Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: entitlements

Do You Deserve Your Gifts?

quis enim te discernit
quid autem habes quod non accepisti
si autem accepisti
quid glorias quasi non acceperis

Who made you special, who gave you your gifts? And if your gifts were given to you why do you behave as if you’d given them to yourself?

1 Corinthians 4:7 [Vulgate and my translation]

I have noticed that people have a very inconsistent approach to entitlements: what I get I deserve, but what you get I’m not so sure about.

For instance, at a conference in London at the RSA, I heard a professor, and senior government advisor, speaking to a room of civil servants, academics, politicians, think-tankers and public service managers:

“The welfare state is how we take care of the poor.”

I’m afraid I was unable to resist pointing out that it was a bit rich for people who were all paid indirectly or directly by the tax payer that they were somehow doing a great favour to the poor. As far as I could see they were all making a very good living from the welfare state.

It seems that we think: what I get is an entitlement; what you get is a handout.

I am sure many would argue that they deserve their salaries, expenses, pensions and perks because they are so clever. But who made them clever? Not them.

As St Paul says, we didn’t give ourselves our own gifts. We didn’t make ourselves clever; it’s an undeserved gift. And if we have such underserved gifts we should be happy to have the gift itself – it gives us no reason to expect other benefits, like money or power.

We might say cleverness should be its own reward – except that its not a reward – for you didn’t really do anything to win it.

Of course the clever may have to work hard at being clever – it’s not always easy – it takes time and effort to learn, to think and carry out complex tasks. But then lots of other people also have to work hard, for low wages, carrying out tasks they don’t like, just to earn enough to look after themselves and their family. They do not get to enjoy the perk that the clever enjoy – of working hard at work that is also intrinsically enjoyable.

Our gifts should not be the cause of self-congratulation or an excuse for greed – our gifts were given to us to share – to convert back into gifts for others.

The Blood Money of Charity or Why Entitlements Matter

If the present order is taken for granted or assumed to be sacrosanct, charity from the more to the less fortunate would seem virtuous and commendable; to those for whom the order itself is suspect or worse, such charity is blood-money. Why should some be in the position to dispense and others to need that kind of charity?

An infidel could ignore that challenge; for apart from faith in God there is really nothing to be said for the notion of human equality. Men do not seem to be equal in any respect, if we judge by available evidence. But if all are are children of one Father, then all are equal heirs of a status in comparison with which apparent differences of quality and capacity are unimportant; in the deepest and most important of all – their relationship to God – all are equal.

William Temple, Christianity and Social Order

This quote perhaps helps remind us that the Church has often been a powerful advocate of real social justice. Archbishop Temple does not seek to position the Church as a bestower of charity; instead he demands that society recognises the genuine rights that are created by our human needs.

He also reminds us that equality is the foundation of social justice – we simply are equal – in some profound moral sense – despite all our obvious and great differences. This fundamental equality of moral worth is central to our moral codes (whether or not you believe in God). There is also an aspiration that many of us share – to live ‘as equals’ in a community where those differences can be reconciled through our equal citizenship. The barriers to such social equality are great indeed – but the moral appeal of such equality is hard to erode – despite all the prejudice, discrimination and injustice that is such a feature of the modern world.

An example of this battle for equality is the conflict over ‘entitlements’ that rages around people with disabilities internationally. In the UK today the entitlement to social care is under a double attack: (a) funding for that entitlement is being cut by 33% (from 2010 to 2015) and (b) many local authorities are now undermining a policy position which had treated ‘personal budgets’ as the person’s money – an entitlement. Instead people find their control eroded by increasing regulations, bureaucracy and direct interference.

On the other side of the world, Australia, as it begins to implement its National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), is making a globally important commitment to secure the rights of persons with disabilities in line with the UN Declaration and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, even in this context, policy-makers struggle with the idea that disabled people are actually owed the intended budgets – that these budgets are entitlements which belong to people:

“It’s Jack’s money, not the government’s money.”

I will not rehearse here all the arguments for treating such funding as an entitlement (I have done it elsewhere and I have the feeling I will have to have another go soon). I simply want to observe the starkness of the choice:

If we give people money they are either entitled to it or they are not. If they are not entitled to it then why are we giving it? We would be giving what we ought not to give. If they are entitled to it then it is theirs – not ours.

What is at stake here – as Temple rightly observes – is whether we are giving people what they are properly due, or whether we are just giving the blood money of charity.

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