America is founded on the ideas of equal opportunity and the self-made man. The “Robin Hood” character, and the values he represents, forces people to question those assumptions.
People like to believe that they are the reason for their own success. They pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, made their own way, and were successful. If somebody got to the top of the pack by hard work alone, then I would agree that he actually deserved everything that he could afford for himself. Unfortunately, the truth is that no one gets anywhere by hard work alone. While I am not denying that many people do work hard, very hard indeed, I am trying to point out that if they get anywhere by it, in some way, shape, or form, they are taking advantage of an uneven playing field.
In American society, acknowledging that the field is uneven is taboo. We want to believe that we live in the land of equal opportunity and we hate to acknowledge that some people start off with certain advantages over others. We hate to admit that the dice used in the game of life are weighted by history.
There are a few political philosophies related to this weighting of the dice. The goal of Communists, or perhaps I should use the less negatively connoted term Marxists, is to un-weight the dice before the game starts in order to ensure fair play. They try to remove the influence of the past by eliminating the accumulation of wealth, family, and even the strength of imbued by religious beliefs. On the other hand we have Socialists, whom I would like to point out as also being Capitalists, prefer to approach the problem at the other end. Their goal is to change the rules of the game so that even though the odds are skewed to start with, everything works out evenly in the end. Finally, the ‘average American,’ a laissez-faire capitalist who resents paying taxes but enjoys the benefits of paved roads and a public education system, insists, however, that the dice are not skewed and that the only reason he keeps winning is that he is simply better at playing the game. In his mind, everyone else is just being a bad sport.
And of course he keeps insisting! If he did not keep insisting he would have to admit that the game was not fair and he did not really deserveall that he had won. He does not want to deal with that kind of guilt, or give up any of his possessions, or admit that he owes anything to anybody else. It takes a lot for someone to admit that he did not succeed on his own merits, especially in a society which so strongly emphasizes those values. Particularly in today’s society, with all the fuss about the budget, spending cuts, social programs, and entitlement.
And that poor, poor word- ‘entitlement.’ It gets bandied about with no regard for its original meaning. Today, having a sense of any entitlement is a bad thing. For example, people benefiting from social programs have a sense of entitlement because they are not willing to work or make an effort. The youth occupying Wall Street are just molly-coddled, naive kids with a sense of entitlement who do not understand the value of a hard day’s work and have had everything handed down to them by their over-protective parents. But let’s please take a moment to break down the word itself.
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, ‘entitlement‘ is a noun for the ‘belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain benefits.’ I hate when dictionaries define a word using another form of the same word, so to be thorough, ‘entitle‘ means ‘to furnish with proper grounds for seeking of claiming something.’
So, if somebody is entitled to something, he has the proper grounds for claiming it. If someone has a feeling of entitlement, he believes that he deserves something, but the implication is that this belief may be misplaced. It may not, so truly the word has potential to be both positive and negative. It can mean a justified sense of entitlement or an un-justified sense of entitlement.
I wonder who has the greater sense of unjustified entitlement, the people on top, reaping the benefits of society, or the people on the bottom, unable to break free from the cycles of poverty. The ‘average American’ discussed earlier insists that he is entitled to all that he has because he worked hard to earn it. Everyone else believes that he does not really deserve all of it because he won it through cheating, playing with weighted dice.
Modern society has forgotten an important chapter of history. We flatter ourselves by insisting that we have progressed, that we are better than our ancestors, that people are much better off than they were 400 years ago. By many standards, such as infant mortality rates, literacy rates, gross income, etc., this is true, but in many ways progress is immeasurable. For example, am I truly happier on a day-to-day basis than an Ancient Roman, despite all of our modern, technical advances? Most would like to believe so, to reinforce that sense of progress, only so that we can hold ourselves to different standards.
People have traded the value of ‘noblesse oblige,’ the belief in the obligation of the rich to behave responsibly and to look after the well-being of those upon whom their empires and fiefdoms were built, for ‘trickle-down economics.’ If you are having trouble conceptualizing noblesse oblige, just think of Robin Hood. In the hard times of a ruler who would not look after the peasants, who would take advantage of them in every way possible and shirk his kingly duties, Robin Hood sweeps in, taking from the rich to give to the poor. He used to be a hero, though Prince John would beg to differ. Prince John saw Robin Hood as no more than a common thief, stealing what the Prince had rightfully earned by nature of his nobility. To the commoners, the downtrodden, Robin Hood was not a thief at all. He was only taking back what Prince John had no real right to in the first place. Robin Hood was simply restoring the natural balance of society.
Although I am sure they would like to think otherwise, most people have turned into Prince Johns. Everybody wants to think they are the commoners, so that they do not have to think about their responsibilities. Few people want to admit that they should be giving back to society, and even fewer step up and play the role of Robin Hood. We see this drama play out in domestic politics. The few Robin Hoods we have left stand up and push for tax reform and social programs. The rest of society pushes back. I think it is time for everyone to take a step back and really consider whether or not they are being a Prince John. I think it is time for everyone, including those benefiting from social programs, to focus on giving back to their communities. It is time to refocus our values to build a stronger society and a better world. Instead of focusing on being successful so we can buy the latest gadgets and gizmos for ourselves, let’s focus on being successful so that everyone is able to give back more. Personal success in order to sustain societal and even global improvements. Real improvements in terms of freedom, quality of life, and happiness. Real change. Real difference.