Great Expectations

At the start of each work day, my alarm goes off. Or at least I expect it to, as long as I set it correctly. I turn the knob on the lamp by my bed and expect the light to come on. I turn on the shower and expect the water to flow. I hop into my car and expect the traffic lights to work properly and the roads to be maintained. I expect the police to preserve the peace. I expect the fire department to protect my house.  And God forbid something bad happen in the course of my day, I expect that our local hospitals are well staffed and prepared for any emergency.

But is that fair? I pay my taxes and pay my bills, but is that enough to cover the cost of those expectations? That may be what I’ve been led to believe, but that’s just because I expect my representatives to tell me the truth.

But it seems like every election cycle is filled with more talk about dwindling services, raising costs and the need for yet another special tax levy. With the constant threat of layoffs to teachers, police, and firemen, it seems that somewhere down the line, perhaps our expectations may have gotten too high.

But it’s 2010, shouldn’t everyone have access to a good education, a safe neighborhood and proper medical care? Unfortunately, no. But it’s not because we’re not capable of providing those services, it’s because as a society we have yet to earn them. When I turn on the lamp, I expect the light to come on.  Not because I know the first thing about how to generate electricity, but because I pay someone else to.  My expectation is that if I do my part (pay the money that they say covers the cost of production) that they’ll do their part (make sure the power runs efficiently, effectively and reliably).

The problem starts when my expectations begin to outweigh my responsibilities. We not only expect the electricity to flow freely, but we want it cheaper, cleaner and ‘greener’ every year. We expect our teachers to handle more kids in fewer rooms with greater results, but then act indignant when teachers give more homework and request more parent interaction. We expect the post office to get our mail to us faster than ever before, but get offended if they raise the price of stamps by even a few cents. We want our roads smoother and our bridges stronger but demand that the contracts are smaller and the construction is faster.

The problem is that our expectations are quickly being viewed as our entitlements. This government was initially founded with the responsibility to “promote the general welfare”, not PROVIDE the general welfare.  The founding fathers wanted government to “secure the blessings of liberty”, not GUARANTEE the trappings of prosperity.

In 1776, we were relatively happy with a government that would merely “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and provide for the common defense,” but now, on top of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,”  we think we have the right to higher education, the best medical care, affordable housing, guaranteed insurance, minimum wages, social security and government relief from every possible personal or public tragedy that comes down the pike. And the biggest expectation of all is that someone who has more money than you do should pay for it.

As big as our problem is with our level of expectations, it’s still secondary to our problem of assuming that someone else’s money is better off being used to serve our own personal wants and needs. As much as we all want to expand our expectations of what is and isn’t a basic liberty, we’re fools if we think we can do it by dictating what is and isn’t a legitimate salary, income, or net worth.

We expect the benefits of the modern medical profession, but what about those who sacrifice most of their lives learning those skills? Are they wrong for expecting compensation for their work? We want cheaper electricity and gas, but doesn’t the utility worker expect a raise in pay as he or she gains more experience on the line or in the plant? How do you react when your boss raises the level of expectations without also raising the level of pay?

Trying to raise the standard of living of the poor by forcibly limiting the wealth of the rich usually brings the standards of the latter down to the level of the former more than it will ever make the poor rich. After all, when is the last time the Nobel Prize for Medicine went to doctors or researchers from a socialist nation?

I’m not saying we have to resign ourselves to the current level of poverty, homelessness, and unemployment. What I’m suggesting is that we have an over-exaggerated sense of what we think our current level of spending should afford us. We’re paying for bologna, and expecting roast beef. More than 25% of this nation doesn’t even pay taxes, yet we expect everyone to have healthcare, welfare, and high-speed internet access. 

This isn’t a plea to pass a new tax levy or to restructure the tax code, it’s an appeal to come to terms with the illegitimacy of our current level of expectations.  You get what you pay for, and more importantly, you only earn what you work for. And, regardless of what we think we’re owed or what we believe we are entitled to, if we don’t recommit ourselves to providing the level of services we seek, we shouldn’t expect anything other than disappointment.

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Volume 6, Issue 21, Posted 8:25 AM, 10.21.2010