Magazine | May 16, 2011, Issue

Entitlement Sense

I like to think that upon arrival in this great republic I assimilated pretty quickly. Within four or five months, I was saying “zee” and driving on the right more often than not. But it took me longer to get the hang of the word “entitlement.” You don’t hear it in political discussions in most of the rest of the West, even in Canada. There’s talk of “social programs” and “benefits” and “welfare,” but not of “entitlements.” I knew the term only in its psychological use — “sense of entitlement” — in discussions of narcissistic personality disorder and whatnot.

Once I’d been apprised of its political definition, I liked it even less. “Entitlements” are unrepublican: They are contemptuous of the most basic principle of responsible government — that a parliament cannot bind its successor. Which is what entitlements do, to catastrophic effect. Recently, in the London Telegraph, Liam Halligan bemoaned the way commentators focus on America’s $14 trillion of debt — i.e., the “debt ceiling” debt — without factoring in the entitlement liabilities of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. That makes America’s real debt some $75 trillion, or five times GDP. Our own Kevin D. Williamson puts the FDR/LBJ entitlement liabilities a little north of $100 trillion. Once you add in state and municipal debt, you need to add a zero to that reassuringly familiar $14 trillion hole. The real hole goes ten times deeper: $140 trillion — or about twice as much as America’s total “worth.”

Million, billion, trillion . . . and now we’re going to need a word for the unit that comes after “trillion”? Oh, wait, how about “abyss”? I was struck by reader Dolores Proctor’s observation that, until spendaholic government showed up, 140,000,000,000,000 was the kind of number one would find only in a book about astronomy, and even then it would be pretty cosmic. In other words, our spending has literally burst the bounds of the planet. Ms. Proctor says that if you take $140 trillion and spend a thousand bucks every second from right now going backwards through time, you’ll run out of money in 2400 b.c., just in time for the invention of the abacus, which as a bankrupt time-traveler you happily won’t require. In other other words, we have outspent human history.

It’s certainly true that, if a company were to attempt to keep the bulk of its liabilities off the books the way the United States government does, some showboating jackass prosecutor would have its key execs behind bars in nothing flat, and they’d be legislating another round of Sarbanes-Oxley in Washington. Against that argument is the reassurance that that $75–100 trillion isn’t a “liability” in the sense that your car lease or mortgage is. “Entitlement commitments are not debts,” wrote John Hinderaker of the blog Powerline. “Congress can wipe them out simply by repealing Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.”

#page#That’s technically true in the same sense that it’s technically true Congress can wipe out a lot of our debts — or at any rate our debtors — by nuking Beijing. But is either likely to happen under any scenario this side of total societal meltdown? Indeed, I find it easier to imagine economic collapse, secession, civil war, Mad Max on I-95, cannibal gangs of the undocumented preying on gated communities of upscale gays, etc., than any combination of House, Senate, and president “repealing Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.”

Which is where we came in. Whether or not government “entitlements” are debts, they very quickly become a psychological disorder — and a “sense of entitlement” is harder to dislodge than almost anything else. Government entitlement breeds psychological entitlement breeds a utopia of myopia. I don’t mean merely in the sense that polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans still feel entitled to their entitlements, but in a more profound way. I was interested to discover recently that Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky has conducted a survey of “linguistic markers of psychological traits and emotions” in popular music from 1980 to 2007, and concluded that we are in (to use the book title of two of his co-authors) a narcissism epidemic. Once upon a time, love songs were about other people: “Me, Myself, and I (Are All in Love with You)” — Billie Holiday, 1937. Seventy-odd years later, Fergie sings in unconscious echo that she needs more time to be with herself; Beyonce sings about how hot she looks when she’s dancing; and, on the increasingly rare occasions when a vocalist directs her attention to an object of her affection other than herself, it sounds more like self-esteem boosterism than a love ballad. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Pink’s current blockbuster hit, “F**kin’ Perfect”:

Pretty, pretty please Don’t you ever, ever feel Like you’re less than F**kin’ Perfect.

Is that really a big problem? Au contraire, large numbers of utter mediocrities seem to regard themselves as f**kin’ perfect — or, at any rate, f**kin’ entitled. Other scolds will deplore the profanity and cheerless hypersexualization of today’s pop ditties, but for me what alarms is the palpable complacency — the indestructible assumption from Pink, Kesha, et al. that, simply by virtue of being born in America, this is how life is, and always will be. “Entitlement” is an ingenious word, a brilliant coinage for both a pampering state’s generosity and the debilitating consequences thereof. The president, a man of whom it can be confidently said that he’s never never felt like he’s less than f**kin’ perfect, and whose response to record-busting debt levels is to assure high-rolling donors never to forget the thrill of electing “a guy named Barack Hussein Obama,” is the ideal sovereign for a State of Entitlement.

John Hinderaker is right. We can, in theory, repeal the entitlements. Repealing the sense of entitlement is the tricky part.

– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline. (

Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

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