Nomenclature Creep: Entitlements and Military Pensions

One of the interesting side issues in the now-resolved (except for President Obama’s signature) firestorm regarding the (at best) ill-advised career military pension COLA reductions, is the use of the word “entitlements.” The punditocracy, nearly as one voice, have clucked that reversal of the cuts will make future “entitlement reform” more difficult to achieve:

“Supporters of the cut hailed it as an initial step toward curbing spending on costly entitlement programs that are consuming an ever-greater share of spending.”

New York Times: “The moves on both sides of the Capitol illustrate how difficult it will be to wring savings from automatic government programs ā€” like pension and health care ‘entitlements’ ā€” which are swelling with an aging population but remain politically untouchable.”

Washington Times: “Rep. Charlie Dent, Pennsylvania Republican, said Wednesday that the fight over repealing cost-of-living adjustment cuts for military retirees included in the 2013 budget deal shows how difficult it will be to make any type of permanent, broad entitlement reform.”

There are plenty more examples of this line of thinking, but you get the idea.

Leaving aside the issue of whether, in fact, “entitlement reform” is now less likely than it would have been (absent the COLA cuts restoration which headed for the President’s desk yesterday), I’m interested in a more fundamental question:

What do people mean when they talk about “entitlements”?

Here’s one definition:

[Entitlement programs are the] kind of government program that provides individuals with personal financial benefits (or sometimes special government-provided goods or services) to which an indefinite (but usually rather large) number of potential beneficiaries have a legal right (enforceable in court, if necessary) whenever they meet eligibility conditions that are specified by the standing law that authorizes the program. The beneficiaries of entitlement programs are normally individual citizens or residents, but sometimes organizations such as business corporations, local governments, or even political parties may have similar special “entitlements” under certain programs. The most important examples of entitlement programs at the federal level in the United States would include Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, most Veterans’ Administration programs, federal employee and military retirement plans, unemployment compensation, food stamps, and agricultural price support programs.

Wait, “military retirement plans” and “agricultural price support programs” are both entitlements? Then the term no longer has any useful meaning–not when it comes to airy discussions about “entitlement reform,” at least. Career military personnel have an inarguable moral claim to the benefits they receive; any argument that a similar moral claim exists in the instance of agricultural price supports is absurd on its face.

As many (including Hugh Hewitt) have said, career military personnel need to be at the back of the line for cuts, not the front.

In order for society to intelligently debate a particular subject, the first task is to agree on common terms. The Left does the opposite, and alters the meaning of language to help achieve their ideological ends. And we on the Right invariably, at some point down the road, adopt the assumptions implicit in that distortion of meaning.

In short, not all “entitlements” have equal moral weight; ignoring that fact simply confuses the issue, and makes it more difficult for society to prioritize spending in the face of massive Federal debt.

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