In 1992 Bill Clinton campaigned on ideal: “The ideal that if you work hard and play by the rules you’ll be rewarded, you’ll do a little better next year than you did last year, your kids will do better than you.” This was the American dream.
With the economy in recession, many Americans felt they weren’t getting the opportunities they deserved. Naturally, Clinton blamed President Bush. It was a message that fed a sense of entitlement. In his 1995 book The Good Life and its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement, Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson wrote:
Without denying the role of individual effort, the modern view presumes that people who “play by the rules” should prosper. And because most of us do (or think we do), we are therefore “entitled” to security, stability and well-being. Entitlement means that almost everyone deserves to succeed. But not everyone does.
When reality falls short of the dream, people feel betrayed and look for someone to blame. Political leaders, bureaucracies, corporations and ‘elites’ are all pilloried for sabotaging prosperity.
Of course no government can guarantee that everyone who works hard and plays by the rules will enjoy low electricity prices, a secure job, a generous retirement income and a house that that doubles in value every ten years. As Samuelson says, “much of the recrimination obscures a deeper reality: our expectations were not realistic. We thought we were entitled, but we weren’t.”
Governments can’t ensure that everyone gets the security and prosperity they think they deserve. The economy will always have ups and downs. And some businesses and industries will collapse despite the fact that most of their employees worked hard and did the right thing.
What governments can do is create a safety net that prevents workers and their families from falling into severe poverty. They can provide almost everyone with access to basic education and healthcare. And they can maintain a framework that allows the economy to grow in the long term, even if it periodically shrinks during recessions.
Part of the trouble with the entitlement mentality is that people who feel they’ve been denied look for scapegoats. And when those scapegoats are people on welfare, the entitlement mentality can end up eroding one of the few things governments really can do — maintaining a system that protects vulnerable people against poverty.