Some suggest that entitlement and opportunity don’t go together, but the reality is that one is not possible without the other.
The central issue and turning point in every presidential election since 1956 has been — for better or worse – the current state and future of the American economy. Not surprisingly, the campaign of 2012 is certain to follow that tradition.
As the Republicans scuffle their way through a messy family fight to determine their nominee, it has become apparent that no matter who emerges to battle President Obama, the imagined path to victory – for both parties – is to cast the options for American economic growth in euphemistic “either or” propositions.
Mitt Romney, the odds-on favorite to become the Republican presidential nominee, has capitalized on binary, black vs. white characterizations, as a choice between “A government of entitlement or a government of opportunity.” This is a catchy bit of election sloganeering, but it is misleading and dangerously simplistic.
But Romney isn’t alone in this superficial campaign branding. President Obama is clearly showing that his campaign will be predicated on protecting and preserving the middle class. That’s classic Democratic shorthand for a society that protects the government programs that it believes will sustain a strong, viable middle-class is necessary for long-term economic success. I think that’s spelled e-n-t-i-t-l-e-m-e-n-t-s.
So Which is the Holy Grail? Entitlements or Opportunity?
Voters making that important decision should first recognize that the terms “entitlement” and “opportunity” are heavily polluted; they’re being used as “code words” by politicians who invoke them to illicit a guttural response from a receptive audience, rather than a reasoned response from intelligent voters.
When Romney throws out the phrase “entitlement government” he wants people to believe that Obama seeks to take money (taxes) from the wealthy and distribute it to those who are not entitled to receive it. (This is a not-too-thinly veiled characterization of Obama as a Socialist.) When Obama uses the concept of entitlement he is coming from the belief that government has a responsibility to do for those what they can’t do for themselves. Both viewpoints are wide of the mark, and they are just as inaccurate when address economic opportunity.
When Romney speaks of offering “a government of opportunity,” his pandering message is that any act of government in the business segment, i.e. regulation and taxes, by its nature inhibits opportunity for all. On the other hand, Obama sees opportunity as something that is to be created and preserved by the actions of government. As with most emotional political debates, each side relies on an element of truth, but taken as a whole, their arguments are muddled and out of touch with reality.
Please, Just for Once, Get Real
It is unfortunate for the future of America that neither of the candidates will have the courage to argue that “entitlement” and “opportunity” are not mutually exclusive and that both are needed to create an environment for sound economic growth. Accordingly, the debate should center on specific steps to be taken in order to balance entitlement and opportunity in a way that will assure broad-based, equitable success. After all, when the history of American economic growth is examined, it is obvious that the most significant and broad-based growth has been achieved when entitlement and opportunity are balanced. Likewise, when government is canted in either the direction of entitlement or opportunity, growth has become unbalanced and stunted.
When examined objectively, Romney’s bastardization of the concept of “government entitlement” is not only disingenuous and dishonest, it is demagoguery at its worst. Romney appeals to the most base and ignoble of voter instincts; that people are receiving benefits from the government that they are not entitled to and that “the rest of us have to pay for this largesse.” In this characterization he includes “entitlement programs” such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other government benefit programs.
Entitlements Have Helped Create a Stronger, more Vibrant America
Since every worker pays into the Social Security program over their entire working lives, shouldn’t they be “entitled” to receive the promised benefits when they retire? Medicare is another “entitlement program.” Again, every working person – via payroll taxes – contributes to the program their entire life, including after retirement. Shouldn’t this entitle them to receive the medical benefits promised?
One of the largest government “entitlement programs” started with the implementation of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act – referred to as the G.I. Bill – passed in 1944 and still in effect today. This program entitled veterans to receive government grants for college and vocational education. It also provided many different types of loans for returning veterans to buy homes, and start businesses and farms. During the ensuing years the program has come to include other veteran benefit programs created to assist veterans of subsequent wars as well as peacetime service. The government (taxpayers) covered the cost of this program; so does that mean the veterans are not entitled to receive these benefits?
The reality is that the entitlements of the G.I. Bill stimulated the economy after World War II and created “opportunity” for hundreds of thousands of veterans to receive a college education, buy a home and start a business. Who among us does not have a grandfather, father or even ourselves who have benefited from this entitlement program?
The American Way
But the concept of an “entitlement government” goes far beyond financial issues to include basic human rights—rights for which we depend on government to protect. Those who argue against an “entitlement government” really suggest that all citizens are not entitled to receive certain benefits and rights from the government. But aren’t all citizens entitled to a basic education, to know the food they consume is safe, to basic health care, to equal protection under the law; and are they not entitled to protection against predatory business practices? Doesn’t government guarantee that our rights are not denied because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability? Are these the fundamental entitlements that Romney claims “corrupt the American spirit”?
When it comes to the idea of creating a “government of opportunity,” there can be the same transposition of the meaning of opportunity. Does a “government of opportunity” mean a completely hands-off government that allows a laissez faire environment where it is every man for himself, the survival of the fittest and buyer beware? Or does it mean that a government of opportunity is one that proactively insures that everyone is entitled to the same equal opportunity to fail or succeed?
From its inception, the American government has had a history of partnering, of supporting and creating an environment that encourages broad-based economic opportunity. Government has been involved and instrumental in the development of every industrial and technological advance that has resulted in the economic success of this country, and it should continue to be.
The fatal fallacy in today’s political debate over the role of an “opportunity government” is that it is obsessed with saving the past, when it should be fixated on creating a more viable economic future. Opportunity is not defined as eliminating regulations and taxes or passing out billions of dollars of bailout money in an effort to save dying industries. These ideas are at best just tinkering around the edges. What is needed, but is not being debated today, is how the government can participate in the gestation of a new type of economic opportunity that will create the jobs of the future.
For example, virtually everyone accepts that developing technologies to create abundant, cheap, clean and reliable energy is the great global need and opportunity for of future. The country that can develop this energy technology will enhance its own energy and national security, while creating millions of jobs for its own economy. As our government did in the development of manufacturing, steel, railroads, transportation and technology itself, it should focus on exploiting this opportunity. And, as it has in the past, this opportunity should be balanced in a way that offers all its citizens freedom, economic security, growth and human fulfillment. We are entitled to no less.
And the Moral of the Story …
The next time some pandering politician suggests that our choice in government is one of either entitlement or opportunity, know that this person does not understand how our government has worked most effectively in the past or that they are being blatantly disingenuous and dishonest. Either or options always appear simple and clean on the surface, but the reality is that life and the function of government is much more complex.
The American government has always been most effective when it has carefully balanced the entitlements of its citizens with the opportunity of economic achievement. It is this philosophy that enabled America to achieve the longevity and success it has as a nation and it is the notion that will continue to do so in the future.