Entitlement, Responsibility, and Authority – A Thought Experiment

Entitlement, responsibility, and authority—these three facets of personal relationships must always exist in conjunction with one another. If you try to add or remove one, then you will inevitably add or remove all three. Likewise, if you try to corrupt one, you will ultimately corrupt all three. Trying to have one without the others is a recipe for human misery.

Entitlement and responsibility are inextricably linked. If you are entitled to something from someone else, then it is someone else’s responsibility to provide it to you. If they have no responsibility, then you’re not really entitled. If you’re not really entitled, then they have no real responsibility.

Responsibility and authority are also inextricably linked. In order to be responsible for anything, one must have the authority to properly carry out that responsibility. If that authority is taken away, then the responsibility cannot be properly carried out. If the responsibility is taken away, then there is no longer any reason for the authority to exist—irresponsible authority is inherently corrupted.

The interconnectedness of these three can easily be seen in the natural human lifecycle. When a child is conceived, he is immediately entitled to food, shelter, protection, and so forth from his parents. He cannot even survive without these normal and mundane provisions. The parents likewise have a responsibility to provide these things to the child. When a parent fails to provide, we rightly call him negligent. This is a simple matter of natural law—not an alien principle imposed on us by society or religion, but a moral absolute that we know by virtue of having a normal human mind. When the Apostle Paul spoke of the prospect of someone refusing to provide for his family, he called the person “worse than an unbeliever,” for even unbelievers know that parents are supposed to love and care for their children.

It is no less of a universal insight that because of this responsibility, parents also have authority over their children. The parents call the shots for their children in their household, and the children have both a moral obligation and a practical need to follow and obey. Parents cannot carry out their responsibility without this authority. They cannot keep a child safe who refuses to stop when they say stop. They cannot keep a child nourished who refuses to eat what they say to eat. No child obeys perfectly, of course, any more than any parent is perfectly responsible; but the more disobedience that exists on one side or irresponsibility that exists on the other, the more miserable the relationship will be and the more harm will come to the children whose entitlements are not fulfilled.

Nevertheless, as a child matures, he slowly loses his entitlements. As he becomes more mature and more capable, he needs to pick up his own toys, put on his own clothes, get his own snack, remember his own chores, choose his own courses, get his own job, and eventually provide his own food, shelter, and protection. As this transition occurs, parents likewise reduce their responsibility for all these little things in a controlled manner—allowing their child to suffer consequences appropriate to their success or failure in these tasks. But the consequence of this is that, though parents are to be honored by their children throughout their lives, their authority wanes along with those responsibilities, and the grown child gains authority over his own life. Nothing good comes of corrupting this transition. A child who never loses entitlements becomes a spoiled brat. A parent who never allows his child to suffer consequences is the one who spoils him. And a parent who never eases his authority will foster either rebellion or ineptitude in his child, depending on whether the child continues to submit to that abused authority.

But whether in the human lifecycle or anywhere else, entitlement, responsibility and authority remain intertwined. Decoupling any of these three from the others ultimately results in nothing but misery and relational dysfunction.

Entitlement without a corresponding responsibility produces nothing but resentment and disappointment. Loss, though often tragic, simply happens. But failure to fulfill a perceived entitlement is necessarily seen as an injustice; it demands blame and breeds resentment. And indeed, take look at any of the many people around us who demand more and more absurd entitlements—whether from society or from individuals—you will never find an unhappier group of people.

At the same time, responsibility without a corresponding authority produces nothing but frustration and slavery. Anyone who has had a micromanaging boss understands the frustration angle. Demands for results without empowering the employee to actually achieve those results imposes a Sisyphean burden. But at its worst, taking away authority from the responsible enslaves them to the entitled—for there is no true participation in the product of one’s labors or investment in their achievement, only inviolable and insatiable demands for more without any regard for the cost. The worker is reduced to a consumable resource.

Finally, authority without entitlement and responsibility is without purpose and either disappears or devolves into abuse. If an authority is irresponsible—that is, he does not wield his position according to its intended purpose—then people cease to treat it as an authority. If he does nothing about this disrespect then he becomes a mere figurehead with no real authority at all. On the other hand, if he uses his power to enforce respect regardless of irresponsibility, then he becomes a tyrant tyrant whose power over others serves nothing but his own pleasure and ambition.

And with this, the circle of misery is complete. Entitlement, responsibility and authority are a package deal. We carve them up only at our own peril. But how do these observations help us? What wisdom is offered by recognizing and understanding this relational trinity?

Perhaps their most immediately obvious applicability is in the realm of government, in which it can inform us of the price of entitlements. Every entitlement we demand from government necessarily increases government’s authority over us. If we claim entitlement, then they have responsibility and therefore claim authority to carry it out. For some things, this is a worthwhile trade. For example, we claim entitlement to a fair trial, which means that the government is responsible for conducting fair trials and therefore that government has the authority to maintain courts, pass sentences, and enforce law. We make this deal because the alternative is vigilantism—in which we are each responsible for carrying out justice on our own—and all the chaos that goes along with that. We make the same trade when it comes to national defense. We want entitlement to protection against invasion, therefore the government has the responsibility and authority to maintain a functional army. These are relatively sensible trade-offs.

But the fact that a trade-off must happen is constant no matter what the entitlement is, and some trades are quite destructive. Take, for example, the recent claim of an entitlement to healthcare. If Americans are entitled to their healthcare, then government must be responsible for it, and so government must have authority over healthcare decisions. Even putting the best construction on that authority—that they need the ability to efficiently and effectively administrate healthcare for the nation under the guidance of medical and scientific experts—it still has the horrifying implication of giving government bureaucrats the authority to decide who lives and who dies or who is worthy of treatment and who is not. It is not as though we need to speculate about how government has used that authority. As the father of a child with an expensive disability, I know quite well what government “efficiency” would mean for him, just as I know how scientific experts like Nobel prize winner James D. Watson (discoverer of DNA) would have had my son euthanized at birth because his APGAR score was too low to be worthy of care.

That is what government-run healthcare looks like in practice—and it has to. Human life is priceless, but government healthcare must put a price on it regardless, for its resources are vast, but limited. Whether rich or poor, a private individual can treat life as priceless because they do everything they can to save their family (whether or not everything is enough.) Government cannot do the same. They could pour trillions of dollars into saving one life—provided they abandon all the other lives in their care. To do everything for one means to do nothing for another, and so, unlike an individual, the government has no choice but to choose who lives and who dies. And if they are to do so with any kind of deliberation, then they must create policies that make some lives more worthy of care than others. The only way to avoid this horrific mindset and the atrocities that have always accompanied it is to refrain from authorizing government to entitle us to healthcare in the first place.

The entitlement-responsibility-authority dynamic can also help explain the cause of so many of our current social issues—for example, why feminism is a peerless engine of human misery. Like all the bastard offspring of critical theory, feminism is, at its core, an attack on authority. In the words of feminist icon Gloria Steinem, “Feminism starts out being very simple. It starts out being the instinct of a little child who says it’s not fair and you are not the boss of me…and it ends up being a worldview that questions hierarchy altogether.” Most specifically, feminists target the authority that husbands and fathers have over their wives and daughters—whether directly, or by means of the social standards such men have woven into the civilization they built.

The traditional arrangement between men and women is one that is in harmony with the dynamic. Women have long been the beneficiaries of various kinds of special entitlements from men. This includes things like special protection (e.g. “women and children first”, “never hit a woman,” “exempt women from the draft”), special provision (e.g. bread winning), special courtesy (e.g. chivalry and propriety), and the like. The natural consequence of this is that men took responsibility for these things and held authority over women for the sake of carrying them out. And the arrangement worked relatively well—not that there weren’t abuses of authority against women, but rather that it was consistent enough with both male nature and female nature that it allowed for happy & successful families and therefore civilization.

But while feminism explicitly rejects these traditional forms of authority (which is damaging in its own right), it simultaneously insists that women’s entitlements increase rather than decrease. While Feminists openly disdain things like chivalry per se, they increasingly depend on the same kind of special entitlements that it provided. In terms of special provision from men, feminists now demand free childcare, free contraception, paid maternity leave, alimony, child support, a no-questions-asked raise to close the supposed wage gap, and the like. Feminist demands for special courtesy are likewise growing even more egregious. For example, men are supposed to pretend that a woman’s sexual history doesn’t matter (regardless of how much virginity reduces the risk of divorce) and women are to be uncritically believed whenever they accuse a man of sexual misconduct—due process be damned. Feminists are even demanding a “only an enthusiastic yes means yes” standard for sexual assault, effectively making failure to romantically or sexually satisfy a woman a heinous crime. Entitlements this massive cannot be supported without an equally powerful authority to match—and they won’t be. The only thing they do is promote resentment, both among the women whose now massive appetites cannot be sated and among the men who have actually tried to exhaust themselves providing for them only to be rewarded with nothing more than women’s resentment.

Now, if feminists were swayed by wisdom, they wouldn’t be feminists in the first place. However, the problem is not simply on the feminist end of the issue, but on the social conservative end as well. Conservatives miss chivalry—and understandably so. But as a rule, conservatives are terrified of being labeled misogynists and so they are unwilling to address the feminist rejection of male authority that eroded chivalry in the first place. And while they may hem and haw a bit at the latest novel entitlement, they nevertheless devote the bulk of their energies to impressing responsibility on men. Doing so serves only to increase the crushing burdens that feminism already imposes—simply reiterating responsibility does not create the authority necessary to carry out those responsibilities. They insist that, for the sake of family, men “man up” and marry unchaste women. But at the same time, they consistently look the other way when those women go on to unilaterally divorce those same men and take their children, homes, and future income with them on the way out the door. Conservatives set men up to fail while simultaneously making an extra effort to shame them for failure.

Furthermore, what happens on large social scales is reflected in smaller scales as well. Even small acts of special courtesy such as the man always taking the side closest to the road when going for a walk with a woman are difficult when the woman refuses to follow his lead. (As soon as they get to an intersection there’s a fight about who stepped in front of whom or who ran whom off the sidewalk or onto the curb.) Small gestures like these often fail to be positive experiences because, like romance, they hinge on the submission of the recipient of chivalry. While this may not hold true for older couples whose habits were shaped by a culture that still knew better, among younger men, those who try the hardest to be chivalrous are also among the most miserable. Social conservatives who shame men for failing to be chivalrous in the current social context heap misery on top of misery.

But let’s not end on such a negative note, because this dynamic has positive implications as well—particularly when it comes to Christianity. This past Sunday, our epistle reading was Philippians 2:5-1:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Even here, you may notice some elements of the entitlement-responsibility-authority dynamic at work. Jesus Christ, though himself God, emptied himself of all entitlement, and so there are none who take responsibility for him or hold authority over him. But instead, by submitting himself to death, he took responsibility for the sins of the whole world, and so he possesses absolute authority to match. But that authority is not without purpose, for it entitles every last human being to the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. We receive that entitlement through faith in him—that is to say, by trusting that Christ has taken responsibility for us and recognizing the authority by which he has done so. From end to end, the dynamic is kept intact, and by the grace of God it results in eternal life to all who believe.

So just as attempts to sever entitlement, responsibility and from one another result in misery, embracing the dynamic produces joy. Whether it is the citizen recognizing that recklessly claiming entitlement will result in tyranny or the Christian knowing the blessing that comes with the call to empty ourselves in imitation of Christ (that whoever would be great among you must be your servant), knowing the relationship between these three provides us with a helpful lens through which to view the world around us.

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4 Responses to Entitlement, Responsibility, and Authority – A Thought Experiment

  1. Paul says:

    Well written!

  2. Bob says:

    Back during the 70’s I was in boot camp and the drill instructor talked about this relationship explaining that the general gets relived of duty whenever anything happens on a base because he has authority of the whole base and so is responsible for everything that happens on it. But you are not held responsible for what you don’t have authority over.

  3. Pingback: The Importance of Properly Characterizing Abuse | The 96th Thesis

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