Daniel Bell. The revolution of rising entitlements.
The great historian is one who, looking back at the long sweep of a nation's history--say, two hundred years--can identify the salient and enduring factors, the axial principles, that account for its distinctiveness and the course the polity has taken. Even greater, and rarer, are those who, at the onset of a distinctive phase in a nation's history, at the time when the first tracks are being cut through the virgin forest, can identify those that will remain and become the roads for future generations.
What makes Alexis de Tocqueville so relevant today is that, one hundred and forty years ago, he saw one of the roads clearly. The opening lines of his introduction to Democracy in America, written in 1835, set the motif:
"No novelty in the United States struck me more vividly during my stay there than the equality of conditions . . .
"I soon realized that the influence of this fact extends far beyond political mores and law, exercising dominion over civil society as much as over the government; it creates opinions, gives birth to feelings, suggests customs, and modifies whatever it does not create.
"So the more I studied American society, the more clearly I saw equality of conditions as the creative elements from which each particular fact derived, and all my observations constantly returned to this modal point."
No single person or social movement shaped this idea of equality. A theme that is so protean has many diverse sources. It is, in a direct way, a fruit of the Reformation, of Martin Luther's idea of the priesthood of all believers, in which individual conscience and not institutional authority is the source of judgment. In the U.S., the idea of equality flourished because there was no tradition of hierarchical feudal institutions. And, of course, the idea was helped along by the expanding frontier, in which no man could "lord it" over others.
American society was also set apart from others by its belief in material progress. The industrial revolution and the capitalist order were combined powerfully in the U.S. and were soon creating a rising standard of living and holding out a tangible promise of plenty for all.
Yet the System has been transformed in recent years, and those original impulses are today being caricatured in ways that threaten the stability of American society. The promise of plenty has been transformed into a revolution of rising expectations. This need not in itself have been a problem; rising expectations for themselves might, in principle, lead people to feel more responsible for the health of their society. But the expectations in America have become hedonistic, concerned with consumption and pleasure, and lack any moral underpinning.
Meanwhile, the promise of equality has been transformed into a revolution of rising "entitlements"--claims on government to implement an array of newly defined and vastly expanded social rights. Here again, this need not have been a problem; there is nothing inherently wrong with turning to government to secure one's rights. But the process has been unfolding in a peculiarly destructive way in the U.S. Just about all grievances now get dumped into the lap of government, while the voluntary associations that once furthered the claims of different groups are withering.
Both revolutions have a lot of momentum behind them, but there is no doubt that the entitlements have more. The increasing tendency of Americans to turn to the government to solve their problems is reflected dramatically in some figures on spending by government at all levels. In 1950, spending by government to buy goods and services, and to effect transfer payments. represented 18 percent of gross national product. By 1974 the figure was 32 percent. There is every sign that the proportion will increase steadily, and that major economic decisions in the society will turn,