so what’s the government going to do about it?’ Governments seem only too willing to encourage this. A recent government intervention in Australia involves screening kids for mental illness at three years of age. No doubt doctors will discover that a lot of kids are unhappy and then ‘aorta politics’ will take over. We will soon hear a lot more people saying ‘aorta’ be doing more to help us. 

However, people are sometimes justified in expressing a sense of entitlement – or righteous indignation - when something they value is taken away from them. It would probably be reasonable to guess that moral intuitions about natural rights stem from the efforts of our tribal ancestors to protect their food supplies. (Incidentally, this doesn’t seem to be covered by Jon Haidt’s schema of moral foundations discussed in my last post.) A sense of entitlement is also related to our sense of fairness and our desire to punish people (including political leaders) who have shown themselves to be untrustworthy.

It seems to me that the central issue in considering whether a sense of entitlement is justified is whether the expectations involved are reasonable. It might be useful to attempt to rank expressions of entitlement in terms of the reasonableness of the expectations involved.

Property rights deserve high ranking in terms of the reasonableness of expectations that they will be protected. There is even a constitutional provision, as readers who have seen ‘The Castle’ would know, that when the Commonwealth acquires property compensation must be ‘on just terms’. Property rights are constrained in various ways. Land owners do not usually own the minerals beneath their land in this country, so it is hardly reasonable for them to expect to be able to prevent mining on their properties. But it is reasonable for them to expect compensation for the costs and inconveniences they experience when mining takes place. I would have thought land owners could have a reasonable expectation of being able to do what they wish with trees growing on their properties, but governments have taken a different view.

Another area deserving high ranking in terms of reasonableness of expectations concerns contractual obligations entered into by governments.  Australian governments have a good reputation of meeting interest and repayment obligations when they borrow money (despite Jack Lang's efforts to tarnish this reputation in the 1930s). Australians can have a reasonable expectation that governments in this country will meet obligations to employees. Until recently, Australian governments also had a pretty good record in not raising mineral royalty charges beyond levels agreed with mining companies prior to mining, but sovereign risk has escalated since the Commonwealth government has acted to appropriate an additional slice of mineral rents. In my view mining companies have justification for their sense of entitlement to the rents that have been taken from them. It is reasonable for households who have installed solar heating in response to excessively generous incentive programs to expect government agencies to meet their contractual obligations. In my view, householders in New South Wales had justification to be enraged the plans of the newly elected O’Farrell government to renege on those contracts.

Further down the ranking in terms of reasonableness of expectations - although still deserving fairly high ranking in my view - are the political obligations accepted by governments over many decades for provision of various social welfare programs. Age pensions are a prime example. It would be unreasonable, however, to expect that governments would never under any circumstances reduce the benefits provided under such programs. The assistance provided must be limited ultimately by what the community can afford.

Further down the ranking there are programs like the provision of tariff assistance to industries. This arose as a result of rent-seeking by industry, misguided government planning and a view fostered by governments over many decades that assistance would be provided to all industries on a ‘needs basis’. It is the best example of a government-fostered entitlement mentality that I can think of in Australia. Yet, it is understandable that many of those who benefited from this assistance would feel a sense of grievance when it was withdrawn. The assistance regime stayed in place for many decades with little complaint – except for a few people in efficient export industries that were adversely affected, some academics and civil servants, and one politician (Bert Kelly). When assistance was reduced, the culpability of governments in fostering the unreasonable expectation that ‘infant industry’ and ‘temporary’ protection could last forever was recognized by making reductions gradual (over about half a century in the case of the car industry) and providing adjustment assistance in some instances.

As we go further down the ranking of reasonable expectations we come to incentive programs of various kinds. One example that comes to mind is the provision of taxation benefits to encourage investment in private superannuation. I noted in 2010 that this had resulted in total government support for retirees being remarkably similar across a wide range of income levels, despite means testing of pensions. The taxation arrangements for superannuation provide perverse incentives for people to retire early, splurge lump sums and live off accumulated wealth until they become eligible for the aged pension. There is no basis for anyone to have a reasonable expectation that such rorts would be allowed to continue indefinitely. It seems to me that those complaining about recent government action to limit the tax concession are showing an unwarranted sense of entitlement.

Election promises are at the bottom of my ranking of reasonable expectations. However, some election promises do appear to encourage reasonable expectations of what a government might do or not do. For example, Julia Gillard’s promise that ‘there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead' did not sound like a ‘non-core promise’ (to use a phrase made famous by John Howard). At the very bottom of the ranking of reasonable expectations, in my view, are the expectations fostered by a statement by Barry O’Farrell that his party had ‘no plans’ to privatise various things. Rather than a promise, that form of words seems intended to convey a refusal to make a promise.

Having completed this ranking, I now wonder whether election promises deserve higher ranking. The ranking provided above is largely in terms of what seems reasonable to expect on the basis of experience. Political promises probably deserve higher ranking in terms of the standards it should be reasonable to expect of our politicians. I don’t think that people are displaying an unwarranted sense of entitlement when they express disgust with politicians who break promises. 

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