The United States as a nation is going through a kind of identity crisis, attempting to reconcile our sense of being a hard-working, family-oriented, religious (or at least spiritual), and tolerant people on the one hand, weighed against the evidence that we are in fact financially overdrawn, somewhat xenophobic, materialistic, individualistic, and possibly a bit lazy (or at least in love of shortcuts and get-rich-quick schemes). Part of this national narrative is the discussion of entitlement, both in the sense of the government programs that constitute the social safety net, and in the personal sense that we are individually deserving of a sense of dignity, safety, and other basic human rights including food, shelter, healthcare, right to work, and education.
The political Right frames this discussion with phrases like “nobody owes you a living.” The Right, in its eternal quest to create a society of perfect individuals, is chiefly concerned with personal character. Even the avuncular Mr. Rogers is not safe, FOX “News” recently accused him of corrupting an entire generation via the overgenerous doling out of praise and the encouragement of unconditional self-esteem.
Does the Right have a point? Maybe they do. Some child psychologists suggest that parents are better off praising the actions and efforts, rather than qualities, of their children. In other words don’t say “You’re a good artist,” instead say “You worked very hard on that drawing and it came out nicely.” Too much of the former leads to timidity and risk-averse behavior; the child become focused on protecting their reputation of being “smart” or “artistic” and thus avoids taking risks and taking on difficult tasks. And we’ve all heard stories of how children of recent immigrants work harder and more willingly than other kids, probably due to parental encouragement. Do we, as a nation, give our children too much praise, and let them off the hook too easily when it comes to hard work and discipline?
The other side of the coin is that nations that have the greatest sense of collective entitlement often have the highest standard of living. Take France, for example. As is quoted in the Michael Moore film Sicko, “In the U.S. the people are scared of the government, in France the government is scared of the people.” A democracy born of the guillotine. The French enjoy entitlements that put our own to shame, and they get them because they clamor for them, initiating country-closing general strikes to get their way, as necessary. These are people who strongly feel they deserve a fair shake from their government.
Is that the crux of it? Fairness? As citizens of a nation, when we hold up our side of the social contract, what do we expect in return? In the United States we expect safety (even though we have rarely suffered invasion, and never occupation), and cheap gasoline. Personally I think we should expand our sense of entitlement to include universal healthcare, public education (including university), well-funded scientific and medical government research programs, complete support for the mentally and physically disabled (including the infirm elderly), modern efficient infrastructure (water, energy, transportation), protection and conservation of the environment, reasonable regulation of the private sector, and so on and so forth (the classic wish-list of the political Left, more or less). If the free market has already tried and failed (as it has in each of these areas) then our only realistic option is biggish government. Or does anyone want to go back to a private firefighting service?
What’s the downside of a high sense of entitlement? The obvious answer is higher taxes. There’s no way around it; public services cost money. But even at our current tax rates, there seems to be room for improvement, and even the possibility of paying down some of our scarily gigantic national debt. I would like to see less pork in the budget, and a smaller portion of my tax dollars going to private mercs like Halliburton, KBR, and Blackwater. Depending on how you look at it, up to 55% of our national budget goes toward military spending. There really is room to cut, especially if we limit our military adventurism (occupying other countries) in the future. But that’s another blog post …
Ultimately I think citizens (in relation to their government), and children (in relation to their parents) should have a high sense of entitlement. What goes along with entitlements is responsibility; a willingness to uphold your side of the bargain. For citizens in a democracy this means a willingness to pay your fair share of taxes (unlike the Greeks), a willingness to participate in the democratic process (thus hopefully curtailing the extent to which that process is hijacked by private/corporate interests), and a willingness to extend tolerance and respect (and charity when needed) to your neighbors.
The Power Elite
The Power Elite (the filthy rich, the captains of industry, the manipulators of democracy) fear an entitled citizenry. Should we, as citizens, start to demand a reasonable return on our tax dollars (in the form of social services, and turning off the gushing money spigot that feeds private military contractors) as well as a reasonable return on our dollars spent in the private sector (in the form of reasonably safe, durable, high-quality products, competent services, decent customer service, social responsibility, and non-predatory behavior), then profit margins might suffer. The Power Elite want to keep our sense of entitlement down; they want us to swallow whole the idea that our fate depends on hard work, deferred gratification, self-reliance, and other forms of bootstrapping (despite the fact that their own wealth comes mostly, with the exception of a few scrappy entrepreneurs, from inheritance, nepotism, dividends, and government pork). This is why the interests of the Power Elite align so closely with the political Right, who elevate the idea of a more perfect (or at least more efficient) individual over the idea of a more perfect (or at least more fair) society.
Paradoxically, our individual fate does depend, to a great extent, on the personal values and attributes that the Right holds so dear (self-reliance, hard work, deferred gratification, and so forth). In practice, however, if we model our society on the assumption that these traits should or do universally exist, then the end result is the exploitation of the working class. Nobody owes you a living. Work hard and don’t complain. In other words, don’t demand that you have a right to healthcare, education, civil rights, and everything else you pay for with your tax dollars, law-abiding behavior, and other forms of loyalty to your country (and are thus entitled to).
Ayn Rand, we gave it a go. Your champion of champions, Alan Greenspan, took it all the way. We learned what an unregulated free market looks like. Greenspan admitted he was wrong. The failure of the idealistic Right was not as spectacular as the failure of the idealistic Left, but it was still spectacular.
The Conversation Going Forward
I’m not suggesting that be more like France is some sort of national panacea. But I am in favor of removing the stigma from the word entitlement, instead coupling it with responsibility. I think David Brooks has thought carefully about this topic, and I agree with his assertion that instilling middle-class values is an important element of narrowing the achievement gap (both between low-income and middle-class U.S. kids, and U.S. kids in general vs. kids from countries with higher levels of academic achievement). I also agree with Michael Moore on most points — we should demand public healthcare, fair treatment from corporations, and so on.
One problem is that there is very little intelligent conversation between those with Right-leaning values (self-reliance, hard work, a robust and relatively unencumbered free market, fiscal conservatism in government, strong national defense) and Left-leaning values (social equality, public healthcare and education, protection of the environment, worker’s rights, and corporate accountability). These sets of values are not always in conflict, and there are many solutions and courses of action that we can pursue, as a nation, that satisfy all of them.