Back in December, Secretary of the Interior James Watt threw two Christmas parties. He took over the wonderful Custis-Lee Mansion, which overlooks Washington from a hill in Arlington National Cemetery, and threw quite a bash. The public was not invited. It was merely asked to pay for it.

In fact, on both occasions, the mansion itself, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee, was closed to the public. Watt had one party and his wife had another--actually a breakfast. The General Accounting Office says that 28 Park Service employes worked a total of 166 hours so that the party would be a success. The secretary, I'm sure, thought he deserved no less.

You detect some sarcasm there, I know, but I mean it. What Watt was doing, after all, was asserting his sense of entitlement. He did not seize that public building, close it to the public and then bill the taxpayers for a party because he is an immoral man, but because he thought that as a member of the Cabinet, he had all this coming.

Similarly, Malcolm Baldrige, the secretary of commerce, chartered a jet last summer so he could keep an appointment in Tucson. This cost the government $11,243, which is a lot more than it cost to fly commercially but it was, in the opinion of Baldrige and his staff, a bargain at twice the price. The secretary, they all agree, is worth every penny. He, too, felt entitled.

With a little digging, other examples of this sort of thing could be found. But two examples, especially if one of them is Watt, is like the man himself, more than enough. He is the epitome of the self-ordained priest of the New Economic Order who speaks of liberals and liberal politics with contempt. Watt's bailiwick at the moment is the Interior Department, but suffice it to say that what gives form to his political philosophy is the idea of entitlement --who gets what.

Watt, of course, has his own view of that and Baldrige has his. But so, too, do others--for instance people on welfare. It is the view of this administration, for example, that people who hold jobs should not also be entitled to welfare. Of course, there is an economic argument to all this. Welfare is expensive and it should be cut if possible. But the money is only half the story. The other half has to do with entitlement. These people should not be entitled to welfare--especially when some of the money is used to buy things such as televisions.

Who is to say who is right--Baldrige, Watt et al, or the welfare recipients? I, for one, think they are both wrong, but I'm sure most Americans would save their animosity for a welfare system in which people feel entitled to something for nothing. Welfare recipients, in fact, feel entitled to more than just money. They also want food stamps and legal services and hot lunches at school. One welfare mother complained a while back that she did not have enough money to give each of her six children their customary $100 worth of Christmas presents.

The point is that while the Watts of the world talk about their entitlement as though it made grand economic sense while that of a welfare recipient is just nothing more than laziness amplified into political rhetoric, they are both very often pulled from a hat. Businessmen, for instance, think they are entitled to expense-account meals, forgetting that they would have to eat anyway. Corporations have come to see the investment tax credit as something they are entitled to, even though they would often buy the equipment anyway.

It is the same with inheritance. Americans feel entitled to inherit wealth and keep most of it. But when it comes to getting something for nothing, how does this differ from welfare? After all, the difference between being born with a silver spoon in your mouth or being born on welfare has nothing to do with productivity. Luck is more like it.

With the economic pie shrinking, one set of expectations gets pitted against the other. Someone's sense of entitlement has to be disappointed. In this case, it's the welfare recipient's. This is going to happen not because they're morally wrong or somehow not entitled to what they want and used to get, but because they're politically weak. They lost the election. This realization might make them bitter. It's understandable. After all, they're entitled.