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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: Harvey Mansfield

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

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On the whole, I am optimistic about America’s future. But I do not take “optimistic” to mean that things are bound to get better, or even that they have a tendency to do so. Rather than try to predict, it is better to understand things as open to prudent improvement and thus be opportunistically hopeful of America’s prospects.

A big choice lies ahead for America, in which the entitlements we have voted for ourselves now threaten us as if they were our unchosen fate. They are called entitlements because they were supposed to have been chosen for good, past recall, and thus put “beyond politics.” What you are entitled to will no longer be subject to dispute. Now it appears we cannot pay for them, and not just arguably but indisputably. Democrats, who first proposed them, are beginning to agree on this point with Republicans, who at first opposed them. Very few want to abolish entitlements; most Republicans want only to change their terms so as to make them affordable. Still, to change them at all robs them of their character as entitlements and sets a precedent for future changes that might restrict them further. They become mere benefits without the security of special protection in the sanctuary of nondiscretionary payments.

Democrats established entitlements to provide “social security” against the risk that people would not save enough voluntarily to provide for their retirement. This was security against our citizens’ lack of the virtue of thrift. Yet if you did save enough, your savings might be lost or reduced through the uncontrollable action of the market, “market failure.” Recourse to government is the cure for risk arising from personal or impersonal forces that people feel impotent to control. But government has transformed itself from an instrument of control into an uncontrollable force of its own, unwieldy, with its own inertia and mindless direction. Its public servants serve themselves first; setting the example for the rest of us, their security comes ahead of the country’s. A mountain of debt testifies to the inability of government to control itself. People have lost confidence in their instrument and therefore in themselves. Self-government looks like it doesn’t work.

The need to recover control, most evident in domestic matters, is paramount. In foreign affairs America has been moderately successful, due in good part to its military prowess, whether employed with gusto by Republicans or apologetically by Democrats. The entitlements are the problem. The mentality they produce is just what President Kennedy decried in the line “ask not what your country can do for you.” A controllable government needs to be both limited and energetic: limited to benefits that do not make dependents of our people and energetic when it must act. With this goal we can reasonably look to America’s future with hope.

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Harvey Mansfield, a recipient of a 2011 Bradley Prize, is professor of government at Harvard University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.



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