Milton Friedman may have argued that there is no such thing as a free lunch, but you’d have a hard time convincing millions of Americans of that today. They know better – or at least they think they do.
A record 46.5 million Americans rely on food stamps, and in 2010 the federal government paid out more money in the form of benefits than it collected in federal income taxes. But perhaps the most striking measure of the success of the entitlement state has been the way it’s eroded the stigma of being on the dole, while spreading dependency as a virtue as widely as possible. In other words: Everybody should buy everybody’s free lunch. And free breakfast too. (Did I mention free dinner also would be nice?)
The cultural shift has become so pronounced today that even some progressives are showing signs of unease. Were it not for her impeccable ideological pedigree, Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of Nancy Pelosi, former Speaker of the House, might have irreparably damaged her standing with her mother’s friends when she produced a brief video for HBO about her recent encounters outside a New York welfare office. In the Pelosi video, a man waiting in line is drinking beer and smoking cigarettes as he admits that he’s fathered five children by four different mothers. “I’m here to get a check … whatever they’ve got to offer,” he explains. “It’s not like they’ve got a checklist … I’m just here to get what I can get.”
Of course he was.
In the video, Alexandra Pelosi quizzes one man: “Why should I help you? Why should my tax dollars be going to you?” He replies, “Because my ancestors came here to help build this place – my ancestors, the slaves.” The last time the man worked, he says, was “half a decade” ago.
Around the country, there is a lot of “taking” going on. There was some mild bureaucratic embarrassment in Michigan recently when a 24-year-old woman who won $1 million in the state lottery was found to be collecting food assistance. “I feel it’s okay because, I mean, I have no income and I have bills to pay,” explained the woman, Amanda Clayton. “I have two houses.” She was utterly without embarrassment of any kind.
Like the upstanding gentleman in Pelosi’s video, Ms. Clayton was echoing the British welfare queen who declared, “I don’t feel bad about being subsidized by people who are working. I’m just working with the system that’s there. If the government wants to give me money, I’m happy to take it. We get what we’re entitled to.”
Clayton, the lottery winner, has now been cut off from government food aid, as of last Wednesday. The Department of Human Services director in Michigan, Maura Corrigan, issued a statement: “Under DHS policy, a recipient of food assistance benefits must notify the state within 10 days of any asset or income change. DHS relies on clients being forthcoming about their actual financial status. If they are not, and continue to accept benefits, they may face criminal investigation and be required to pay back those benefits.”
But Clayton’s use of taxpayer assistance after buying a new home and car with her winnings was not unusual. Another Michigan resident continued receiving food assistance after he won $2 million in the 2010 state lottery. That’s what prompted congressman Dale Zorn (R-MI) to pass legislation in his state’s House earlier this year that would remove large-sum lottery winners from welfare rolls. (Legislation is pending in the Michigan Senate.)
Yet there’s still plenty of freebies left to dole out. And as those freebies multiply and as politicians up the bidding, notice how often the two sides seem to talk past one another, using words that carry radically different meanings, depending on the speakers.
While GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney was campaigning last week in Peoria, Illinois, a young woman was caught on camera declaring: “So you’re all for like, ‘yay, freedom,’ and all this stuff. And ‘yay, like pursuit of happiness.’ You know what would make me happy? Free birth control.”
Wants have been transformed into “rights” in America and ultimately into obligations and entitlements.
Consider this young woman’s thought process. In the alchemy of the new entitlement culture, freedom and the pursuit of happiness are transformed into a demand for free stuff that makes her happy. You could argue with her that freedom means something other than free stuff and that the pursuit of happiness was never intended to imply a guarantee of taxpayer-financed bliss. But she knows what she wants, and she wants it for free. Romney, to his credit, told the woman that if she wanted free stuff, she should “vote for the other guy.”
Romney continued, “Politicians get up and promise you all kinds of free stuff, more and more stuff that you won’t have to pay for, and you know what? We get elected that way, in many cases, politicians do. That’s not something I subscribe to.”
But the Romney heckler illustrated the way in which wants have been transformed into “rights” in America and ultimately into obligations and entitlements. The process can be illustrated this way: “I want you to buy me lunch. Therefore, I need lunch. And if I need something, I have a right to it – and you, therefore, have an obligation to pay for it.”
The equation looks like this: Wants = needs = rights = obligations. The laundry list goes far beyond free lunch to include free health care, free cell phones, free birth control, free mortgage bailouts – and on and on.
We’ve seen how this worked out for the Greeks, of course. But for a growing number of Americans, what happened in Greece is irrelevant: The entitlement state appeals to voters who believe they will bear no consequences for the costs or sustainability of the program. Questions of affordability don’t come into it, because they know they will never have to pay for it. (Recall that 49.5 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax at all.)
They are not thinking of the burden to their children, their grandchildren, their friends, their fellow citizens of the country, or anyone else. As long as it is free to them – it’s free. And good luck telling them otherwise.