When rights to be earned become entitlements to be had we all have a problem

What happened that Democratic and Republican members of Congress, especially in the House, where republicans now make up a “severely” conservative majority, are battling among themselves over timid budget proposals to reduce next year’s budget deficit, while doing little or nothing about the total federal debt of some $15 trillion?

Given the size of both debt and deficit you’d think that the representatives of the two parties would work together to substantially reduce projected annual budget deficits averaging nearly two trillion dollars, as well as the total Federal debt representing just over 100% of this year’s GDP.

Well what happened was that our representatives in Congress, no less than their predecessors, are listening more to their hearts than their heads. They would do what they think their constituents’ want, not what their heads tell them would be best, for their constituents and for the country. Perfectly understandable in that their continued presence in the Congress, their reelection to office, will probably be assured not by the heads, but by the hearts of the people in their districts.

What happened, what probably is behind the present budget “battles,” was that President Roosevelt on January 11, 1944, in almost the last year of his life, and within a year and a half of the end of the war, was also listening to his heart. That also, given the suffering and the hardship of the times, was perfectly understandable.

On that day President Roosevelt spoke forcefully and eloquently about a greater meaning and higher purpose in postwar America, other than the questions of war and security that still occupied his citizens’ lives. Perhaps he meant to give the people a final gift, a follow-up to the Social Security Act of ten years earlier, one that would assure even more his own place in history as being not only a war president but a president for all the people, in particular for all those most in need of Federal government largesse, or so it seemed.

The President proposed on that day an economic (as opposed to political) bill or rights. His words would become a part of the national conscience, most people since then probably agreeing that jobs, education, health care and such should be, to some degree, the responsibility of government. In particular, and on each occasion to a greater or lesser degree, what he proposed would be a part of future Democratic Party platforms.

Here is what the President proposed:

1. The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation.

2. The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.

3. The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living.

4. The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home and abroad.

5. The right of every family to a decent home.

6. The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.

7. The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accidents and unemployment.

8. The right to a good education.”

In one fell swoop the rights of the Founding Fathers became in President Roosevelt’s rendering entitlements, although he didn’t use that word. Jobs, homes, food and clothing, medical care, education, it all became, or would become the Federal government’s responsibility to provide.

But of course, and here’s the rub, unlike the political rights of the Bill of Rights that cost the government little or nothing, the economic rights were clearly going to cost, and as it now seems, more than the country could ever afford.

And who would have to pay the cost other than the tax payers?  China? In the last few years we have been borrowing more and more from China. Our own children? We are leaving on them much of our present debt in the form of future obligations that will one day have to be met by them and their children.

We already know that we can’t pay for all that we have promised. In fact we will probably have to take back some of what I’ll call Roosevelt’s parting gift to the people. And what is even worse, in spite of all that we have done so far, in spite of running up a huge debt to pay for wars and entitlements, we have little to show for it. We are now burdened with high jobless rates, failing inner city public schools, mediocre and often unsatisfactory delivery of health care.

Rights, meaning according to Thomas Jefferson, the freedom of individuals to pursue life, liberty, and property (“the pursuit of happiness”), the freedom to work hard and by one’s work to earn the very things that Roosevelt spoke of as being necessary to one’s well being. These things, that first Roosevelt and then the Democratic and also Republican politicians would make entitlements owed to the people, should have been presented from the beginning as being available only to individuals who were willing to work for them.

And this is the situation we have today. Too many people see themselves as being owed things that should only have been theirs by their having earned them.

And at the present time neither the Democratic nor the Republican members of Congress are going to risk their own positions by taking back the earlier gifts made to their constituents. The real battle now going on in Congress is not over their doing the right thing (that which in any case they are afraid of doing), but over their not being caught doing nothing at all.

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