First lady Michelle Obama gave a great speech at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night. Her loving portrait of President Barack Obama as a husband and father inspired Democrats and reminded Republicans of virtues they admire in him.

The most moving part of the speech, however, was her tribute to the sacrifices her father and Obama’s grandmother made to enable their progeny to succeed. She aimed to show that Obama’s policies represent the best way of honoring those sacrifices. In fact, however, Obama’s policies do not honor the sacrifices of the working poor, but instead aim to make their sacrifices unnecessary.

Michelle Obama spoke powerfully about her father’s determination to continue working, even when in physical pain, so that he could support his family. She said that for her father, “what it meant to be a man” was “being able to earn a decent living that allowed him to support his family.”

Today, there are not as many men like her father as there once were: Men who see themselves first and foremost as husbands and fathers, men who take pride the kinds of jobs their college-educated children scorn, and who find honor and meaning in sacrificing to support their wives and their children.

Today, however, those sacrifices are not as necessary as they once were. Even fathers are not as necessary as they once were, which must go some way toward explaining why so few children today are born to married parents.

Why work through physical pain when you can claim disability? Why take a hard job at low pay when the government will provide almost as much for less effort? Why put the effort into making and sustaining a marriage when the state will support your children if you don’t? Why save for old age if the government promises to take care of you?

If one consistent thread runs through the Obama administration’s policies, it has been the determination to replace the idea of a social safety net, which metaphorically catches people when they fall into extreme misfortune, with that of an entitlement state, which aims to provide a certain financial standard of living for all.

The Affordable Care Act creates a vast, new health care entitlement for all. The repeated extension of unemployment insurance and the unprecedented spike in disability claims represent governmental efforts to guarantee income in the absence of work.

The executive order authorizing the Heath and Human Services Secretary Sebelius to waive the work requirements in the welfare reform law of 1996 marks another step backward toward the old idea of welfare as a lifetime entitlement.

Republicans often are presented as objecting to the expansion of entitlement programs because they are too expensive. It is true that the entitlements Obama supports cannot be paid for without massive tax increases on the middle class in addition to the tax increases Obama already advocates for the wealthy.

The deeper objections to the entitlement state, however, are moral, not fiscal. That will sound perverse to those well-meaning, affluent progressives who see the expansion of the entitlement state as a moral imperative.

Consider: the entitlement agenda corrupts and embitters our politics. Politicians use benefits to buy votes, which they pay for with other people’s money. Is it any surprise that those who want the government to give them more things bitterly oppose and are bitterly opposed by those others who will be taxed to pay for their benefits?

The other problem is that entitlements make a mockery of the core, moral idea at the heart of Michelle Obama’s speech: the idea that “if you work hard and do what you’re supposed to do, then you should be able to build a decent life.”

In the moral universe of men like her father and of women like the president’s grandmother, the achievement of supporting their families through their own work represented the attainment of a good life, because it represented the fulfillment of a hard duty.

In the view of today’s progressives, however, that achievement was insufficient. The wages of the working poor do not enable them to afford what affluent progressives think of as a “decent living.”

Progressives want the state to give everyone the money to afford their idea of a “decent life.” When such support becomes an entitlement, a right to be claimed with pride, however, the ideal of “doing what you’re supposed to do” is debased into the degrading injunction to wait for your check from the government and cash it.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.


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