As President Obama resentfully noted in his second inaugural address, conservatives have repudiated government entitlements—calling America “a nation of takers,” as outlined in Nick Eberstadt’s short book by the same title.
More than anything else, the message has been perceived as a demeaning and offensive, personal attack against American citizens who receive government benefits. Exemplified in the president’s address, liberals have made a concerted effort to portray the argument in this way. And among the general public, their efforts have seemed to pay off.
However, conservatives should not give up the cause, but instead make a better case. The entitlement culture in America will eventually lead the country to economic ruin if not addressed. Over-dependence on the government leads to less economic production, more government spending and massive debt. Unsustainable debt inevitably necessitates strict austerity measures which have brutal effects on people, especially the poor. Look to southern Europe if you doubt this narrative.
In order to prevail, conservatives need to change the tone of their argument. Enough with the negativity and pessimism—let’s focus on a positive way forward instead.
There was a time when America was known for its industriousness and self-dependence. The German-American author and journalist Francis Grund once commented:
I have never known a native American to ask for charity. No country in the world has such a small number of persons supported at the public expense… An American, embarrassed by his pecuniary circumstances, can hardly be prevailed upon to ask or accept the assistance of his own relations; and will, in many instances, scorn to have recourse to his own parents.
Hard-work, resourcefulness and self-sufficiency were once trademarks of American life. For a long time, providing for oneself and one’s family was accepted as a fundamental responsibility of life, and it was considered a privilege to do so. Americans understood the immense opportunity and gladly took advantage of it.
With this reality in mind, it is actually the expanding welfare state that should be considered offensive and demeaning. As with general aid to the poor, when we help our neighbors through long-term government welfare programs, the results can be belittling and counterproductive, leaving some with a damaged sense of self-worth and unhealthy dependence.
The progressive response has been—and will undoubtedly continue to be—that many Americans depend on these programs. Yes, too many. What would happen if the requirements for entitlements—like disability insurance and SNAP—were tightened so that only the people most in need qualified for them? Some Americans who currently depend on these programs would have to depend on something else. But it turns out that their replacement options are far better: Instead of government, they can depend on their own hard work and resourcefulness (which will almost assuredly increase their self esteem) or their families, friends, churches and communities.
For the sake of America’s future, conservatives must continue to make this argument. But how about this for a change of message: “We are a nation of creators, a nation of providers. We are capable. We are talented and skilled in many unique and different ways. We have dignity and worth. Remember that and live accordingly.”