On the Age of Entitlement

‘The Age of Entitlement is over.’ The words were Joe Hockey’s, delivered to an audience of ‘friends’ at the Institute of Economic Affairs London on 17 April 2012. Twenty-two months later, the new Treasurer explained that not only was the age of entitlement ‘over’ but ‘the age of personal responsibility’ had now ‘begun’.

The language was strong, more historical prophecy than politician’s soundbite. The claim has since been ardently endorsed. Australia’s major political commentators reviewed the London address as ‘refreshing’ (Tim Colebatch), ‘inspiring ‘(Laurie Oakes), a ‘political masterstroke’ (Peter van Onselen) and a ‘rare light’ in a ‘fog of inaction’ (Ross Fitzgerald). Influential newspapers have since backed the central thrust of the Treasurer’s intervention: the Australian celebrated Hockey’s ‘war on entitlements’ as ‘good for Australia’, the Canberra Times declared his warnings ‘persuasive’, and the Sydney Morning Herald apparently ‘supports’ the Treasurer’s ‘exhortation’, too. The chair of the Australian Council of Social Service, for his part, discerned ‘much truth’ in Hockey’s comments, while the loudest of the tabloid pundits have returned often to the concept over recent months. Mining billionaire Gina Rinehart also invoked the idea in a widely reported address in March 2014.

But what did Hockey signify by an ‘age of entitlement’? On what assumptions does the concept rest? And why might his central message have been so widely acclaimed?

The noun ‘entitlement’ draws its meaning from the verb ‘entitle’, and specifically (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) to its association with the granting of a ‘rightful claim’ to a ‘possession’, ‘privilege’, ‘designation’ or ‘mode of treatment’. The word has been used in this fashion for several centuries. Thought of in this way, an ‘entitlement’ is a synonym for ‘right’. Hockey’s London speech implicitly supports this view. Although he did not explicitly define the term ‘entitlement’ (and ducked the question in a later interview), Hockey did nonetheless deploy the synonym of ‘basic rights’ in his address; he even went on to invoke the American Declaration of Independence as one notable attempt to define ‘basic community entitlements’.

But the preference for the language of ‘entitlements’ rather than ‘rights’ gives pause. The notion of ‘rights’ implies equality and incontestability (‘we hold these truths to be self-evident’). To speak of ‘entitlement’, by contrast, is to suggest a more fragile or contingent status. Entitlements can be traded away: this has been the experience in Australian workplaces since the ascendancy of business in the 1980s, first in ‘award restructuring’, later in collective bargains struck when unions were weak.

While human rights have been proclaimed as ‘universal’, the notion of ‘entitlement’, by contrast, can sometimes connote special privilege. One alternative meaning of the verb ‘entitle’ is to ‘bestow’ a ‘rank’ or ‘office’, or else to speak of a person ‘by a certain title’. The lords of modern democracy are among the most conspicuous beneficiaries of ‘entitlements’, of course (the travel entitlements of our parliamentary representatives often incite scandal), and the term therefore suggests something of the politician’s exploitation of public monies for private gain. There is also a whiff of elitism: those who enjoy entitlements might think themselves better than the rest of us.

But while the politician’s travel perks are often cited as exemplifying an attitude of ‘entitlement’, it is perhaps another group most frequently considered to represent this state: the children of the affluent age. The term is often deployed in excoriations of youthful privilege: US lawyer Meghan Cosgrove used it to refer to spoilt brats and their excessive birthday celebrations; Philip Johnston in the Daily Telegraph, for the ill-behaved child in Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap; Rex Jory in Adelaide’s the Advertiser, for teenagers refusing to relinquish their seats to the elderly; Jean M Twenge and W Keith Campbell (in their book The Narcissism Epidemic), for the narcissistic tweens of the late 2000s and the many children wrongly encouraged to believe that they are special by the self-indulgent parents of the middle class.

Hockey’s London speech clearly played on the theme. He admitted to listeners that ‘as a parent I want to give my children everything they wish for’, only to remind those assembled that governments, like the good, strict parent, must sometimes say ‘no!’ to those under their care.

To describe a ‘right’ as an entitlement is therefore to diminish its invulnerability, to connect it with privilege, and to infantilise its beneficiaries. But what of the ‘age of entitlement’ itself: how might this epoch be bounded and defined? And why might Hockey have chosen this term?

As with the simpler noun, Hockey has failed to specify the broader concept. In speaking of an ‘age’ of entitlement he has in fact invoked both a long and a short time span. His London speech referenced ‘successive governments’, describing a process by which socialist governments ‘created’ entitlements and conservative governments failed to eliminate them. In a subsequent Lateline interview, he spoke of an ‘extraordinary largesse’ built up ‘over the last fifty years’ in ‘Western societies’, suggesting, vaguely, an association between the age of entitlement and the establishment of the modern welfare state. On other occasions, however, he has seemed to single out the Labor government’s apparent support for middle-class welfare as a particular expression of the ‘age’.

Consulting other exponents of the term apparently provides no further illumination. American journalist Robert J Samuelson identified an ‘age of entitlement’ with the good times of post-war prosperity in his popular history The Good Life and Its Discontents (the subtitle was The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement 1945–1995). Likewise, Johnston (again in London’s Daily Telegraph)has also associated the ‘age of entitlement’ with the establishment of the welfare state. The Australian’s Paul Kelly, by contrast, has worked in a narrower span: Kelly identified an ‘age’ of entitlement with the rising of Australian wealth in the middle 1990s. Its apparent apogee was Labor’s election in 2007, a time, he argues, when Australia was ‘fat, happy, and entitled’.

The temporal boundaries of this epoch are undermined by its geographical narrowness, in any case. It is ‘western democracies’ alone that suffer from the problem of an ‘entitlement system’, Hockey argues; only the ‘western world’ has enjoyed an ‘excessive lifestyle’ that cannot endure. Hockey’s London speech in fact praised the social organisation of Hong Kong as a counterpoint to western excess: operating without a ‘social safety net’; low taxing; dedicated, apparently, to ‘making sure people can look after themselves’. While this is a system that may seem ‘brutal’ by ‘western standards’, Hockey admits, it is one that is nonetheless effective: ‘It works and it is financially sustainable.’ The concept of an ‘age of entitlement’ in the West is therefore part of an argument that Australians should resemble their ‘Asian neighbours’ more than traditional comparators. ‘We can no longer compare ourselves with Europe and the United States,’ he explicitly declaimed in his Lateline interview.

The Treasurer’s injunction forbidding comparison with more generous welfare states is buttressed by the confidence of his announcement of a new political age. If we can only look to less developed systems of government provision, then Australia’s welfare state is likely to appear excessive. And if the ‘age of entitlement’ is over, as Hockey now claims, then there can be no alternative to the plans that he has made. By definition, we cannot go back to an earlier age. If one accepts the basic principles of Hockey’s arguments, then there is no way that a genuine welfare state might be maintained.

The political advantages of this approach are obvious: Margaret Thatcher of course argued that ‘there is no alternative’ for a similar reason three decades ago. Nonetheless, it is an intervention that sits somewhat uncomfortably in the longer history of Australian liberalism. In a recent elaboration of his views, Treasurer Hockey has counterposed ‘entitlement’ with ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘activity’: ‘Everyone in Australia must do the heavy lifting now’; everyone who ‘has the capacity to lift’ must ‘indeed lift’. The language is here a clear and no doubt deliberate echo of Robert Menzies’ famed ‘Forgotten People’ speech (1942), and especially the Liberal founder’s exhortation that Australians act as ‘lifters’ rather than ‘leaners’: ‘Leaners grow flabby; lifters grow muscles. Men without ambition readily become slaves.’

But if the incitement to individual effort is continuous, the differences stand out more starkly still. Menzies, unlike Hockey, frankly admitted a government’s duty of care to its people: ‘every good citizen’ deserves not just a ‘chance in life’, but a ‘self-respecting life’. He accepted, moreover, that ‘the old and selfish notions of laissez faire’ that had dominated Australia in the years before the Second World War should never return. And he acknowledged the necessity of expanding state activity: ‘Our social and industrial obligations will be increased. There will be more law, not less; more control, not less.’

In Hockey’s entitlement speech, by contrast, the market is depicted as a perfect mechanism that functions best without any extraneous interventions:

If we want a product or service we go and buy it with the dividend from the fruits of our own labour. The producer is happy and the customer is satisfied.

The ‘concept’ of entitlement is a ‘problem’ in this fantasy because it interrupts the happy circuit that links the well-paid worker searching for goods and the well-stocked business anxious to provide them. Because ‘entitlement’ implies the ‘belief’ that ‘someone else will pay’, it undermines personal effort, thereby ‘corroding the very heart of the process of free enterprise’. Not simply a moral weakness of the lazy leaner, however, entitlements also necessitate taxation, and this, in turn, requires that even the disciplined and worthy must labour for ‘the state’, and not just for family and self; the freedom for ‘business’ and ‘individuals’ to ‘be successful’ is thereby unnecessarily constrained.

None of this reflects the history of state activity in Australia. The economy was developed through government intervention and ownership; the market was regulated to ensure minimum incomes and to avert collapse. ‘Entitlements’ were not proposed without consideration of costs: on the contrary, they were closely tied to measures that raised government revenue or moderated the effects of competition. Welfare provision was limited and in many respects inadequate. It remains so today.

The Australian government currently spends much less than the OECD average on cash benefits (around 8 per cent of GDP), and this figure has not risen very much in the last two decades. Moreover, that spending is strongly targeted towards the poorest households, helping thereby to reduce child poverty. The tax cuts and concessions delivered to wealthier Australians have had much greater impact on the budget than any increases in welfare. Tax concessions for superannuation and property investment are much more generous to the middle class than any welfare benefits they might receive. If there is a problem with middle-class ‘entitlement’ in Australia, then this is where it lies.

The historical ironies are obvious. In seeking to define a new ‘age’, the leading contemporary Liberal has in fact reached back to principles that were rejected by the founder of his own party seven decades ago. The failure of the market to provide a stable income and just reward for labour has never been clearer. But it is at this very time that its apparent power and justice is more ardently proclaimed, and the measures to protect Australians from its failures most wilfully denied.

The notion that ordinary people are entitled to a good life is a fundamental theme of modern history. It has been reflected in the declarations of the great revolutions and in the words agreed by the Parliament of Nations in 1948. These are principles that do not adhere to Hockey’s dubious concepts, or his confused temporality: they spring from deeper and more constant impulses. They are expressed in a language of ‘rights’, and their adherents insist that they cannot be fairly withdrawn or trimmed or budgeted, only recognised or robbed. They were won by political struggle. That, it seems, is the only way in which they might be retained.

Like Hockey, Bryan Appleyard bemoaned the rise of an ‘Age of Entitlement’ in the New Statesman early in 2013. This was not an attack on the profligacy of the welfare state but rather on the super-rich of the finance industry: narcissists without any sense of obligation to wider society, convinced that money is the measure of all things. Others such as Marilyn Gardner in the Christian Science Monitor have also associated the ‘culture of entitlement’ with the finance industry and the managerial class. This was in fact Hockey’s audience in London in 2012. Its unwillingness to learn the lessons of financial collapse remains shocking; its unconcern with the lives of other people seems beyond any shame. This is a culture of entitlement that continues to thrive. Hockey’s speech, and its general acclamation, are perhaps the strongest confirmation of this sad, historical fact.


Sean Scalmer

Sean Scalmer’s latest book is Gandhi in the West: The Mahatma and the Rise of Radical Protest (Cambridge University Press, 2011). He works at the University of Melbourne.

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