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Social insurance

Another filing from the it-matters-what-we-call-things department, this time from Hendrik Hertzberg:

“Entitlements”—alternatively, “entitlement programs”—is now the standard descriptor for what ought to be called, more accurately and less tendentiously, social insurance. In the early days of Social Security, politicians and bureaucrats occasionally talked of it as an “earned entitlement.” The term then dropped out of sight for decades. It reappeared, minus the “earned,” in the mid-nineteen-seventies, bubbling up in the works of a pair of prominent conservative academics, Robert Nisbet and Robert Nozick.

Hertzberg is talking about the US. For ‘entitlements’ in Australia, substitute ‘dole’.

The word “entitle” appears in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence (just as another dread word, “welfare,” appears in the first sentence of the Constitution), but the present-day uses of its derivatives are, to put it mildly, problematic. A so-called entitlement is a benefit extended to those who meet the lawful requirements, without the need for a specific appropriation. (Under this definition, by the way, a hedge-fund manager’s low tax rate fills the bill as snugly as Grandma’s Social Security check.) But “acting entitled” or having “a sense of entitlement” is something no one yearns to be accused of. Just ask Donald Trump, Justin Bieber, and the Kardashians if it makes them feel flattered.

The way you define a ‘problem’ has strong implications for the way you then go about dealing with it.