Essay: The Age of Entitlement and Our Just Desserts

There is a scene in Hamlet when the prince tells Polonius (the Joe Biden of medieval Denmark) to look after the newly arrived theater troop, making sure they are "well used."

Polonius sniffs, "My lord, I will use them according to their desert."

"God's bodykins, man," snaps Hamlet, "much better: use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Obviously, Polonius and Hamlet weren't talking about the players' arid, sandy region. "Deserts," despite the old-style spelling meant their "just desserts" or what they were due. Old Polonius, a palace insider, was just reflecting polite society's disdain for actors during Shakespeare's time, telling Hamlet he'd put them up in a style befitting lowly itinerant entertainers. But Hamlet understood that, given the fallen nature of humanity, we need to treat everyone better than they deserve.

Every member of Shakespeare's audience, from a laborer to the queen herself, might have nodded in understanding at that line, accustomed as they were to the concept of original sin.

Not so today. We've come a long way baby, and have stood the Bard on his ear: "Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape subsidy?"

Everywhere we turn, we're told that we deserve something - and, oddly, its not whipping. Radio ads tell us if we just go a free real estate seminar or switch mutual fund managers we can work from home and coast to the comfortable retirement we deserve. On ebay, you can buy a $549,000 home in Wisconsin that promises you the "Luxury You Deserve."

McDonalds ads used to assert that that "You deserve a break today." That at least implied that you had earned a break by doing something - maybe even working. On the other hand, Cosmetic company L'Oreal's famous slogan is, "Because I'm worth it." Just ... because.

Welcome to the self-esteem culture. We all deserve whatever it is we want because we're all just, well, super.

Most irksome have been the ads the federal government is using to persuade Americans to return their 2010 census forms. To paraphrase: "If we don't know how many people live in our town, how can we get our fair share of funding?" If we don't fill out the census, we might lose our place at the federal trough.

Now, that makes sense. (Although, weren't congressmen and senators supposed to bring home the bacon, regardless of population? Isn't that why there's a Murtha Airport in rural Pennsylvania, and a Harry Byrd Municipal Bocce Court in every West Virginia berg?) In fact, the part of the Constitution that enumerates the census reads:

Representatives and direct Taxes and school laptops and solar panel installation resources and tree frog husbandry research grants and bike path construction funding shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers ...

This is the temper of our times. The cosmetics makers and mortgage brokers know what they're about, they know what we'll respond to. As do President Obama and the Democrats. Remember the woman named Peggy Joseph who, when Obama was elected, rhapsodized, "I won't have to work out how to put gas in my car, I won't have work out how to pay my mortgage"?

Certainly, their market research failed them when they ran into opposition to their health care grab 'n' giveaway scheme. Weren't we all supposed to feel we deserve universal medical coverage? How could we not want what the government is offering?

But they kept pushing, betting that, once the government had given us the health care we deserved, we'd be loath to give it up. And it's a safe bet. It must have been heartening for Obama and Reid and Pelosi to learn that, in the week following passage of Obama Care, insurance companies were flooded with calls from people wondering where to sign up for their free health care.

Their understanding of the self-esteem culture is why the Democrats and their media allies love to trot out human interest anecdotes when shilling for ever expanding entitlements. We Americans usually sympathize with the hard luck story, not just because we are fundamentally decent (and we are), because we also see ourselves in the carefully crafted portrait of the victim. Here is someone as blameless, as deserving, as we are, and they are suffering. That could be us! By all means, then, pass a law, create an entitlement.

This is the Age of Entitlement. That's why the widespread opposition to Obama's agenda is so startling and (to liberals) bewildering. It would be easy to be lulled into accepting another entitlement, to nod when Obama tells us it won't really cost us anything, to acquiesce when Polonius determines our "desert." We're getting something out of it.

Just over a year ago, CNN reporter Susan Roesgen showed that the establishment media thinks this is how we should react to Obama's program. Confronting a 2009 Tax Day tea partier in Chicago, she grew impatient with his disquisition on Lincoln and liberty, demanding "What does this have to do with taxes?" Then Roesgen told the man he was "eligible for a $400 credit." When he wouldn't be mollified by that cookie, she triumphantly dropped the bomb: Sir you know that the state of Lincoln gets $50 billion out of the stimulus -- that's $50 billion for the state, sir." Illinois -- and even this ignorant malcontent -- is getting the largess it deserves!

That's certainly the president's view. In Miami he told a crowd at a Democratic fundraiser he was "amused" by the tea party rallies. They should, he asserted, "be saying thank you."

 But, God's bodykins, Mr. President, why should we thank you for giving us our deserts?

Matthew Philbin
Matthew Philbin
Matt Philbin is Managing Editor of MRC Culture