Following politics usually leads to the type of despair that makes lying down on the highway sound like a reasonable idea. Working in the political realm alleviates that sensation to a degree, both because taking action always helps and because sometimes good triumphs over stupidity. What blows my mind lately is the speed at which we’re sliding away from common sense and basic decency. Idiocracy, anyone? Reports on the California budget crisis and the debt ceiling debate reference “painful” spending cuts, typically in conjunction with what’s referred to as “entitlement” programs.

From The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn (via Salon’s Glenn Greenwald):

As Robert Greenstein, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, pointed out in a recent statement about a different proposal, there’s just no way to enact spending reductions of this magnitude without imposing a lot of pain. And contrary to the common understanding in the Washington cocktail party circuit, “pain” does not simply mean offending certain political sensibilities. Pain means more people eating tainted food, more people breathing polluted air, more people pulling their kids out of college, and more people losing their homes — in other words, the hardships people suffer when government can’t do an adequate job of looking out for their interests.

That pain won’t be immediately felt by the folks running the show, of course, but by the people already struggling, the ones with the fewest resources for fighting back. What continues to amaze me is the degree to which people are willing to vote against their own self-interests. Or, more correctly, how people distinguish between their own self-interests and society’s best interests.

Because unless you’re making money off poverty and strife (and sure, plenty of people are), a healthy, relatively happy, educated community in which people have reasonably equal opportunity and choice is good for the individuals within that community, town, city, state, country. Isn’t this self-evident? You know, like those truths in the Declaration of Independence?

“that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

We’re not crazy to think government should serve as a tool to ensure that everyone gets their shot at life (food, shelter, clean air and water, health care, protection from harm), liberty (equal protection under the law, individual freedoms) and the pursuit of happiness (education, equal opportunity). Perhaps we’ve abdicated far too much of our collective individual power, letting our unions get busted, our schools undermined and our attention spans shortened, but that doesn’t mean the problem is the existence of government. Rather, it means that particular tool has ended up in the wrong hands.

Getting it back won’t be easy. Especially as the very places that might provide strength, or at least support, continue to be mowed down by the misguided. With education, financial security, medical care and environmental safety viewed as luxuries instead of what Americans are “entitled” to, the potential strength of the populace is greatly compromised.

And about that word, “entitled”: it has negative connotations when used in the phrase, “a sense of entitlement,” which is how it’s commonly used when anti-government types are railing against security programs. But as Americans, we should have a sense of entitlement to a number of basic things, at least according to those famous founding documents. When people talk about slashing welfare programs, education, environmental protection, workplace standards, etc., what they’re actually advocating is the taking away of American rights.