The stink of entitlement

There is a stink that permeates our political discourse these days. It is the stink of entitlement.

From rioting in Athens and ballooning budget deficits in the US over welfare benefits, to the ingrained institution of positive racial discrimination policies in countries like Malaysia and South Africa, there is an increasingly blurred distinction between the ideals of privilege and entitlement.

What is the key distinction? The privileged owes a debt of gratitude to a benefactor. The entitled is owed a debt. The fundamental positions of the two result in very different responses. The privileged has responsibilities to fulfill. The entitled is free to live off his debtors.

Christians ought to understand this principle more than anyone else. Luke 12:48 states that “everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” The gospel that gives us all that we need for life and much more demands that we give to others in accordance with the measure of grace that has been given to us.

We should never confuse this with a gospel of works. The latter does not earn the former. The former is freely and graciously given to us through Jesus Christ. The latter is the only plausible response to the overwhelming gift of grace. When we forget the order of things, privilege sours into entitlement. We think that we deserve the gifts of God because of the things we have done for him. That will never ever be true. God is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:25)

Now the problem is that the sinfulness of our hearts makes it extremely difficult to understand the idea of privilege. The self-centeredness of a heart enslaved by sin sours every privilege into entitlement. We experience this in our relationships, where we can feel that we are entitled to the friendship of others because of the service we have rendered to them. Yet this sense of entitlement ruins the very nature of friendship. True friendship is held together by the bonds of privilege, where we count it all joy to be able to count others as our friends.

The problems we see on the level of the individual is magnified in our societies. What happens in a democracy when everyone considers themselves as the entitled? First, it means you have to create a class of debtors. Second, the debtors will want to migrate to the camp of the entitled. No one is foolish enough to work hard that others may enjoy the fruit of his labour. This leaves us with a glaring problem. The entitled need sufficient debtors to fund a certain lifestyle, so what happens when there are insufficient debtors?

There are two ways to go about this. One, you stop people from migrating between the camps. We see this in positive racial discrimination policies. Two, you select debtors who are unable to migrate between the camps. We see this when governments borrow excessively with the expectation that the next generation will pay off the debts of this generation. Since the unborn have no voice, the problem is put off for yet another generation.

Social harmony cannot exist when society is divided along lines of entitlement. A social contract in which one party does all the work and the other enjoys the rewards is economically and socially unsustainable. With a degree of foresight, most societies will choose option number two, since the unborn cannot protest. Yet this does not resolve problems of economic unsustainability. It only serves to highlight the extent of our selfishness, that we are willing to sacrifice our children and the children of others on the altar of material gain.

What can we do to stop the inevitable slide of a social contract built on entitlement? We need to recover the idea of privilege. Take for example the Bumi policies in Malaysia. I don’t really have a problem with the government trying to help the Bumis to move up the economic ladder. My worry is that the privileges they have been given has soured into entitlements. As such, there is no incentive on their part to fulfill their responsibilities to society, since in their eyes, such responsibilities do not exist. There is a need to recover the biblical principle that to him who has been given much, much is required.

Nevertheless, the problem remains that the sinful heart will find it indubitably difficult to live by that principle.

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