An end to the paradox?

January 10, 2012 by
Filed under: Credit crunch, Politics, Public policy, The RSA 

Much to the relief of my PA Barbara (‘Matthew, I’m almost missing your jokes’), this is the final post in a series of seven exploring the paradox of entitlement. Along the way I have received many useful comments, some positive, other less so. A number of people have questioned the clarity and consistency of my use of the term entitlement. The criticisms are well founded. I am deliberately stretching the idea to try to develop a narrative which links all sections of society and offers a vision of solidarity and purpose instead of the prevailing atmosphere of pessimism and resentment. After reading today’s effort – come on folks just 750 words to go – you can tell me whether I have at all succeeded:

1. In the context of rising needs and limited resources (a squeeze which is highlighted by, but goes beyond, the current fiscal deficit) we face a social aspiration gap. The hopes and expectations we have for our collective future are not matched by the ways in aggregate we think and behave right now. There will be many forces which shape the future – some of them beyond our control – but the society we want is unlikely to emerge unless citizens as a whole are more engaged, more resourceful and more pro-social.

2. One aspect of the social aspiration gap is the paradox of entitlement. For reasons of equity, solidarity, well-being, freedom and efficiency we should aspire to an affluent country such as ours providing a range of entitlements to its citizens. However, unless they are matched with citizenship obligations and expectations these entitlements will fail to deliver the social outcomes we want and will increasingly prove to be financially unsustainable. (Beyond the deficit there is population ageing, the pressures of global completion and the constantly rising comparative costs of ‘high touch’ care based services. As Lawrence Summers wrote in yesterday’s FT, there has over the last generation been a fifty fold change in the relative price of a television and a day in hospital.)

3. There are many types of social entitlement but they could be divided into three: the entitlement to decent subsistence provided to those who are unable to meet their own needs, the entitlement to public services and protections made available to all citizens, and the entitlement afforded to the well off in society to use their privileges to the future advantage of themselves and their children. Whilst the third of these entitlements is of a different nature to the others it can nevertheless be seen as such in that the capacity of the well off to exact future advantage from today’s success offends meritocratic principles to which a majority of people strongly subscribe.

4. There are principled and pragmatic arguments for each type of entitlement. For example, a failure to meet basic subsistence needs could be seen not only as inhumane but also to be likely to lead to widespread social disorder; the withdrawal of public services could be seen to undermine social solidarity but also to lead to a chaotic and inefficient patchwork of rules and provision; seeking to ban the well-off from using their privileges to seek future advantages would be seen not only as an intrusion into basic liberty but administratively impossible and economically counter-productive.

5. But each entitlement also brings with it moral hazard. The guarantee of subsistence could lead people to accept dependency instead of seeking independence; the provision of public services and protections could lead to people maximising their own gains from the system at the expense of the community as a whole; and the freedom to use economic advantage could lead not only to unjust outcomes but also inefficiency as the most talented lose out to the most privileged.

6. We need a new approach to politics and policy which has these characteristics: tough minded and honest in explaining that citizens have to step up to the plate; optimistic in arguing that we can raise our game and, if we do, we can improve quality of life despite rising needs and limited resources; even handed in raising expectations of responsibility across society.

7. From this starting point we can explore a range of strategies for balancing entitlement with obligations and expectations. As I have described in earlier posts, this could include a tough but supportive regime of conditionality; the development of the principles and practice of a new contributory principle; reconceptualising and re-organising public services as collaborative relationships between service providers, service recipients and the wider community; and building a social consensus about the need for action to ensure that inequality of outcome does not inherently lead to systematic inequality of opportunity.

8. The story told by this series of posts is partial, incomplete and probably inconsistent (not to mention pompous and pious). But however much it can be improved, the core point remains: we urgently need our political leaders to articulate a powerful, and inclusive narrative that assigns us all a role in finding  purpose, solidarity and hope for difficult times ahead.




  • Paul Everitt

    Matthew in discussing the impact of austerity there has been little focus on the role or opportunities from prodctivity growth in the public sector. This may be because the term is interpreted as the privatisation or marketisation of public services. This does not have to be the case.

    During the last 20 to 30 years we have seen sustained improvement in industrial productivity, alongside greater employee engagement and fulfilment. A modern manufacturing enterprise relies on all employees taking responsibility for meeting quality, reliability and efficiency targets, but also having an active role in creating the conditions and influencing the decisions that ensure success. Surely there is a role for this approach across the public sector.

  • David Richmond

    Phew! Thanks for persevering Matthew. I’ve enjoyed reading these although I actually think you could push this a little further! I think it’s important to see entitlement as something active that has to be earned, learned and practiced – rather than as a gift to be bestowed on others. People only become free by exercising freedom – it’s as much a journey as it is a goal.
    We would all benefit from a more equal and inclusive society and understanding entitlement better – as you say, more as a relationship than as a transaction – might just help us build one.
    So, I’d like to hear more about how people can exercise responsibility by supporting others to exercise their entitlements.

  • junius

    Not very impressed by the handling of this whole topic. Its parameters have been made too wide and vague with arguments, where they can be discerned, floating about like willo the wisps refusing to be pinned down to anything.

    I am not sure that your use of the term ‘entitlements’ is wholly accurate or appropriate to the meanings you try to get out of them. An ‘entitlement’ is an administrative-legal construct created usually as a result of specific government policies. It entails a degree of legitimacy or acceptance by passing through the legislative process. Most ‘entitlements’, because they are at root political, are open to disputation.

    Your use of the term ‘entitlement’ in respect of capital and its principal owners and managers strikes me as wrong in that it confuses what is really at stake- which is ‘power’ pure and simple. Capital has its advantages and ‘privileges’ as a result of being able to deploy power in an unchecked and unaccountable way not because it has been accorded ‘entitlements’ through the legislative process as a deliberate outcome of government policy. In fact, the situation is probably more accurately described by stating that goverments (of whatever party hue) neither have the powers or the inclination to face down or condition in any way these embedded powers of capital.

    As far as I can understand your arguments- which admittedly is not very far- you seem to suggest that because the super rich can get away with murder in terms of their so-called ‘entitlements’ it is fair enough for inequities and unfairnesses between the working poor and workless claimants drafted into the benefit system to be overlloked- as if two wrongs make a right.