The Limits of Entitlement

Posted: August 11, 2011 in aging, Money

Nearly every British blogger I follow has had some experience with the riots that began in London’s East End with a dispute over a police action and that have now spread to several major cities in the UK: smashing storefronts on the high streets, brazenly looting (one account described looters exiting a Debenhams carrying their merchandise in the distinctive Debenham shopping bags), burning cars and buildings, and targeting specific racial groups and their businesses.  The stylish British Teddy Boy hooligans of the 20th century seem to have been replaced by a new, more menacing hoodlum, one with too little money, too much time on his hands, and a poisoned sense of entitlement.

I’ve long been a fan of Theodore Dalrymple, a British physician and writer who has been one of the sharpest and most eloquent critics of the British dole, and his spot-on description of the roots of the current rebellion make me wonder about our public programs. The question, he says, isn’t why is this happening in Britain, but why it hasn’t happened sooner:

The riots are the apotheosis of the welfare state and popular culture in their British form. A population thinks (because it has often been told so by intellectuals and the political class) that it is entitled to a high standard of consumption, irrespective of its personal efforts; and therefore it regards the fact that it does not receive that high standard, by comparison with the rest of society, as a sign of injustice. It believes itself deprived, even though each member of it has received an education costing $80,000, toward which neither he nor—quite likely—any member of his family has made much of a contribution; indeed, he may well have lived his entire life at others’ expense, such that every mouthful of food he has ever eaten, every shirt he has ever worn, every television he has ever watched, has been provided by others.

And don’t expect someone to be grateful for such largesse, since “dependency does not provoke gratitude.” (My experience exactly. With some people, no good deed goes unpunished.)

At the same time, his expensive education will have equipped him for nothing. His labor, even supposing that he were inclined to work, would not be worth its cost to any employer—partly because of the social charges necessary to keep others such as he in a state of permanent idleness, and partly because of his own characteristics. And so unskilled labor is performed in England by foreigners, while an indigenous class of permanently unemployed is subsidized.

One of our family secrets when I was younger was my mother’s cousin Amelia, who lived in a big, gloomy old house with her daughter and who was semi-permanently on welfare. Amelia wasn’t ill or disabled. She was just, well, incapable, someone who today would be called a displaced homemaker. It was clearly a shameful thing for Mother, and I was told not to mention it to anyone. During one of our visits, the daughter showed me her new glasses, which had been purchased by one of the welfare agencies.

“I’m going to get prescription sunglasses, too,” she said, gazing at herself in the mirror admiringly. “I mean, my friends all have prescription sunglasses. Why shouldn’t I?”

I may have been 12 years old, but I knew even then that there was a difference between glasses and sunglasses. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask for prescription sunglasses, and we paid cash for everything in those days. But she and her mother seemed to think that they somehow deserved those extras, even though neither of them did anything much to support themselves. Amelia and her daughter told themselves—or perhaps were told by others—that they were entitled to what they wanted but hadn’t earned.

Dalrymple believes the British anger and unrest is due to the gap between what the British underclass has been taught that it should have (whether it has earned it or not) and what it actually experiences. It is a cautionary tale for any society with a welfare class and high unemployment, and it could happen here.

According to several sources, including ABC News, youth gangs are already causing havoc in some major American cities, with at least one reported death at the hands of a young mob.

“The age range is interesting—of most of these riots, it tends to be in the teenage to early 20s by in large,” Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University, told ABC News. “That’s a big age for thrill seeking and risk-taking.”

Adding to the contagion for the young people participating in such wanton destruction are the bleak economic outlook, seemingly unending high unemployment and a deep distrust of government.

We live, it is increasingly clear, in interesting times.

ABC News consultant Brad Garret, who was an FBI agent in Washington, D.C. for 30 years, says that he’s not sure if he’s seen a combination of conditions like today’s facing the youth of America.

“When you get people on the edge anyway, and you pull one brick out of their wall, it can collapse,” he said.

There are signs of hope for the U.S. though. The chaos seen in Britain is less likely to occur here, because American cities are generally less segregated than Britain’s. In addition, police forces in America have gotten much better at fighting and preventing crime and anti-social behavior.

In any case, rioting continues on both sides of the pond. Stay tuned.

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