When I told my mother that The Aspen Times had offered me this column, she was concerned I would be maligned for expressing my views. After all, elite opinion-makers often paint conservatives as bigots and worse, an unseemly prospect for her nice Jewish daughter.
Notwithstanding my mother's concern, I'm delighted for this opportunity to offer readers perspectives they might not otherwise have considered. Whether readers change their mind is less important than whether they “Think Again.” Hence, the name for this column, because I believe in Mahatma Gandhi's dictum, “In true democracy, every man and woman is taught to think for him or herself.”
What most compels me to write this column is my dismay at the gradual erosion of American values and the simultaneous rise of an entitlement culture. It's tempting to want favorable treatment while expecting someone else to pay for it. But when we displace responsibility and blame others, we stifle the inclinations that made us great. Like the frog that can't detect the source of its gradual demise, Americans must be prodded to jump out of the boiling water.
Throughout our history, we've been the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” and a beacon to the world. Rugged individualism is in our national DNA. Our nation emerged from the unlikely victory of an outmanned army led by a valiant and stoic general, George Washington, who is our greatest American icon. We're all about overcoming adversity and stiff odds to grow, innovate and progress, and it's our hardiness and brazen independence that made us the freest, most creative and most prosperous nation in world history — and the most charitable. It's in our national creed to extend the underprivileged a “hand-up,” though not a “hand-out.”
Immigrants who flocked here did so to parlay pervasive opportunity into the American Dream. I am the lucky descendent of immigrant grandparents who, through tenacity and fortitude, realized their dream of a better life in the melting pot of America.
At the same time, other countries have thrived by adopting our values and practices. In my tenure at the World Bank, I witnessed the turn-around of countries that implemented our American model of limited government and free markets, while those that rejected it were caught in a cycle of dependency, corruption, market distortion and further poverty.
It's because of our unique “American Character” that De Tocqueville coined the term ”American Exceptionalism” in 1831. He observed an America characterized by a strong work ethic, self-reliance, independence, productivity, creativity, entrepreneurialism, charity and personal responsibility. Today, these values are being displaced by a growing sense of entitlement that is not only unsustainable, it has a corrosive effect on our identity as citizens ... it makes us smaller.
As America has moved away from our founding principles (limited government, liberty, and the American work ethic) many of our citizens have become less independent, less self-reliant and more expectant. All the while, special interests have ravaged our political culture and economic viability. Politicians, interested mainly in self-preservation, indulge us by feeding unrealistic expectations for favorable treatment, like parents who don't set boundaries for their children.
But as any parent knows, a sense of entitlement is toxic because it undermines initiative and gratitude and breeds self-centeredness, unhappiness and anger, giving rise to feelings of victimization and resentment when the “toys” are taken away. If we won't tolerate a sense of entitlement in our children, why should we accept it in our fellow citizens?
We shouldn't, because these attitudes undermine everybody's economic security, propelling us toward “Greek Tragedy” — a dead-end where our national debt has grown so large, it's the greatest threat to U.S. national security, according to Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Despite the class warfare waged by unprincipled politicians, Americans know we can't simply tax the rich to meet the demands of a burgeoning and unaccountable bureaucracy.
So, I ask you to consider this advice from an old sage: “Everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: ‘The world was created for me.' And on the other: ‘I am but a humble servant.' The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each pocket.” Currently, too many of us reach only for the paper “The world was created for me.”
President Kennedy discouraged the entitlement mentality and invoked American exceptionalism when he urged, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” As Americans, we should “think again,” revert to the values that made us great, and reach more for the paper in our other pocket, “I am but a humble servant.”