Argument: Big government fosters harmful entitlement culture

Issue Report: Big government


Ryan Messmore. “A Moral Case Against Big Government.” Heritage Foundation. February 27, 2007: “The Problematic Notion of Government as Provider

The moral vision according to which government officials make judgments about the common good entails fundamental ideas about human nature, justice, moral obligation, and responsibility. Given the power of government to shape the attitudes and discourse of its citizenry, the particular moral notions dominant in government not only depend upon, but also contribute to and reinforce the moral vision of the larger society.

A conception of broad government responsibility to provide for those in need has exercised great influence since the days of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. This in turn has fed a notion of individual entitlement. “Necessitous men are not free men,” said President Roosevelt in 1944, expounding a long list of goods that government should supply its citizens to ensure their freedom and security—which he called a new bill of rights—including decent housing, health care, and a good job.[20] Those who conceive of government responsibility and individual rights in this expansive way argue that the nation’s responsibility to care for its citizens in need calls for more, not less, government power, authority, and spending. They often therefore justify ballooning federal budgets on moral grounds, assuming that corporate care and concern for other human beings must correlate with spending more on government-funded social programs.

A closer examination reveals that raising federal spending is not the only way that we can corporately address need, nor is it the most just, effective, compassionate, or responsible way to meet our moral obligations to those in need. The idea that individuals are owed an ever-increasing number of rights by the government weakens the concept of justice by approaching it only from the side of the isolated individual. Moreover, the “care” provided by government social programs—often in the form of impersonal checks—is less holistic and humanizing than that provided by smaller, more personal approaches.

Beyond being less just and compassionate, expensive government social programs can lead to additional unhealthy moral consequences, including damaging dependence on government handouts and unsustainable budget deficits for future generations. Finally, this “government as provider” mentality can foster a sense of resentment among taxpayers, sapping our propensity to give and receive gifts and misconstruing the social obligations that bind us together, thus further weakening the moral fiber of our nation.

The Entitlement Mentality’s Incomplete Notion of Justice

Voluntary sacrifice of one’s time or money to give to the poor, the sick, and the elderly is a virtue. Indeed, one could argue that healthy communities depend upon some members giving to other members who are in need. And it is certainly proper for those in need to ask for help from others. However, the notion that people are entitled to or deserve other people’s time or money is not the best moral rationale for giving to those who are in need.

Among many religious traditions that emphasize charity to the poor, such as the Christian faith, the motivation is more about exercising generosity than about recognizing what another deserves. The injunctions to give to the poor, feed the hungry, care for the sick, etc. are usually identified in Christian Scripture as the proper response of those who have received from God grace that they did not deserve. Voluntary, generous giving to those in need is an essential component of biblical justice, which comes from the same Greek word often translated as “righteousness.” The biblical focus is on the proper relationship of the giver to God and to those who are in need, not on the merits of the needy.

Politically speaking, the modern Western conception of rights that shaped the American founding developed in a context of reciprocal rights and duties. To identify a right was to identify one’s valid claim to a share of the particular goods of a community, including protections of certain freedoms. Rights were not severed from the right relationships among a community—relationships between fellow citizens and between citizens and the common goods of their community.

Today, federal programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security tend to foster a conception of rights stripped from their corresponding duties and community context, suggesting instead a notion of individual entitlement. Such an incomplete conception of rights weakens the concept of justice by approaching it only from the side of the isolated individual, abstracted from the web of social relationships and responsibilities that should inform a fuller sense of justice.

Recovering a more complete sense of justice would provide a different grounding and justification for extending aid to those who are in need, whether through private or public means. True justice is better served by policies that articulate and encourage community responsibility and voluntary giving than it is by those that are ordered according to the logic of entitlement.

The Entitlement Mentality’s Ineffective Compassion

The word “compassion” means “suffering with,” while care implies acting in ways that provide assistance while avoiding harm. Compassionate care is the kind of aid or attention that comes alongside those who suffer and acknowledges their dignity. In contrast to government social service programs, the myriad unsung heroes who come alongside those who suffer and give of themselves voluntarily and often without compensation better express justice, responsibility, and compassion and can provide more holistic and humanizing care by fostering face-to-face interaction and relationships with those in need.

Not only does increasing the funding for government programs not generate more compassion among citizens, but it can create unhealthy dependence on government on the part of recipients. Truly effective compassionate care addresses the nature and cause of the targeted problem. Until recent welfare reforms, government anti-poverty programs primarily addressed material needs. The problems of the underclass, however, although often exacerbated by poverty, are not caused primarily by material hardship. If they were, a wealthy nation like the United States could readily solve them by simply subsidizing the poor enough to raise them above the poverty line; after four decades and $9 trillion, the welfare state would certainly have been a success.

Rather, as Marvin Olasky argues in his book The Tragedy of American Compassion, the problems of the underclass are rooted in the needs of the human spirit.[21] That is why churches and smaller communities in generations past were effective in caring for the poor in their midst, as Olasky shows: They addressed needs of the human spirit through personal, holistic means. Whereas most federal entitlement programs provide those in need only with an impersonal check, local communities can provide personal accountability, positive role models, challenging inspiration, emotional support, and a sense of long-term hope. Thus, one of the ways the national government can facilitate the possibility that the needy will receive humanizing compassion and holistic care is to discourage dependence on impersonal handouts and create the legal and institutional space for religious ministries and other charitable social service organizations to flourish.

The very rationale of the welfare state encourages certain behaviors and discourages others in a way that may harm those who drink deeply from this well. Continued reliance upon an impersonal source of funds, requiring minimal accountability, cultivates habits that often correlate with vice or dysfunctional behavior. Without tying participation in economic goods to social expectations of initiative and industriousness, courage and creativity, patterns of illegitimacy and irresponsibility prove difficult to break.[22]

The Entitlement Mentality’s Short-sighted View of Social Obligation

Society has a moral obligation to help the poor, the sick, and the elderly.[23] However, government-funded programs fail to meet such obligations in the most just or compassionate way, and the rising cost of funding these programs also ignores other moral obligations—namely, those directed to all citizens, including the needy, in future generations.

At present rates, it is projected that entitlement spending will nearly double over the next decade: Medicare is expanding by 9 percent annually, Medicaid by 8 percent annually, and Social Security by 6 percent annually. By 2050, spending on these three programs combined will come close to the same percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) as the entire 2006 federal budget.[24]

The resulting economic burden on future generations will be neither just nor responsible nor caring. As a concern of justice, Social Security and Medicare recipients do not receive the actual money they “invested” through taxes earlier in their lives, but rather draw from the money that present workers pay into the system. This means that these programs will essentially demand that our children and grandchildren pay for our retirements—at higher costs and with a smaller ratio of workers to retirees. By shackling future generations with unsustainable debt when alternatives and reform are possible, the national government fails to fulfill its constitutional responsibility to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” (emphasis added).

Rather than offering true care, continuing the present rate of spending on entitlement programs increases the likelihood that many people, including the future poor, will be much worse off. Further, if sustained deficits depress the economy generally, more people will become dependent on government programs that are unable to deliver what they promise.

The Entitlement Mentality’s Distortion of Our Vision of Moral Responsibility

Government social service programs also shape the way citizens think about and relate to neighbors in need. These programs encourage a vision of their recipients not as holistic persons with dignity, but as bundles of costly needs or, worse, wretched dependents. On the other hand, such programs support a view of the wealthy in impersonal, financially reductionist terms—not as responsible servants, but as revenue sources.

This influences how we think about our obligations to help those in need. Government checks do not promote personal connections among citizens; no human face or direct personal request motivates the giving. As a result, paying taxes to fund government handouts often fosters a sense of resentment among taxpayers rather than a desire to help others. Instead of a compassionate “suffering with,” government programs more often generate among the middle class a sense of “suffering because of” the poor. This “suffering” is often not as much financial hardship as it is a feeling of unjust interference by the government in the disposition of one’s hard-earned wages. Mammoth spending on government programs encourages a particular social mentality that does not strengthen the moral fiber of our nation and may actually contribute to its weakening.

This mentality sets up a social relationship where one side perceives aid as a forced penalty rather than a voluntary offering and the other side views aid as a right rather than a gift. A gift creates a kind of momentum of good will that has the potential to bind both giver and receiver in a more personal relationship. The giver is motivated by the desire to help or please the receiver, who, in turn, is usually motivated to give back, at a minimum, an expression of thanks. If conditions permit, the giver often has a vested interest in seeing that the desired objective of the help is achieved (e.g., that the recipient uses the gift to purchase food instead of illegal drugs or is able to get a job after completing a job-training course). By the same token, the receiver often desires to demonstrate good stewardship of the gift (i.e., that he or she does not waste but uses the gift toward the ends for which it was given).

Federally funded social service and entitlement programs do not generate this dynamic. Government mandates that citizens pay taxes or face stiff penalties, and the receipt of benefit checks is impersonal. Additionally, the sense that government owes people money as their legal right undercuts the motivation to feel or give gratitude for its receipt. Whereas civil society is often characterized by a dynamic of willingness and thankfulness, excessive government spending exacerbates a mentality of resentment and entitlement.

A good but limited government makes judgments about relationships of justice within a society. It is morally problematic for those judgments to be conditioned by an individualistic entitlement mentality in which we are owed more and more rights and services by the government.

Not only does excessive spending on government social programs foster resentment rather than relationships between wealthy and poor, but it is also less personal, less humanizing, less holistic, and less compassionate than most community-based approaches. In addition, this mentality of government as provider undergirds the welfare state, which oversteps the proper bounds of the national government and weakens within societal institutions the authority that belongs to them within their own realms of competency. The judgments of government should issue from a broader moral vision of society, in which rights as well as responsibilities, opportunities as well as obligations are identified according to a full-orbed conception of just relationships within a community.”