A principle that most people can respect, and are indeed brought up to believe, is that you are entitled to what you’ve earned. A few assumptions can follow from this premise. One: if you do not earn something, you may not be entitled to it. Two: if you are not entitled to something, you most definitely did not earn it. The assumption that if you are entitled to something, you must have earned it, is not logically sound, but is widely believed anyway. The degree to which any of these assumptions match reality is variable, at best.
Entitlement, for the purposes of this argument, can be seen as a finite measure of compensation. One can feel entitled to such abstract ideas as opinions or respect (or the stickier issue of rights), but for now we are primarily concerned with material entitlement. Working people are entitled to payment, copyright owners are entitled to royalties, paying customers are entitled (more or less) to goods. It is a guaranteed incentive for offering work, time or other resources, without which most of us, it is believed, would not commit to anything.
That is the insular effect derived from entitlement: the only value of effort is the reward it brings. Likewise, it can be extrapolated, the only value of a person or group is the product of their efforts, as it relates directly to the rewards you offer them. The less you can get away with rewarding them for the same amount of effort, the less their value appears to be. This value adjustment also carries over to those who demand higher compensation for the same work; they are not competitive with the ideal compensation-to-effort ratio of the payer, so they are in danger of losing all compensation. This is where resentment towards cheap labour arises.
This would be bad enough, but further problems arise when we play with the definition of “earned.” Much of the income of the wealthy is generated through “earning” interest on existing assets, through stock speculation and trading, and through high profit margins from products and services generated by wage-earners at business they own. The justification here, in keeping with the American Dream, is that they “worked hard to get where they are today,” insulating in their minds the idea that because they are now entitled to so much more than other people, they must have been exceptional individuals to have earned it. This worldview is more problematic when it is adopted by a generation born into wealth.
Recent generations of affluent youth, which have given rise to the “celebrity rich” in the public eye, have introduced interesting dynamics of both glorification and resentment. They represent perceptions of “unearned wealth,” on the one hand repugnant in comparison to the iconic hard-working citizen, and on the other hand a more purely avaricious ideal of wealth without effort. The younger generations of working-class families grow up with an awareness of these affluent youth, recognising the wealth they themselves lack, and eventually recognising the wealth that their parents have failed to earn through hard work. Many of them learn to resent the idea of hard work, and thus the principles of their parents, because the stark contrast of unearned wealth with meager earned compensation dispels the illusion of entitlement having any kind of dependency on earning it.
As a result, poor and middle-class youths alternately resent the wealthy for having more wealth, and their own families for not providing the wealthy lifestyle they see as ubiquitous. The wealthy, if they resent anyone, resent the working class for needing to be compensated as much as they already do. The working class, having ungrateful and dissatisfied offspring, employers who seem to work less for more income, and competitors driving down the value of their own work, resent everyone. All of this resentment derives from perceptions of entitlement, and how unequally it is applied in relation to earning.
In reality, entitlement is a tacit agreement between you and yourself, which is constantly at risk of being pulled out from under your feet the more you require it to be acknowledged by others. It is, however, an agreement that you are encouraged to make by everyone else, whether it’s to make you feel good about yourself, or to ingratiate themselves, or to keep you occupied with a task. It is a mental justification for marking your territory, which amounts to taking what you can get, and getting only what you can take.
Looking at it this way, what you’re entitled to is simply what you can take and defend. It is entirely dependent on how much others are willing to give you and let you keep, and not at all dependent on a concept of fairness. While this perspective may seem callous, having a value-based justification for entitlement is actually more divisive, because it creates a standard by which you judge others in comparison to yourself. This judgement provides an emotional sense of superiority and exceptionalism regardless of whether you are on the winning or losing end. If you earn more, you feel more justified because of your entitlement, and if you earn less, you see yourself as undervalued and deserving of your due. Or, perhaps more insidiously, you may be more satisfied with small gains that serve to keep you in your place rather than encourage you to seek more.
Entitlement is a boundary you set for yourself that others are more than happy to help you shrink. It limits the parameters of how you can better yourself, and it also tricks you into forgetting how much you can lose. What’s more, it limits the dialogue you can have with others about how you can earn more for what you have to offer, and it limits your collective ability to question–and, potentially, deny–the entitlement of those with the most wealth to take.