A WHILE BACK, there was a story in the paper about some 18-year-old stickup artist who revealed that he had once quit a job because he had to take public transportation. It was said matter-of-factly, as if public transportation was not the way people get to work -- as if when you are young and just starting out, you are entitled to something more. He, of course, thought he was entitled to much more. This, he said, is why he became a crook.

It is the concept of entitlement that is at the core of what is dividing American society. At one extreme you have a mugger who thinks he is somehow entitled to private transportation, and at the other extreme you have someone like David Stockman who thinks that people are entitled to virtually nothing from the government. The difference between the mugger and Stockman, aside from life style, is that one is in a position to enforce his views through government while the other is limited to what he can get with a gun.

It was Stockman who recently said he didn't think "people are entitled to any services. I don't believe there is any entitlement, any basic right to legal services or any other kinds of services. The idea that's been established over the last 10 years that almost every service that someone might need in life ought to be provided, financed by the government as a matter of a basic right, is wrong. We challenge that. We reject that notion."

In fairness to Stockman and to other like-minded conservatives, their notions about entitlement are not directed only at the poor or the underprivileged. They would quarrel with the sense of entitlement that makes some American workers think they deserve a raise by virtue of doing nothing more than getting a year older on the job. They would quarrel also with a middle class that feels entitled to cheap college loans, veterans who get benefits regardless of length of service or hardship and even, because ideology burns bright in their eyes, the sense of entitlement of the very rich who feel they deserve Social Security payments they might need like a hole in the head.

There is no question, in fact, that when Stockman talks of entitlement, he has put his finger on something. It is clearly not realistic, for example, for an 18-year-old kid to think that he is entitled to a car to drive to a job. It is not realistic for other kids to think they are entitled to "positions" when they are not qualified even for the most menial of jobs. And it is equally unrealistic for some people to think they are entitled to a minimum standard of living through welfare that they could earn for themselves.

But Stockman and others talk about their view of entitlement (non-entitlement?) as if it is ordained -- a law of nature or something. They make it sound as if the aspirations of the poor are unreal or unnatural, but those of the rich are the ways things are supposed to be. Why, though, is an oil company entitled to charge what it can for oil or the very rich entitled to earn by investments more than the poor can make by their labor?

The reason for all of this is politics -- how people decide to divide up the pie. There is nothing particularly mysterious about it and there is nothing particularly mysterious about why some people, namely the poor, think they are entitled to what Stockman, for one, thinks they are not. It is because they see what others have and they know the reason they don't have the same has to do with a political decision that keeps them from getting what they want. For instance, if inherited wealth entitles someone to a first-class lawyer, who shouldn't someone poor think they are entitled to a lawyer supplied by the government?

No reason. One sense of entitlement is as valid as the other. After all, there is really no reason why through an accident of birth one person is entitled to life, liberty and a whirlpool bath and the other is entitled to the first two and a shared toilet in the hallway. It is the obligation of government not to make the gap between the two wider, but to narrow it. This, Mr. Stockman, is what people should be able to expect from government.

They are entitled.