08/02/2012 05:14 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2012

Say 'Obligations,' Not 'Entitlements'

The term "entitlements" is encrusted with negative connotations, although it denotes something very close to rights -- things to which citizens are entitled. The use of the word has added an implicit "unjustified" as part of its meaning. This probably stems from as far back as the time when entitlements -- to land and other wealth or privileges -- were something that only nobility had and that democrats and populists opposed. Conservatives have applied the term to the social safety net available to the highly privileged and the unprivileged alike -- a net economic elites seldom need and propagandize against. In its most recent usage, its negative connotations have been greatly enhanced by the implied or explicit sneer with which the word is delivered by the elites and the apple-polishers who, wittingly or not, serve them.

The term "obligations" however, focuses upon the responsibilities that societies and their governments have undertaken. If you try to weasel out of your obligations to citizens, especially those who are among the less privileged members of society, it does not sound so noble or even morally acceptable as bloodlessly "reducing entitlements." Conservatives are very big on responsibilities. Let's at least make them feel uncomfortable when they try to wiggle out of them.

Responsible citizens should not hesitate to approach this subject with ferocity. "Obligations" is actually a weak term, for the obligations of which we are speaking are part of the social contract around which millions of people have built their lives. The obligations of this part of the social contract are just as essential to the welfare of citizens and to that of the nation as a whole as a quite differently treated part, national defense. It is a contract embedded in the philosophy underlying the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and our entire system of government. With increasing wealth and experience, our society has improved its ability to fulfill that contract, and its provisions have been enshrined in law. Those who strive only to enhance the power, wealth, and privilege of the most powerful, wealthy, and privileged now strive to abrogate that part of the contract which does not serve their narrowly conceived interests. They conceal their intent in the language of fiscal responsibility, blatantly ignoring or deriding even the most obvious approaches to fiscal and organizational problems. At a time when extreme inequality is undermining the entire economy, they propose to weaken the distributive ability of the programs that help counter the concentration of wealth and income. We must not be deceived or cowed. Neither can we defer to those timid, meek or lazy souls who would surrender merely to avoid social conflict or intellectual challenge. If the enemies of the social contract sufficiently control the institutions of government they can undermine that contract in a fashion that is technically legal, though not remotely moral. If we are to preserve our heritage, the promise of America, we must resist them at every turn, legislatively, legally, electorally, and rhetorically.