December 21, 2011
By Ryan Messmore, D.Phil.
Christmastime is a season of gratitude. Whether it’s because we reflect upon the birth of the Christ child or the blessings of the past year, the holiday often prompts a sense of appreciation and thankfulness as well as the tradition of gift-giving.
And this year, the season of giving and receiving gifts comes in sharp contrast to a succession of months pervaded with a sense of entitlement.
An entitlement mentality—a sense of being owed something for nothing—settles in when people interpret wants as needs and then view those needs as rights. And once something is understood as a “right,” people tend to hold government responsible for providing it.
This “government-owes-us” mentality threatens not only the spirit of Christmas but the very fabric of a just and prosperous society.
For America’s founders, the list of basic individual rights included life, liberty and property. The founders asserted that God provides these rights and governments are responsible to protect them.
Over the years, the list of what Americans think they deserve from government has ballooned. Visit an “Occupy” protest encampment and you’ll hear claims for the right to a high-paying job, home ownership, comprehensive health care and freedom from college debt. Many Americans think retirement at age 65 is an automatic right, regardless of circumstances.
And, around the holiday season, some of our citizens proclaim the supposed right not to be offended by religious symbols displayed in public.
Many events of 2011, from the uprising in Greece to the downgrading of America’s credit rating, revealed the dangers of runaway spending on Social Security and other entitlement programs. Less noticed was the degrading effect an insidious entitlement mentality has on the moral fabric of a people.
Such a “we’re due” attitude can suppress aspiration and sap the ambition to work. It often accompanies envy and class warfare. And it can weaken personal bonds of mutual responsibility and care among citizens.
This outlook, of course, clashes with the attitudes of gift-giving and thankfulness that mark the Christmas season.
Giving gifts can be a powerful thing. Gifts create a kind of momentum of good will that bind both giver and receiver in a more personal relationship. The giver often is motivated by the desire to help, while the receiver usually is motivated by gratitude to give back, at a minimum, an expression of thanks.
This seemingly basic dynamic is important when it comes to tackling social ills. If conditions permit, gift-givers often have a vested interest in seeing that the desired objective of their help is achieved. For example, we desire the recipient to use our gift of money to purchase food instead of illegal drugs. By the same token, the receiver often desires to demonstrate good stewardship of the gift—by using it wisely rather than wastefully, for instance.
Entitlements foster a different social relationship, mainly because governments typically deliver the benefits through impersonal, top-down programs.
These aren’t personal, voluntary acts taken on behalf of a friend, neighbor or someone else we know. Entitlement programs are funded by taxes, which government mandates under threat of penalty. The requirement often fosters a sense of resentment among taxpayers rather than a desire to help others.
And on the other side, an entitlement mentality tends to undercut the feeling and offering of gratitude. In fact, sometimes that sense of entitlement tempts recipients to “play” the system, leading to waste, fraud and long-term dependence on the dole.
In short, ever-expanding entitlements aren’t just a fiscal liability; they're a moral threat as well. They have the power to shape cultural attitudes and social dynamics. Americans need to be aware of this potential, so we not only can avoid financial collapse but also foster the kinds of relationships most conducive to genuine compassion and flourishing.
As we celebrate the holidays, let’s give thanks for—and diligently protect—our God-given rights. But let’s also pay attention to the dynamics that play out with the giving and receiving of presents.
This is a season for reflecting especially on gifts of grace—blessings to which we aren’t necessarily entitled. May gratitude move us to give freely and generously to others in the New Year.
First moved by the McClatchy-Tribune wire service
Family & Religion Initiative of the Leadership for America Campaign
Ryan Messmore, D.Phil.
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