We’re the problem: Why government doesn’t work and is so hard to fix

Kim Holmes Distinguished Fellow, Heritage Foundation
Font Size:

Most of us agree: Our political system is in shambles. Recent polls find three-fourths of Americans dissatisfied with how the political system is working, and only 13 percent believe America is heading in the right direction. Over half of likely U.S. voters say our best days are behind us.

Pundits blame the angst on government shutdowns, political gridlock, and an ongoing economic crisis. But what if Washington’s dysfunction is symptomatic of something much larger?

What if the real problem is, well, us?

We, the people, elected this government. Blame the “other side” all you want, but in the end “we” chose the president and the Congress. For a more satisfying assessment of our predicament, we’d best step back from the politics of the moment.

The roots of today’s crises go back decades, when our booming economy, vibrant culture, and military successes made it seem like Americans had it all: security, prosperity, and freedoms our grandfathers never knew. We went on autopilot and enjoyed the ride. Soon, we stopped thinking and caring about the things that made America a great nation in the first place.

One of the things that changed most dramatically was the culture. It’s not merely the crudeness saturating the entertainment industry — Miley Cyrus’s twerking on TV is but one example. It’s also our civic culture — how we see ourselves and our social obligations. For those who remember the 1950s, it’s a stunning change.

Here’s what happened. The idealistic, countercultural youth of the 1960s grew up. They became government workers, business executives, lawyers, doctors, and Hollywood bigwigs. They grew wealthy and more mainstream in their work habits, yet they still clung to the value system of their rebellious youth. Most dropped the silly “summer of love” lifestyle, but most kept its preoccupation with Self.

Over time those values eroded the traditional American idea that the individual is fiercely responsible for himself, his family, and his community. Today, it’s “all about me” — what I’m entitled to; what I deserve. The notion of helping society by helping ourselves morphed into a culture focused on what society and government supposedly owes us.

Enter the age of entitlement and welfare. Although it began in the New Deal it was greatly expanded in the 1960s and thereafter with Medicare and other government programs. As our politics changed so did the culture. The counterculture’s assault on American ethos of self-reliance and individual responsibility fit hand in glove with the expansion of government. Many people today expect government to take care of all their problems, no matter how irresponsibly they live. Politicians get elected by promising more government benefits and services. Dependence on government, so shameful in most of American history, is now a “right.” More than that, it’s something to be proud of — you’re getting what’s coming to you.

We have now reached the point where much of society’s expectations of government are wildly utopian. No issue is too small, no task too great, no obligation too trivial for the government. It can tame the climate and hold back the oceans, and eliminate disease, poverty, and crime. It can guarantee “economic equality” (regardless of how mediocre that is or how great the economic consequences). There’s no limit to what government can do if cost and obligations matter far less than the “social justice” it’s supposed to (but never can) deliver.

The degree of government dependence is well-established. According to the Census Bureau, 49.2 percent of Americans now receive benefits from one or more government programs. There are 82 million households on Medicaid alone. But what is less understood is why it is so unbelievably difficult to stop or slow down the entitlement/welfare state.

It’s normally considered a budgetary problem, but at root it is a moral one. Receiving a government benefit regardless of one’s personal input is considered the right thing to do — a positive social ‘good.” This applies more to welfare than entitlement programs, but we all know that in the future individual contributions will give way to more direct government funding for entitlements.

America’s fiscal crises and government dysfunction will never end until we have a change of heart about government. If it’s only about money, rather than what is right and wrong, then we will always find ourselves borrowing more money to kick the can down the road. And as a result our crises and political divisions will only get worse.

Turning America around won’t be easy. But it’s possible, if we focus on what made America great in the first place: an abiding faith in the individual to triumph over adversity, respect for freedom, the belief that government works best when it governs least, and firm bonds of trust that make freedom possible.

Kim R. Holmes is a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. His new book Rebound: Getting America Back to Great can be found at http://www.heritage.org/rebound/