Many Republicans talk of an entitlement mentality that threatens the character and finances of the United States. In their view, the problem is that too many voters feel entitled to goodies provided by the government and financed by taxpayers.
It is true that so-called entitlement programs are growing as a share of the federal budget and the national economy. Along with spending on national defense and interest on the federal debt, spending on entitlement programs consumes the overwhelming majority of the federal budget. But a close look at the data shows that it's not a voter sense of entitlement that is driving the process. Quite the contrary.
The two biggest entitlement programs -- Social Security and Medicare -- are seen by voters as trust funds they pay into during their working lives and then get back in their retirement years. That's what President Franklin D. Roosevelt sold voters back in 1935. He wanted the "contributors" to have a "legal, moral and political right to collect their pensions." That's what voters still want today. Seventy-three percent believe the best way for the program to operate is to protect the trust funds and make sure there is enough tax revenue to pay the promised benefits. Just 10 percent want to scrap this approach and have the government pay benefits out of the general operating budget.
There are problems with the public perception, of course, starting with the fact that the way our politicians have defined "trust funds" is fraudulent. But those problems reflect the failings and deceptions of politicians rather than voters. In Social Security and Medicare, voters are not looking for a handout. They are looking for a return on money invested.
Perhaps because of their distrust of the politicians, two out of three voters now think workers should be able to consider the relevant trade-offs on their own. For example, those who would like to retire later could pay less in taxes now, while those who would like to retire earlier could pay more in taxes now. That's an investing mindset, not a sense of entitlement.
But politicians in Washington continue to blame the voters for allegedly wanting more government than they are willing to pay for. The effort of politicians to pin the blame on voters diverts attention from the real entitlement mentality that threatens to bankrupt the nation: A political class that feels entitled to rule over the rest of us. Government spending has gone up in every years since 1954 because political leaders have pursued their own agenda rather than listening to voters.