Note: The following is excerpted from the book “Stop Moaning, Start Owning: How Entitlement Is Ruining America and How Personal Responsibility Can Fix,” which releases today.
The United States was founded and built by rugged individualists, people who supremely valued personal freedom – the freedom to develop their ideas, strengths, skills and talents to the best of their abilities in the pursuit of better lives for themselves, their families and future generations. They were willing to take profound risks, like leaving their home continents for distant and unknown shores, like standing up to and defeating the most formidable foes of their times, and they literally tore their nation apart and pulled it back together again to eradicate the scourge of slavery. They created a nation that surpassed all others in industrial, cultural and intellectual productivity, in prosperity and peacekeeping power, and in personal freedom – the single greatest nation in human history in which to pursue happiness – and understood that that’s all freedom meant, freedom to pursue happiness; none among them was entitled to actually capture it. But the further the nation has progressed beyond the early struggles that paved the way to its prosperity, the easier it has become for its people to perceive their “fair shares” of its prosperity less as privileges and more as entitlements.
As successful as America became in an age of personal responsibility, over my professional lifetime I’ve seen it drifting toward an age of entitlement. I’ve seen it as I’ve assessed and counseled adults, adolescents, couples and families as a psychologist. I’ve seen it as I’ve served as an expert witness in legal cases where parties’ states of mind have been pivotal. I’ve seen it as I’ve negotiated and mediated disputes and represented clients in civil and criminal court as a lawyer. I’ve seen it as I’ve taught courses to undergraduate students and given lectures to groups of accomplished professionals from all over the country. I’ve seen it as I’ve run my own businesses and advised leaders of businesses large and small on how to solve productivity problems. I’ve seen it as I’ve advised legislators on how to draft laws to rein in various types of destructive behavior. I’ve seen it as I’ve analyzed virtually every major crime story that has made national news for the better part of a decade. And I’ve seen it as I’ve traveled the world comparing what’s happening elsewhere to what’s happening in America.
You’ve seen it, too. You’ve seen it in skyrocketing rates of parental abandonment. You’ve seen it in pervasive excuse-making by criminals who consciously choose to behave in heinously destructive ways and then, when caught, attribute their behavior to bad parenting, historical oppression, some compulsive behavioral “disease” like addiction, or psychosis. You’ve seen it in the escalating, unsustainable debt that Americans are carrying, both individually and collectively. You’ve seen it in the increasing numbers of claims for disability and other forms of public assistance when, in fact, the number of adult Americans who are mentally or physically incapable of sustaining themselves and their children are, thankfully, relatively small. You’ve seen it in the ever-increasing acceptance of recreational drug use, of sexual promiscuity, of obesity as yet another “disease,” all of which are driven by hedonistic impulses over which people are no longer expected to exert much, if any, self-control.
And American culture increasingly facilitates such destructive trends. Even Americans who haven’t participated in them directly have often participated indirectly by allowing personally irresponsible behaviors to become social norms. Americans today have grown to accept all kinds of behaviors that previous generations identified as destructive and therefore ostracized. America’s founders wisely understood that the law can do only so much to promote responsible behavior, since a free society’s behavioral norms will be determined far more by what people are willing to accept than by what their government will ever effectively prohibit. But fewer parents are present today in American homes to talk with kids about the values that built the nation, and many who are present are nevertheless either too self-absorbed or too misguided to bother. On top of that, fewer and fewer Americans are regularly attending church services, where behavioral restraint and interpersonal obligation are staples.
Meanwhile, in our public schools, fewer and fewer teachers seem to desire or dare to go anywhere near an endorsement of traditional American values in the classroom for fear of being accused of moralizing and getting fired or sued. The American media generally don’t help matters, either. Virtually everywhere they go today, young Americans are bombarded by music, TV, movies and advertising, all of which insidiously reinforce instant short-term gratification, often in the context of largely undeserved athletic and entertainment hero worship. And if Narcissus were alive today, social media no doubt would be his “reflecting pool” of choice. All of these conditions reflect and facilitate a pervasive cultural shift away from personal responsibility, toward entitlement. And based on my years of comparative study and professional practice involving people, public policy, and productivity, I’ve come to believe that entitlement is the single most destructive common thread that binds America’s social ills.
So is there a cure? Yes, wherever possible, we need to reassert personal responsibility for our problems and their solutions. Research both in positive psychology and the emerging discipline of behavioral economics dovetails nicely with most major world religions to suggest that the acceptance of obligation to identify your unique abilities and to develop those abilities so that you contribute unique value to something larger than yourself generally maximizes your chances for material prosperity as well as personal fulfillment, especially when those rewards are surveyed through a lens of gratitude. I remain highly optimistic that if enough of us are motivated to do so, we can still swing our cultural pendulum back in the direction of personal responsibility, thereby achieving better, more productive lives individually and a better, more productive country collectively. “Stop Moaning, Start Owning” is dedicated to that effort.