With Good Intentions


The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement, by Robert J. Samuelson, New York: Times Books, 274 pages, $25.00

Robert Samuelson, long-time columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post, is not a timid person. His columns confront issues head-on and his voice, while curmudgeonly, takes its tone from the numbers. His first book, The Good Life and Its Discontents, will not disappoint his fans. (And–full disclosure–I'm one of them.)

Stated baldly, Samuelson's message is stern. It runs like this: The postwar era has been a period in which Americans demanded more and more "things" from their government; they felt entitled to a pampered life where jobs were secure, lucrative, and fulfilling, where social relations were characterized by harmony and equality, and where good health and excellent education were guaranteed. Simply put, Samuelson charges that we transformed the American dream into a fantasy, and that the road back to reality requires that we ask less of government and more of ourselves.

That's the argument. And by the time Samuelson is done making it, it's hard to disagree.

The Good Life and Its Discontents spends a rather long time looking at the causes of this feeling of entitlement. Essentially, the foundation was laid in the 1950s when Americans overcame their Depression anxiety and started to take prosperity for granted. That, in turn, expressed itself in something Samuelson calls the New Capitalism–a partnership between government and big corporations dedicated to taming the business cycle.

Samuelson points out that because new technologies, novel products, and more efficient processes grow out of turbulence and uncertainty, business cycles and corporate failure are the central characteristics of a market economy. Unfortunately, these economic ups and downs are unsettling and often punishing. Thus, according to Samuelson, the attempt to smooth out these repeated upheavals became an attempt to guarantee perpetually expanding prosperity.

The New Capitalism, then, led directly to the politics of overpromise–the government reflex to make more commitments than it can fulfill. In this view, the politics of overpromise flowed naturally from the belief that an ever-expanding economy would generate the income that government needed to satisfy its new commitments.

And finally, Samuelson describes how casting the government into a role of economic omnipotence made it an easy choice to become the instrument for achieving social equality. The difficulty of this role, however, was not so much that it was inappropriate, but that the definition of equality has become a moving target. Its requirements ballooned as many groups–blacks, women, gays, Hispanics, welfare recipients, the disabled, prisoners, and so forth–began to insist on new "rights" that, unlike old-fashioned political rights such as access to the polls and public institutions, were actually wealth-redistribution mechanisms. So, too, health care and education became candidates for achieving equality. The creation of all these synthetic rights then became another form of entitlement.

Samuelson is thrillingly contemptuous of both the Keynesian conceit that government can manage the economy to produce seamless growth and constantly rising living standards and the cult of management that holds that a good manager is all it takes to run any business into effortless corporate largesse. He describes how the combination of government overcommitment and the failure of the economy to generate larger and larger tax revenues resulted in huge federal budget deficits. And he shows how the singular emphasis on management produced firms that were top-heavy with bureaucrats and too rigid to respond to new competition. As for the expanding definition of equality, Samuelson says simply that it "blurred the boundary between equality of opportunity and equality of results."

The net result of all this is that having expected the impossible, Americans are now crabby and disillusioned with what they have. Rather than appreciating the distance they've come in the past 35 years, Americans focus on what is wrong. And, finding plenty that falls short of perfect, they have become disenchanted with government and its leaders.

Samuelson argues that this crabbiness is a signal that the age of entitlement is ending. Although he refuses to forecast the next stage, he does offer his view of what ought to come next–lower expectations and more personal responsibility. This responsibility is surgically dissected: It means making choices, recognizing limits and clarifying accountability. Responsibility means taking life's lumps without running to government for rescue. Responsibility is tough and unpleasant.

As a way of reasserting a standard of discipline, Samuelson picks, first and foremost, balancing the federal budget: "Government services worth having ought to be worth paying for in taxes….Gain and pain ought to be calibrated," says Samuelson. (And in his trademark, no-nonsense way, he trots out some real numbers and actual ideas to show how this can be done; ditto for solving the longer-term problems of Social Security and Medicare by cutting costs.)

Austere? You bet. Yet honest readers will probably not find this austerity threatening because Samuelson painstakingly builds his case and refrains from the usual, divisive rhetoric of most public policy books. (He abstains, for example, from categorizing ideas and people with terms like liberal and conservative.) In the end, this restrained tone and leisurely pace takes the sting out of what is, after all, a severe chastisement of American indulgence and petulance.

But let's say Samuelson has correctly called a turn in American thinking and that the age of entitlement is drawing to a close. And let's say his vision of more reasonable expectations and greater personal exertion prevails. What then does he see as the rewards of taking ourselves in hand? Samuelson is unremitting to the end. It will not repeal Big Government. Why?

Because, he says, there is no public demand to do so. The anti-government sentiment so clear in the 1994 congressional election is, to Samuelson, an abstract expression of frustration–a grumble from the disillusioned public. It is not a specific and desired goal.

Well, here I think he is wrong. Of course there will continue to be a constituency for government to take on utopian tasks and function as the ultimate provider. And of course there will continue to be people who eschew responsibility for personal failures. But most people realize that the age of entitlement and the big government that promoted it have been a total flop.

More important, many people accept the fact that life requires tradeoffs and feel that the tradeoff involved in endowing the government with too much power is an unacceptable loss of individual power. Without putting too fine a point on it, I would guess that's not the sort of belief that is likely to evaporate just because government benefits are cut back and a little personal fortitude is required.

Susan Lee (sclee12@aol.com) is an economist and the author of the book Hands Off: Why the Government is a Menace to Economic Health, to be published by Simon & Schuster in April.