Why America Needs to Kill Its Entitlement Ideology

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Largely a result of decades of government dependence, too many people today lack the basic concept of personal accountability.  Many view the act of collecting their government benefits (whether they be food stamps, WIC, TANF, or other programs) as an act to which they are entitled.  Yet, few acknowledge that this ideology is politically counter-intuitive, morally alienating, and fiscally unsustainable. The following account of a Walmart employee’s encounters with welfare recipients illuminates not simply a few bad apples, but an ideology of rot.

“I understand that sometimes, people are destitute. They need help, and they accept help from the state in order to feed their families. This is fine. It happens. I’m not against temporary aid helping those who truly need it. What I saw at Wal-Mart, however, was not temporary aid. I witnessed generations of families all relying on the state to buy food and other items. I literally witnessed small children asking their mothers if they could borrow their EBT cards. I once had a man show me his welfare card for an ID to buy alcohol. The man was from Massachusetts. Governor Michael Dukakis’ signature was on his welfare card. Dukakis’ last gubernatorial term ended in January of 1991. I was born in June of 1991. The man had been on welfare my entire life. That’s not how welfare was intended, but sadly, it is what it has become.”

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What we are witnessing as a society is not a few destitute people, but a culture gradually consumed by an ideology that fails to permit returns on personal growth and achievement.  Rather, the welfare-entitlement ideology rewards bad behavior. This is known as perverse incentive in professional circles and has been linked to the actions of our most troubled institutions: banking, investing, education, and of course government.

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The political implications that this destructive force has reached everyday Americans is certainly not without importance.  From the voting booth, the problem is a double-edged sword.  So long as my neighbor feels social justice entitles him to a portion of my paycheck, he is likely to vote in politicians supporting the same ideology.  And a particularly disturbing political phenomenon known as “the tail wagging the dog” states that if such an ideology grabs hold of America many politicians will – against their better judgment – adopt said ideology in order that they be voted into office. The average voter holds onto sentiments divorced from the productive attributes of healthy society, while the politician embraces the same political ethos for personal gain.  The people think they’ve earned such benefits, while politicians enjoy the wide support they receive for supporting them.   Thus, the welfare-entitlement ideology is especially damaging because it attacks America from both ends of the social scale.  The result is often the demise of the middle, and most productive, segment of any three-class structure.

Where this will lead America is of course the core question that lies at the heart of the welfare debate.  Laying emotional attachments to notions of entitlements aside, the debate should focus on the financial implications to the health of America.  The insolvency of our federal government cannot be ignored and, coupled with the notion of dependence, highlights a further complication as to how those dependent upon government handouts will survive once the government (by fiscal necessity) withdraws its hand?  This is a loaded question, for most will be destitute absent the necessary skills to survive.

So the moral and practical implication of the welfare-entitlement ideology is two-fold as well.  Just as government spending crowds out the private sector, reliance on government crowds out self-reliance.  Benjamin Franklin knew this fact well.

“I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I traveled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.” 

Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes, but our current ideology completely negates necessity.  The consequences are severe.  Under the welfare-entitlement ideology, America becomes not a nation of promise and prosperity, but one where government controls both its economic vitality and the very sustenance of its people.

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Entitlement America, Fiscally and Morally Bankrupt

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If one were to make the claim that America is fiscally insolvent, as I’ve made numerous times, one would then have to ask themselves why. While there is no one answer to this question, there is one ideology that underlies today’s reality.  The “Entitlement Generation,” a term thrown around characterizing today’s western youth, has more to say about America’s fiscal bankruptcy than any politician or campaign slogan could possibly utter.  Yet, the entitlement disease in not confined to western youth. Rather, our youth are only the latest victims of an ideology begun nearly 80 years ago amidst the wake of the Great Depression.  Four generations later, we are seeing its effects. Charles Hugh Smith comments:

“The entitlement mindset atrophies self-reliance, adaptability and flexibility, all key survival traits. If the government will “fix” our health, we no longer feel responsible in the way one does if there is limited government/employer-provided healthcare. If we expect our Social Security retirement regardless of what other conditions may be affecting the global economy or our nation, then we stop being responsible for managing our financial affairs in the same way as one does when there is no “guaranteed” retirement entitlement.”

Yet, few American’s recognize our current situation as an effect of the entitlement ideology, seeing it instead through the lens of the mainstream media and our policy hounds throughout Washington as a debate over the “social good.”

Ask any politician interested in maintaining his or her Congressional seat what surrounds debates in Washington.  They will quickly answer that they seek only what is best for America.  Best according to who? The Washington ideology underlying much of its policies such as stimulus spending – both from the fiscal side (government) and the monetary side (the Federal Reserve) – never ending tax cuts, or a perpetually climbing debt ceiling is grounded on the false notion of an endless line of credit.  We all saw that assumption severely weakened this year with the S&P downgrade of U.S. sovereign debt.  Despite a jobless recovery, lack of lending from banks to businesses and consumers, and a still-floundering housing market, their ideology has not changed.

Jeremy Bentham, by Henry William Pickersgill (...

The “social good” still sits atop the pedestal of Washingtonian rhetoric as not only something obtainable, but something that is real and quantifiable.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  If one were to place this false notion within the context of an already developed area of political economy, they would look to Bentham’s utilitarianism and its “greatest happiness principle,” which simply states that government should pursue such that produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  However, there is an inherent conflict embedded within this utilitarian philosophy.  Bentham also recognized the futility of measuring the “social good” without the individual.  Yet, his greatest happiness principle places the individual as a sacrificial lamb to the needs of society.

Utilitarianism is much the same as the entitlement ideology, except for one small development.  The latter is the next step in utilitarianism’s development.  Charles Smith stated, “The poisonous problem with the entitlement mindset is intrinsic to human nature: once we deserve something, then our minds fill with resentment and greed, and we focus obsessively on creating multiple rationalizations for why we deserve our fair share.”  Fulfilling the expectation and demand for one’s bread at the expense of another for no other reason than one’s entitlement is the basis of Washington politics today.  This is their philosophy and, contrary to rational expectations concerning the fiscal solvency of America, encapsulates their policies, campaign slogans, and empty promises for a better future.

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The entitlement state effectively supplants the market as the arbiter of social relations.  An entitlement state creates bread lines, while a market creates factories that produce bread.  An entitlement state creates zombies that stand in those lines, breathlessly awaiting their next handout, while a market creates laborers who work in the  bread factory and who upon payment for their labor purchase the bread they produced.  An entitlement state creates animosity among the people, lest the government deem their neighbors needier than they, while a market distributes goods and services according the natural laws of any harmonious society.  An entitlement state is the result of an ideology based on self-neglect, weakness, and irrational expectation, while the market is the result of an ideology based on self-sufficiency, strength, and rational thought.  The entitlement state is crucial in establishing a statist government, while the market ensures a small decentralized federal government.  Essentially, the market is the result of a multitude of individual desires (choices made by free individuals) and thus has an inherent aptitude at coordinating society in such a way that benefits the most people in the most ways.  But underlying all this is the key component of any market system, liberty.

Life is freely given, but its preservation must be earned everyday.  Our politicians live in a world where their hubris is matched only by their want of control.  The entitlement ideology is taking hold, effectively bankrupting America both fiscally and morally.  Government would have you believe otherwise, yet the ideology underpinning their policies and programs will not change the nature of reality.  In fact, it is the market, and the market only, that preserves the natural rights (rights granted to all by virtue of one being human) of the individual.

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