April 29 2013
Robert Samuelson’s column in the Washington Post describes the growing economic and social anxiety as “the collapse of entitlement.” Americans’ sense of entitlement is crumbling, as the public is slowly realizing that economic growth and jobs are not necessarily forthcoming.
We had a grand vision. We didn’t merely expect things to get better. We expected all social problems to be solved. We expected business cycles, economic insecurity, poverty, and racism to end. We expected almost limitless personal freedom and self-fulfillment.
Samuelson’s article is interesting but I take issue with the way the term “entitlement” is used. On a basic level, the word “entitled” means that one has been given or assigned title by someone else. In this case, the American people were entitled to enjoy the everlasting benefits of prosperity and justice first by the progressives, and later by modern liberals.
After all, progressivism was founded upon the idea that the federal government and social science “experts” could engineer a social system that would ensure infinite progress. In 1944, FDR declared that Americans were entitled to “a useful and remunerative job,” “a decent home,” and “adequate protection from economic fears” in his famous second bill of rights speech. Americans did not arrive at a sense of entitlement to infinite progress all by themselves. The most popular political ideologies of the twentieth century promised that the Administrative State would deliver unlimited prosperity. Samuelson notes that the Great Recession has finally burst that bubble:
Popular national goals remain elusive. Poverty is stubborn. Many schools seem inadequate. The ‘safety net,’ private and public, is besieged. Our expansive notion of entitlement rested on optimistic and, ultimately, unrealistic assumptions….We’re not entitled to many things: not to a dynamic economy; not to secure jobs; not to homeownership; not to ever-more protective government; not to fixed tax burdens; not to a college education.
Our notion of entitlement ultimately rested on unrealistic assumptions about government. This endless recession is a shock to many Americans who believed that the federal government and economists could effectively manage the economy and shelter us from the booms and busts of the business cycle. Our sense of entitlement did not spontaneously arise from the self-centeredness of the “me generation.” Americans were sold a bill of goods.