The sense of entitlement

The primary focus of economic study is what you are entitled to, given what you have and what you are capable of doing with what you have. In short, economics can be called the study of entitlement, given endowment and capabilities. Of course, many economists will beg to differ, and say study of endowment and capabilities are as important (Amartya Sen and Karl Marx, two examples from different parts of the economics universe.)

The problem economics faces is that entitlement needs to be quantified to make the subject earn a (pseudo)-scientific status. Therefore, what you are entitled to is reduced to numbers or very detailed set of services. This to me pushes a lot of questions and intangibles under the carpet, as will be explicated below.

The best place to start will be the trains in India. When you reserve a ticket, all you are entitled to is your particular seat or berth on it. On a particularly crowded day, like during festivals, it is inevitable that people will crowd into the compartments reserved as well, and request or shove (depending on which part of India you come from) you for some place. Some oblige, some don’t, but always grumbling about how they have reserved this place and they are entitled to ‘better’. It is not uncommon to see people grumbling if people even stand inside a reserved compartment. Their sense of entitlement for a reservation goes beyond an assured seat to a comfortable, non-crowded, no standing people journey.

Most of the politics that happens is due this sense of entitlement that cannot be captured within economic frameworks easily. Reservation is such an issue. Those demanding reservation say they are entitled to justice for historical wrongs, whereas those opposing it speak a very ‘economics’ language of efficiency and meritocracy. It is not surprising that the debate normally goes nowhere. Reservation has economic implications, sure, but it does not stop at that. The same goes with the debate on climate change as well. Though we say big things about economics driving the world, there is little economics at the core of climate change debates, which talks about the entitlement of countries to pollute like the West did historically and continues to do.

This non-tangible part of what you think you are entitled to makes all the difference in your attitude toward other people in general. It is not uncommon to hear idiots trying to gain the upper hand in an argument by invoking their past and family and qualifications. They somehow feel that getting a Master’s or being a Manager in a company entitles them not to deal with ‘incompetents’, as they would put it. Similarly, someone dining in an expensive restaurant would be mortified if the waiter was not ultra-polite, unfolding napkins and capable of an intelligent conversation about their food and liquor range. They believe that their paying that ‘extra’ justifies having an attendant who just stops short of kissing their feet. You would give ugly stares at that neighboring table who just can’t keep their voices down, since of course you are also entitled to a certain etiquette from all the other customers in the restaurant. However, since none of this is printed on your bill, economics cannot really play any role in determining it.

The other extreme would be people who think they are entitled to very little, and take away from an economic transaction even lesser than what a traditional economic analysis or policy would put in your pocket. This is typical of how the poor are treated, which is well documented is the case of the MNREGA programme. Whatever they get is a blessing and nowhere is this better observed than in the general compartment of a train. 6 people on each seat, 6 on the luggage rack, 5 on the floor between the seats and a very large number on the aisle, it sometimes seems that the ticket they buy has no value at all. They seem to be entitled to only going from place A to B, without any consideration as to how. In fact, the more spectacular acts of kindness and generosity comes from the people in the general compartment, not those in the 2AC, which is strange since economics would say that only the rich can ‘afford’ to be generous and kind. This is simply due to the fact that each views what they are entitled to in a very different manner.

The rich get richer and poor, poorer. This is because those who have tend to overestimate what they are worth and those who don’t consistently underestimate the same. More than economics, culture and social norms play an important role in determining one’s sense of entitlement. However, one should not forget that this has important economic implications. An artist feels he is entitled to earn lakhs for a painting is indulging in the inexact science of translating those intangibles into a price, which is why there are so many poor artists for every one that makes it big. This inexact science depends on luck, where you live and who you know, none of which are economic variables.

In the long run, we are all dead. Can’t we take the opportunity to be kind and thoughtful without trying a rational analysis of our entitlements? Apparently not.

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2 thoughts on “The sense of entitlement”

  1. this neglects the historical and real technological problem of how human beings in a society relate to objects of supposed value, in a world where everything is digital and nothing exists as a designed object. this is what karl marx understood 200 years ago that youre missing in this peice, that people will slowly grow alienated from their process-orieted activities, that eventually people will own more than they should, that international bankers will compound interest until they create a debt based economy, that people will produce things they dont even know, and now, something he couldn’t have predicted, the factories themselves will become living bodies moving around from country to country, and it is us humans who have to diligently follow after them!

    the study of economics is more multidimensional than “entitlement” how do you solve the problem of how does manual labor relate to getting food? there is no objective analysis of action to entitled object, so i see no point in absrtactly raising this into a large issue

  2. Well, don’t agree that nothing exists as a designed object. Far too much is still non-digital. Even in the highly digital consumer electronics arena for example, the key differentiator (besides marketing, of course) for Apple products still remains their design for ease of use. So it was with Windows, a purely digital object. As long as people interact with objects, they need to be designed, digital or not.

    The intangibles that I’m talking about lies more in the Veblen part of economics than Marx’s. Marx was highly concerned about distribution and control of means of production, former being entitlement and latter endowment.

    For most of its history, economics has been concerned with the following question: How does one determine wages, rents and profits? The question you pose falls squarely in this category. Wages, rents and profits are at the end of the day entitlements, so I would argue that economics is dominated by the question of entitlement. Institutionalists like Galbraith recognized this preoccupation and tried to move economics to the 20th century, but the mainstream discourse is still wages, rents and profits dominated.

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