In an ideal polity, Rep. Ryan would not have to wait until he was nominated for Vice-President to convene an "adult conversation" about "entitlement." Whether one can happen now is still open to question. Geoff Nunberg of National Public Radio has tried to kickstart the conversation by discussing the multiple meanings, political and pejorative, of the E-word. In short, the problem with entitlement seems to be that it wills ends without willing means. An entitlement claim asserts something as a person's due by virtue of some kind of group membership -- it's your right as an American, or as a human being. It's a value judgment rather than a philosophical assertion, a declaration that certain conditions should exist rather than a proof that they must. It's bad enough from the perspective of a penny-pincher when people claim entitlement to things that neither the individual or collective can afford, but it grows worse for those of a certain moralistic bent when people claim an entitlement to things that have not been earned, according to the moralist's standards, and can only be earned. Someone who claims entitlement is willing the end but not the means if he demands something as his right without really caring where the thing comes from, whether it's acquired by borrowing or by taking from someone else's earnings. For the conservative moralist, a "civilized" way of life can never be claimed as an entitlement; to do the latter is, from this perspective, no more than an entitlement to steal.
While I have often asserted that civilization itself is an entitlement claim, the conservative moralist might answer that civilization itself can only ever be earned. That's where we end up when we restrict the discussion of entitlement to the assertion of entitlement to things -- to the right to have things, or to have them given to you. But entitlement doesn't end there, and if we expand the scope of the discussion we begin to put the conservative moralist on the spot. If he denies that civilization is an entitlement claim he may concede that politics is one. Through history, politics has been grounded in a different kind of entitlement claim from the one associated with welfare-state liberalism. Politics to a large extent has been founded on an entitlement to keep what one has rather than an entitlement to have. Those who have are presumed entitled to initiate politics and create governments in order to protect what they have from those who have less or none. Classical politics assumed a pre-existing state of inequality and erected safeguards against "leveling" to perpetuate it. By what right did the haves of history create this mechanism for their protection and the restraint of the rest? The reasons had something to do with presumptions of "right" ways and "wrong" ways to acquire things, and with presumptions that the haves are entitled to recruit police forces and armies to protect what they have because they got theirs the right way, while simply taking theirs from them by force is wrong. The further back we go in history, the less persuasive such distinctions may seem, depending on whether you believe primitive property was based on honest effort or primitive force. In any event, the claim on resources beyond your own for the protection of what you have is no less an entitlement claim than the claim on resources you didn't earn specifically or individually for your own survival. The fact that the haves of history have been more able to will the means as well as the end than the have-nots doesn't really change the nature of the claim. Anything other than a raw trial of strength is an entitlement claim, and the absolute absence of entitlement in a society might best be described as anarchy.
All this may only prove that anyone can come up with an entitlement claim and stick to it even when it has no chance of becoming a reality. Whether there's a consistent basis for rejecting certain entitlement claims and accepting others is another question. It may be easier to frame the present debate in different terms, since what really seems at issue is whether some people deserve to suffer for not being competitive enough in the modern economy, or need to suffer as an incentive to become more competitive or productive. Debating on a relatively abstract plane about entitlements spares some people the necessity to argue for suffering as some other people's just desserts, though you will find plenty of people eager to make that argument online. But if we need to have an adult conversation about entitlement, we should also have one about how much misery a civilized society should be able or willing to endure. We probably can't have one without the other.