a nation of takers

During his inauguration speech on Monday, President Obama had the following to say regarding so-called entitlement programs:

They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

I’ve been wanting to put together a post about this topic since Ash and I got married back in October, and now seems like a great time to do it. So let’s talk about entitlement programs.

And let’s start right there: entitlement programs. I have, in fact, met people – very poor people – who honestly believed they had a right to federal money solely because they had kids and couldn’t find a job. I know someone who’s not even looking for a job. I have heard him say, “This food stamp shit is awesome. I don’t know why I ever bothered working.” We can talk about whether those attitudes are right or wrong, but I’m not sure that it matters.

Because rich people feel entitled, too. So if we want to talk about the attitudes of the very poor, we should also discuss the attitudes of the very rich. Is it right that trust-fund babies get handed a ton of privilege solely because they can pay for it? Is it right that they are financially free to take risks when that money isn’t truly theirs any more than those living off of federal subsidy? I don’t know. My point is merely that before we can really talk about entitlement programs, we need to talk about the American view toward entitlement.

It seems to me that our concept of entitlement is woven into the American fabric just as much as our concept of freedom. We began teaching the Native Americans Christianity because our education entitled us to do so. We began taking their land because the phrase manifest destiny is little more than saying God has entitled us to this land. We brought human beings chained in boats across the Atlantic to do our hard labor, to take our beatings, to let us fuck them, to keep them uneducated solely because we didn’t understand their ways and their ignoble savagery entitled us to view them as something less than human, than even animal. And even today we prevent couples who truly love each other from getting married solely because our fear of their homosexuality entitles us to control their behavior rather than face our own fear.

Americans have felt entitled to so much for so long, we’ve become a nation of selfish ingrates with little-to-no self-control. We used to feel entitled to a whole hell of a lot more than just money. In banning gay marriage, we entitle ourselves to their happiness. In enslaving African, we entitled ourselves to their bodies. In taking the land from Native Americans, we entitled ourselves to their homes. And in converting them to our religion, we entitled ourselves to their very souls.

As you can see, money is fairly low on the entitlement market exchange.

America has always been a nation of takers. We’ve been taking things for so long we can’t help ourselves. The only reason this entitlement-program brouhaha is even a thing is that it also requires us to give. We don’t like giving: to the government, to a cause, to the poor, to anything that cannot promise a decent return on investment. Furthermore, we view the act of giving as a reason to feel entitled.

Because that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? I pay my taxes, which pays for those programs, so I get a say in how my money is used. We’re not upset that people are living without having to work, eating without earning the meal. We’re upset because they’re doing it on our dime.

This is why socialism is vilified in our media as the ultimate evil. It postulates that the very best way to live is to be responsible for every life we contact. It requires that we live only on what we need and that we use the remainder for the good of the people. Americans do not want to care about the good of the people for the good of the people entitles us to nothing.

In this American’s view, that’s the problem. Long ago – back in the time of Alexander Hamilton – we crowned capital as king, placed it well above human life, human justice, and human happiness, and now we’re a slave to it in every way.

This is what needs to be addressed, not just in talking about entitlement programs but also in the regulation of banks, of oil, of Congress, of pretty much everything. We need to talk about why we feel entitled and why capital is king. Until we address those attitudes, we’re going to continue going back and forth on them, everything at the mercy of the controlling party. Or at the futile head-butting of stalemate parties, like we have now.

I have more to talk about on entitlements, more in the personal vein in which this post was headed, but I’ll leave it at this for now.


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