America's Entitlement Mentality?

by | Nov 28, 2010

I recently heard a congressman complain that difficult budget choices have to be made “because we don’t have unlimited resources.” Actually, a free country grounded in rationality and which embraces capitalism does enjoy the potential for unlimited development, permanent economic expansion and ever-rising prosperity. It’s the government that doesn’t enjoy unlimited resources. Governments, like individual […]

I recently heard a congressman complain that difficult budget choices have to be made “because we don’t have unlimited resources.”

Actually, a free country grounded in rationality and which embraces capitalism does enjoy the potential for unlimited development, permanent economic expansion and ever-rising prosperity. It’s the government that doesn’t enjoy unlimited resources. Governments, like individual businesses, must operate on a budget. For a time, some governments can rely on governments with higher authority to finance them. This has been the case with state governments relying on handouts from the federal government to prop them up. However, the federal government of the United States is, as we now know, so bankrupt that there are no longer computers sophisticated enough to keep count of the sprawling national debt. This is part of what the congressman means by “limited resources.”

Recently, I watched a documentary about Ronald Reagan and his policies in the 1980s. One of Reagan’s former advisers said that when faced with a dilemma about cutting money for school lunches from the federal budget, Reagan relented and said, “Let’s put that back in.” Of course, the debate over school lunches ended decades ago. Not even the most conservative politician alive today would dare suggest that parents buy their own kids’ school lunch. None would argue, “Isn’t it enough that the federal government provides you with a minimum of 12 years of free education? Do we have to pay for lunch as well?” In fact, the trend is just the opposite. The Obama Administration has already socialized the college student loan program, giving the federal government effective control of financing college education. Before long, government will be paying for 16 years of “free” (and mediocre) education, with budgets growing every year as quality decreases.

If Ronald Reagan, the conservative hero of limited government that all rising Republican stars rely on to advance their case, couldn’t bring himself to cut school lunches from the budget back in the 1980s, then what hope is there for reducing the size, scope and expense of Big Government in the present day? The problem is this: Although government does, in fact, have limited resources, the thirst for government freebies fostered by the entitlement mentality quite literally knows no limits. The entitlement mentality refers to the false belief that, “Because I want and need something, I should have it, and government should provide it for me.” It’s only the eradication of this attitude, and the ideology it implies, that will ever return us to limited government. No Tea Party in the world is going to curb, through political willpower alone, the righteous attitude that, “I should have all the free tea anybody could ever want and need — after all, I deserve it!”

Let’s face some hard facts. For decades, even under the administration of Ronald Reagan, the entitlement mentality of most Americans never wavered. It never met with a serious challenge of any kind. Not with Reagan, not with the “Republican revolution” of the 1990s, not with the Tea Party today. There’s only one thing that will shut down the entitlement mentality, I’m sorry to say, and that one thing is: The halting of the American economy. It’s a vicious cycle our society is in. The more economically productive and prosperous our nation became, the more people shrieked for their “fair share” of the pie (even if they played no role in baking that pie). The worse things become, the more the entitlement mentality simply runs into a brick wall of reality.

There’s nothing about economic prosperity that makes the entitlement mentality inevitable. But once the government establishes something as a “right,” people tend not to question their entitlement to that “right” ever again. If automobiles were established as a legal right tomorrow, then twenty years from now you wouldn’t find a person who questioned this; you would only find people complaining about the quality of cars the government is providing. Sadly, economic prosperity is no longer a sure thing. This is something Americans have not yet faced: That on our current course, the economy will never expand, and will in fact start to shrink. After three disastrous years of particularly toxic Bush-Obama-Pelosi economic policies, the economy continues to stagnate and the national debt continues to skyrocket. We’ve yet to see the full impact of Obama’s policies, such as nationalizing medicine and committing the federal government to more industries and projects than ever before. The real estate market, ruined by government policies designed to artificially inflate the cost of housing, is entering a fifth year of what is very likely a depression.

Does all this lead people to want a restoration of freedom and a totally hands-off government? Not a bit. The vicious cycle continues: The more entrenched the entitlement mentality becomes, the more people demand “more” freebies to ease their pain. (If you doubt this, watch the next time unemployment benefits come up for renewal.)

But there’s less and less to give away, as the frustrated congressman pointed out. How can government create more out of less? Of course, it cannot. This is what most Americans have not faced, and what their leaders will not tell them.

Americans, and the world more generally, must remember two things. One, there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. Wealth does not come out of thin air, and there are no elves creating prosperity at the North Pole. Two, if it’s Robin Hood you want — a cool-sounding, arrogant and sophisticated Barack Obama taking from the rich and giving to the “poor” — the very metaphor implies that there are an always growing reservoir of rich people to expropriate. Wealth, to be redistributed, first has to be produced. To quench the always intensifying thirst of the welfare-entitlement state, the economy must constantly grow to keep up with it. Everyone assumes that the American economy will always grow as it always has — well, just because. It’s the American economy; how could the American economy ever fall? They likewise assume that the government can, and will always, provided unlimited benefits on demand.

A true leader would confront Americans with the fact that there is no Santa Claus, and there will be no Robin Hood. There’s no economic equivalent of a car that will never run out of gas. The American economy is running out of gas. The solution, in terms of fuel, is not more entitlement spending, but more productivity. People who are already productive will have to demand to be left alone, and insist on keeping what they earn, while committing to pay for their own medical care, school tuition and houses in an unhampered marketplace. Those unwilling to be productive will have to learn to become that way, or convince others to take care of them on a voluntary basis. The private marketplace must be restored as an uninhibited part of American life, to provide the goods and services that government will never be able to deliver.

Dr. Michael Hurd is a psychotherapist, columnist and author of "Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)" and "Grow Up America!" Visit his website at:

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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