Why can’t you tell me why you feel entitled to take someone else’s money, their property, their accumulated assets?1 Why does another working American taxpayer have to pay for your existence?
► meme in The Federalist Papers
As a concept, entitlements cut in two directions, one of them much less acknowledged than the other in recent American politics; and those sit on top of other definitions as well.
In the process, the word has spread and mutated beyond all earlier recognition.
In psychology, “Entitlement is an enduring personality trait, characterized by the belief that one deserves preferences and resources that others do not. … When people feel entitled, they want to be different from others. But just as frequently they come across as indifferent to others.”
Entitlement used in a different way, however, is a thing conferred, whether asked for or not: “the right to a particular privilege or benefit, granted by law or custom. You have a legal entitlement to speak to a lawyer if you’re ever arrested …”
So the question becomes, under what conditions should we be entitled to something – such as a benefit? And when does “entitlement” become something that people simply come to expect of others, whether or not there’s any merit to the case?
That’s a demarcation line in American politics.
“Entitlement” as a reference to a government benefit goes back to the GI Bill in the 40s, and was used in a strict sense: If you were served in the military, you were entitled to receive this benefit. Entitlements carry the element of restrictions (you have to qualify) and open-endedness (if you do qualify, we won’t deny it).
That makes it fundamentally different from a charity, which is a purely discretionary gift: It can be dispensed or not, under any – and possibly changing or arbitrary – conditions. You might have to beg for charity; in the case of an entitlement, you either qualify or you don’t.
Language writer Merrill Perlman argued the word has “been weaponized by partisan politics, of the legislative and identity kind. Government offers all sorts of ‘entitlements,’ like Social Security, unemployment compensation, supplementary food purchase programs, etc. … But now, people opposing ‘entitlements’ often equate them with government giveaways to freeloaders or undeserving people. In racial politics, too, ‘entitlement’ has taken on a negative cast. In 2013, Justice Antonin Scalia called the extension of parts of the Voting Rights Act ‘perpetuation of racial entitlement.’”
As a writer in The New Yorker said at the time, “Scalia is saying, in effect, that the Voting Rights Act gave a gift – a ‘racial entitlement’ – to black people, and the result has been that ‘the normal political processes’ don’t work. More often, it is white people who are said to have the ‘entitlement’ if they act in ways seen as oppressing people of color.”
Entitlement is odd usage in this context, though, since fair voting is something that nearly all citizens – not just a narrowly-defined category – are supposed to be able to rely on.