The new bogeyman in our national policy debate is "entitlement."

Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and a well-orchestrated antigovernment chorus is framing a stark alternative for voters in November -- a choice between a glorious "opportunity society" ruled by business or a ruinous "entitlement society" run by government.

Democrats tend not to defend the word entitlement directly. Nor are they likely to openly argue that we might need more entitlement, not less.

They typically acknowledge that cost increases must be contained, always a fine idea. And they rush to characterize popular "earned" middle-class entitlements -- such as Social Security and Medicare -- as a safety net for economic fairness and security.

Moderates and progressives make the case for other government outlays, such as those for education and physical infrastructure, but mostly on the grounds that they pay off economically by boosting productivity, human capital and so on.

It's in our individualistic American DNA to favor initiative over entitlement. But most Minnesotans and Americans instinctively know we need balance -- business and government, profits and taxes, freedom and security.

And it might be time for all of us, from right to left, to reconsider the principle of universal entitlement as a sacred founding American ideal -- as the actual secret to our economic strength and power.

Think about it this way. When traveling abroad and viewing squalor and obvious economic injustice in poorer nations -- inevitably in countries with undemocratic governments and grossly unequal societies that guarantee little or nothing for their masses -- we feel thankful that we live in a country where everybody is entitled to a better deal.

Our better deal comes through for each of us every day, in every way, from drinkable tap water flowing into every home, to 911 emergency service and quality medical care, to transportation and parks systems, to one of the world's better public-education entitlements, to Social Security and Medicare for the elderly, and finally, to an increasingly chintzy system of "welfare" benefits mostly for impoverished children and the disabled.

These days, "entitlement" is used mostly to designate social-spending and human-service outlays. The word seems to have morphed out of civil-rights legislation and antipoverty programs that were created in the 1960s and 1970s.

Some would argue that racial backlash might have something to do with current contempt for the word. But arguably almost all the things governments and taxes provide, from weather forecasting to national defense and police protection to tax breaks for home mortgage debt and capital gains, are a form of taxpayer-funded entitlement.

This stuff to which we are all entitled makes us better, gives everybody a piece and a stake, makes us whole. Free-market places with more of this stuff -- nations like Canada, say, and states like Minnesota -- tend overall to be richer, safer and healthier than places with less entitlement -- places like Mexico or Mississippi. (At the other extreme, failure also plagues undemocratic, non-free-market nations with nothing but entitlements.)

Everybody from right to left on the political spectrum ought to consider at least four powerful themes in reexamining the idea and reality of entitlement.

First, the "entitled" masses who depend on safety-net checks and benefits are still getting less of the American economic pie overall than they did 30 years ago, and they are not the primary drivers of our debt problem.

Unfunded wars, huge tax cuts primarily benefiting those with top incomes and the 2008 economic collapse account for most of the revenue shortages and debt crisis, according to analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

It's patently absurd to argue, given the overwhelming evidence that the top 1 percent have a greater percentage of income and wealth than they have had since the Depression, that folks who need entitlements are getting too good a deal or are the essential problem with our economy.

Second, entitlement distributions and stable consumer demand are actually good for sustainable business growth and healthy communities, and many government expenditures do serve as a form of long-term investment.

Plenty of distinguished economists, including Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, emphasize the value of equity and entitlement. Stiglitz favors a universal national health care entitlement, like those in all other wealthy economies that compete with us.

Third, conservative voters benefit from government entitlements as much as moderate and liberal voters do. A much-discussed New York Times article in February showed how many antigovernment conservative voters in Minnesota's own Chisago County were deeply dependent on entitlements, ranging from the Earned Income Tax Credit to the school lunch program.

Evidence has shown for years that white rural and exurban conservative enclaves are actually just as dependent on entitlements and government as are urban constituencies.

Fourth, the most unappreciated virtue of entitlement and equality is its authentic American character.

The very first "self-evident" truth stated in the Declaration of Independence was the wildly egalitarian premise that all human beings are "created equal." The reference in that passage to people being "endowed" by a "Creator" suggests a divine endorsement for fairness, entitlement and equality, in stark contrast to the then-prevalent "divine right" of inherited entitlement and wealth in the Old World.

America's founders didn't merely abolish hereditary nobility and official entitlement for the favored few.

They also created a strong and responsive federal government that had the unquestioned power to tax (with democratic representation) for the "general Welfare" (yes, that term is in the U.S. Constitution). Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, gave new meaning to that fervent belief that government should serve all the people, rather than wealthy slave owners and their claim of property rights, with the immortal refrain that our government "of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth."

Even though many of the founders were themselves wealthy heirs, often even slave owners, they needed a moral rationale to break loose from England. They let a wonderful genie out of the bottle when they unleashed the idea of equality and universal entitlement.

That genie then got to work for the rest of us. As America grew in wealth and power and enlightenment, we got rid of indentured servants, expanded the entitlement to political participation to white men without property, then to former slaves and women, and finally provided meaningful civil rights and New Deal economic entitlements to all citizens.

And each broadening of entitlement unleashed more human creativity and aspiration that further enriched us.

• • •

Encouraging job growth in the private sector should remain a top policy goal. Finding ways to restrain spending growth and make government work better makes sense. And of course we all ought to work as hard as we can to take care of ourselves before we seek help from others.

But this is not just the land of the free. It's also the land where everybody gets a better deal, a nation indivisible, with liberty and justice -- and entitlement -- for all.


Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a Minnesota-based policy research organization that advocates for public investments that broaden prosperity.