I’m Growing to Hate the Word “Entitlement”

I really am. And it’s not for its political usage, for once. In politics, an entitlement is so-called because it’s built into the budget, and it’s not optional to spend that money – the American people are entitled to the fruits of their laws and labors, and so it’s impossible to cut entitlement spending without a change to a formula or a law. I have no problem with that definition.

It’s with another, more colloquial usage that I have beef. You can see this usage (at my admittedly hasty count) three times in this Forbes article, once prefaced with the ominous prefix “self-”. This article, which is on the amount of time employees spend at work doing non-work related tasks, casts a sense of entitlement as a coming doom on productivity, and spins the most dire numbers in carefully constructed hypothetical situations all to the end of sending C-suite executives into a lather. The article insists that workers regularly waste up to 25% of their paid hours on personal Internetting, and also commits the sin of generalizing Millenials with a healthy dose of good-ol’-boy doom and gloom. (They’re so young and use these smartphones!)

Here’s my issue with the word “entitlement” in a nutshell: by claiming that other people have a sense of entitlement or feel entitled to certain things, you are claiming that, in reality, there is no moral need to provide those things. (Quick note: No one ever claims to personally feel entitled to things; senses of entitlement are always ascribed to others. This in itself is an astounding feat of epistemology.)

People trot out the “entitlement” argument with regard to health care, recreation time, and, in the Forbes article, something called “me-time”. The point insofar as this article is concerned, is to paint employees as Ayn Rand-style parasites, leeching off off of productive capitalists.

Wealth-worship aside, the word “entitlement” accomplishes two rhetorical moves: it denies the interlocutor’s moral/ethical claims to the object while simultaneously protecting the speaker from tu quoque arguments. Essentially, the speaker can deny a need, but make the claim that he/she can partake of the object because he/she has the money to afford it. You don’t get healthcare, you entitled employee, but I do, because I have the money to afford it.

This is a dangerous rhetorical step, though, because it explains why employees are slacking off at work. If you believe that money is a moral argument, then you are essentially saying that what you have, you deserve. Stating a position like this tends to invite re-negotiation of what you have, and people tend to set aside petty ethical concerns when negotiating with a Randian shark. That is, if you’re paying your workers $7.75 an hour and claim that at that wage you deserve 100% of their energy and focus for each hour on the clock, workers will tend to privately bargain you down. They’ll give you 20% of their energy and focus. Or, as the article suggests, 75%. This has nothing to do with personal laziness or Millenial flightiness. It’s human nature to deny others’ absolute claims on your labor.

People will tend to ask: do you, indeed, deserve all the money you have? Did you “work” to “earn” it like you claim you did, or are you selectively reinterpreting those words, too? After all, workers have needs, and they want to fill them as badly as you do. You can’t deny a need (psychological, physical, or emotional) just by casting aspersions on it through the word “entitlement”.

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2 comments

  1. You don’t get healthcare, you entitled employee, but I do, because I have the money to afford it.

    There’s a bit of wealth envy going on here which I always find odd since the super wealthy are likely to vote and donate money to politicians sympathetic to your world view.

    That aside… people who have given money to social security feel entitled to receive more than they put in even if that means future generations will never see a dime. I guess that’s cool if you’re on top of the pyramid scheme, but since I’ve donated thousands to the cause without any hope of return I don’t really feel entitled to get anything. Well, maybe a thanks.

    1. Yeah, I wasn’t really tackling the question of whether or not entitlement programs are organized sustainably, which is a serious issue. Over the course of a lifetime, “getting more than you put in” should be taken with a grain of inflationary salt, but your point is well taken.

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