Every now and again an Irish newspaper runs a story like this. Now, this’ll surprise a lot of people, but I actually don’t believe the core message of these stories. Yeah, there are some people who are taking the piss with our welfare system, but I reckon that most people are struggling to get by on it. I know I couldn’t do it on €200 a week. But it does, however, raise another issue for me.
I once worked with an individual who paid no income tax (legally), got subsidised housing, a medical card for himself and his two kids, and children’s allowance and a childcare grant for both. Yet he regarded the then Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat government as being one of the most right-wing and uncaring administrations ever inflicted upon the Irish people. But when I asked him what more the government could give him, he blanked. What was really interesting was his defence, when I pointed out that he received more from the government than I did.
“But I’m entitled!” He declared.
But I’m entitled. There it is right there. The source of so many of the political divisions in our society. Because when I replied that surely I was as equally entitled not to pay my money to him via the government, he was outraged. It was “right-wing” and “Thatcherite” for me to believe that my right to keep my money was in anyway equal to his right to my money, or indeed the money of other taxpayers.
But what is even more interesting about this state of mind is its effect on happiness. If the distribution of wealth (money or taxes) is a measure of the level of happiness in our society, one would think that its allocation would transfer similar levels of happiness. For example, is the deprivation of my happiness as I see my payslip each month, and my tax deduction, equalled by an improvement in someone else’s happiness as my deduction, or a good chunk of it, arrives in someone else’s hands? I suspect not, as the biggest whingers in our society seem to nearly always be the biggest recipients of state spending.
This begs the question. As I certainly would show gratitude if my taxes, or a portion there of, were returned to me, as would many taxpayers, is the key to a happier society the slashing of state spending? It would transform my sadness to happiness, and make the unhappy even unhappier. Result: A nett increase of one happier person?
See, I understand the point of a welfare state. I understand and agree with the idea that how a society deals with its poorest is a mark of its civilisation. I get that. But what I don’t get is at what moment did the workers, those people who actually create wealth, become morally inferior to those who demand wealth redistribution? At what point did redistributing wealth change from being an act of charity and decency to an entitlement? Because, is that not what most state spending ultimately is? Charity?
It’s normally at this point that some people, normally, but not always on the left, blow their top. Referring to welfare spending as “charity” is demeaning and offensive, they say. And, of course, they have a point. Many of the people receiving welfare are not receiving charity, they are merely getting back contributions they made through the social insurance system. They’re entitled to that surely? I agree. By paying PRSI and now the USC, they made provision for hard times. But what about the people who have always contributed far less than they receive? Why are they “entitled” to anything? Again, it is a question of society: There are people who through no fault of their own are not capable of providing for themselves. Should we as a society subsidise them?
Of course we should, because we are a charitable people. But there’s that word again: Charity. And that’s where my problem lies, and a central issue that sits at the heart of Irish politics untouched yet relevent to everything else that involves the government spending money. There is such a thing as a society, and society has a right to write its own rules, and if one wishes to participate in that society, one must reasonably expect to obey those rules to gain the benefit of participation. Can society rule that those with wealth should help those without? Of course it can. But at least let us be honest about what we are doing.
Let’s at least admit that when someone declares, say, a entitlement to housing, what they are saying is “I have a desire for a house, and I as the person with the desire, should be treated as being a morally better person than the other people who worked to create the money that will fund the construction of the house I desire.”
In short, the phrase “I’m entitled” actually means “My needs should be valued higher than yours”. Unless, of course, you are entitled to more. I’m not saying anything new here. All I’m saying is that we should just admit that granting one person an entitlement means diminishing someone else’s entitlement to keep the money they have created through work.