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A nation of entitlement

| Wednesday, February 26, 2020

“We’re an entitlement nation. We were born that way. We’re a country that came to another country with people on it and went, ‘Yeah I think we’ll have that. Yeah that’ll be nice.’”

In 2012, Jon Stewart said the above quote during a debate with Bill O’Reilly. He was making a joke, but the statement gets to the heart of a very contentious question in our country: What exactly are we entitled to?

Certain people in this country have this strange notion that we are entitled to nothing. That whatever you have, you earn, and if you have nothing that is because you have earned nothing. This idea is wrong and it is harmful. 

First, because as stated above, we are a nation built on entitlement. We wouldn’t be here if our founders believed that they were entitled to nothing. They believed they were entitled to representation if they were to be taxed, they believed they were entitled to self-governance and to equal protection of the laws (for some, at least). These things are what the Founding Fathers believed they were entitled to when they built this country. No one would argue that they didn’t fight for these ideals, but the reason they worked so hard to win them is because they felt they were owed these rights.

Why do we deem the founders’ belief in and fight for entitlements heroic, but the modern struggle for entitlements dishonorable?

Second, because the belief that you are entitled to nothing is rooted in the mythic “bootstrap culture” — the idea that if you simply work hard, you will get what you want. It’s this bootstrap culture that underpins the belief that taxation is theft or that the social safety net is disastrous, because taking from the rich and giving to the poor is simply redistributing the hard-earned money of the 1%. Ignoring for a moment the fact of inherited wealth and assets, this way of thinking is simply not rooted in reality. Economic mobility in the U.S. has been plummeting, and for most, the idea that you could escape the economic class that you were born into if you just “work hard” is fiction

Worse, bootstrap culture leads people to believe there are villains lurking around every corner, just waiting to take advantage of the welfare state. This is not true.

In fact, less than 1% of benefits associated with SNAP were fraudulent in 2016, and less than 2% of unemployment insurance claims were fraudulent. There will always be people ready to take advantage of any system. The solution is not to dismantle that system, but to create better ways of protecting it against bad actors. If we lost faith in every network that allowed for instances of fraud, we would have dismantled the housing market, banking system and our electoral structure years ago. That would be absurd.

No one is arguing that the ability to defraud voters will make politicians lazier and less willing to put in the work to win elections, so why do we think the ability to commit welfare fraud is making people indolent?

Part of this anti-entitlement belief system is rooted in classism. Many people are appalled at the idea that a bus driver should earn as much money as an attorney, mostly because they think the attorney works harder (I challenge any of these people to operate a CTA bus on St. Patrick’s Day in the city, but I digress). These people think that if the bus driver wants more money, he should simply work harder and get a new job. But why doesn’t he? What’s the difference between the attorney and the bus driver? Is it really just work ethic?

Say the attorney is more ambitious. Where did her ambition come from? If it isn’t due to where she was born, who her parents were or the amount of wealth she inherited as it can’t be for bootstrap culture to make sense, from where did she get it? Did God love her and consequently despise the bus driver so much that He blessed her with enough ambition in the womb to become an attorney, and withheld just enough that he became a bus driver? Or is something else going on?

If people refuse to admit that the unearned privileges that we are born into play a role in where we end up, then they must admit that certain people are just born better than others. The attorney was just better than the bus driver. Even if one were to make this claim, he or she would still have to admit that bootstrap culture can’t account for this difference. Bootstrap culture only works if everyone starts on an even playing field, and the winners are the ones that work the hardest. But if certain people on that playing field are born with more ambition than others, then it wasn’t even to begin with. 

Personally, I don’t think we can chalk up the difference between the bus driver and the attorney to whomever God liked more in the womb. I believe there are other factors in play, and these factors are outside of our control. The fact is, if you are born into a wealthy family to two parents in a safe neighborhood, you will have an advantage in life. I worked hard to get where I am, but I know for a fact it wouldn’t have been nearly as easy if I didn’t have all of those privileges from the start. 

So, life isn’t fair. That we can agree on. What should we do?

We obviously need to make economic mobility a reality again instead of a dream, but that will take work and we may not agree on how best to do it. In the meantime, the very least we can do is stop begrudging those who ask for help when they need it. There is no reason to cut funding for food stamps, slash disability funds or cut Medicaid. We should also stop labeling the desirable things we have as privileges, and therefore not something to which other people are entitled.

Sure, your Louis Vuitton heels may be a privilege, but your healthcare is a right. Food is not a privilege. Everyone is entitled to an education. 

It’s time to reframe the debate about entitlements and throw out the mythical bootstrap culture. Reality demands nothing less.

Mary Szromba is a senior majoring in philosophy and political science, and she’s never been wrong about anything in her entire life. Questions, comments, and anonymous love letters can be directed to [email protected] or @_murrrrrr on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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