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Paul Krugman's Entitlement Problem

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - June 18, 2004 12:00 AM

Intellectual honesty compels one to acknowledge two things: first, weaknesses in one's position; and second, controversial assumptions on which one's position rests. Paul Krugman, the economist-cum-columnist, is routinely dishonest in both ways.

For example, the other day (see here), Krugman wrote a New York Times column in which he called the Bush administration's economic policy "Robin Hood in reverse." Robin Hood, as we all know, stole from the rich and gave to the poor. The Bush administration, according to Krugman, steals from the poor (or at least the nonrich) and gives to the rich.

Let's think about this. Krugman says that unless taxes are raised, social programs will have to be cut. These programs help poor and middle-class families, not the families of the well-to-do; so cutting them hurts poor and middle-class families (but not the families of the well-to-do). The Bush administration, however, is adamant about not raising taxes. So, in effect, the Bush administration makes things better for the well-to-do and worse for everyone else.

What Krugman conveniently ignores -- perhaps because it undermines his position -- is the question of entitlement. He writes as if nobody is entitled to anything. Suppose that were the case. A policy that hurt many and helped only a few would indeed be unjust (not to mention irrational). But when you factor in entitlement, the situation changes completely from the moral point of view. Lowering taxes isn't giving the well-to-do something to which they're not entitled. It's not a boon to them, or a windfall. It's letting them keep that to which they're entitled!

In Krugman's twisted mind (I say that endearingly), not taking your money against your will is giving you money. Read that sentence again, slowly and carefully.

It all goes back to liberal first principles. Nobody, to the liberal, has a valid claim on anything, even his or her talents. Those who produce or acquire wealth do so not because of effort, initiative, creativity, or sacrifice. They're just lucky. They were born healthy and into loving families. Others are unlucky. They were born unhealthy or into indifferent families. Since none of us is entitled to what we have at birth, none of us is entitled to anything we produce thereafter. We might call this, to borrow a term from the criminal law, the fruit-of-the-poisonous-tree doctrine. Wealth, to the liberal, belongs to all of us in common, not to any of us in particular. There are possessions, but not property.

Stating this view is, or ought to be, enough to refute it. Accidents of birth don't determine our fates; they simply tell us where we start. Where we end up, and how we fare along the way, are up to us. Krugman and other egalitarians must eliminate desert, entitlement, merit, and responsibility from our thinking in order to engineer society to their liking. Conservatives must oppose them. The first step in opposing them is understanding what they are doing. Liberals know this, of course, so they try to hide what they are doing. This is the intellectual dishonesty of which I speak, and which Krugman, in his New York Times columns, exemplifies.

By the way, I'm not begging the question against Krugman and other liberals by assuming that the wealthy are entitled to their wealth. I make no assumption either way about that. It's a question that needs to be discussed -- and that political philosophers, to their credit, are discussing. It may turn out that the wealthy are entitled to some of their wealth but not all of it, in which case, for policy purposes, we must develop a practical means of separating the two types. To do this, we must confront the question of entitlement head on. We must not sidestep it, as liberals such as Krugman are wont to do.

If anyone is begging the question, it's Krugman. He assumes, without argument, that nobody is entitled to anything -- or at least that the wealthy are not entitled to their wealth. Entitlement plays no discernible role in his thinking. One wonders whether he believes that he is entitled to any of his wealth, which, given his prestigious academic position and best-selling books, is probably substantial. If he's not entitled to it, why has he not disposed of it? Maybe only liberals are entitled to their wealth.

Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy (with tenure) at The University of Texas at Arlington. He is also a licensed (but nonpracticing) attorney (in Michigan and Arizona). In case you're wondering, he works damn hard for his money and is therefore, by any reasonable standard, entitled to it. He blogs at AnalPhilosopher.


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