A Nation of Takers:
America’s Entitlement Epidemic
By Nicholas Eberstadt
Templeton Press, 144 pages
Nicholas Eberstadt has written an important, short book that crisply demonstrates how the welfare state has expanded and reveals the precipice on which enduring ideas of republican governance now teeter as a consequence. A Nation of Takers is instructive and startling, but Eberstadt only obliquely addresses what is truly corrosive about our present political arrangement.
Eberstadt’s focus, as one of the nation’s leading demographers, is on entitlement spending, an official term referring to government transfers to individuals for reasons other than remuneration. Adjusting for inflation and population growth, entitlement spending has increased by more than 700 percent in the past half-century. Two-thirds of the federal budget is devoted to entitlements. This is due to growth both in means-tested transfers (anti-poverty programs such as Medicaid and food stamps), which have increased 30-fold since 1960, and age-related transfers (such as Social Security and Medicare), which have increased by a factor of 12. Crossing what Eberstadt calls a “symbolic threshold,” a majority of Americans now receive at least one of these federal entitlements—and that is not simply due to an aging society. More and more households are receiving means-tested benefits, irrespective of dips and crests in the unemployment or poverty rates.
Eberstadt worries about Americans’ becoming more and more “addicted to and enslaved by entitlements.” He is interested primarily in the moral consequences for a society in which the state gets ever larger and more committed to transferring wealth from rich to poor and young to old. His concern is not that wealth is being unjustly confiscated from those who earned it through cleverness and hard work. Rather, he’s concerned about the virtues that are being eroded by the welfare state and all its moral hazards. The true danger of dependency is the way it enervates the vigorous striving so necessary to the success of a commercial republic.
One of the antidotes to dependency has been a culture that rejects dependency as ignoble, but it seems we have undercut this cultural inclination because of a desire not to stigmatize or judge the poor. Food stamps used to be recognizable, larger than cash and a bit more garish; now they look like credit cards, and their users feel little or no discomfort while using them. Not coincidentally, since the introduction of the new food-stamp system, their usage has greatly expanded. Likewise, men who would once have been ashamed to be on the dole increasingly take advantage of loosely enforced federal disability benefits. More than 8 million Americans younger than 65 elect to go on federal disability programs, citing vague categories such as “mood disorders” and musculoskeletal problems at higher rates than ever before.
Eberstadt does a valiant job of chronicling the expansion of entitlements and tracking how much the current system redistributes—he offers graphs that show how the whole apparatus is funded by the wealthiest Americans—but one is left feeling that while a culture of responsibility has been undermined, we are not close to being a nation of unambitious government dependents. The book contains two essays responding to Eberstadt, one by William Galston and another by Yuval Levin.
Galston, a veteran of the Clinton White House, admits serious problems with food stamps and federal disability benefits, but he challenges the notion of a dependency epidemic. He points out that the great majority of transfer programs that Eberstadt discusses draw from the young and give to the old: Medicare and Social Security. Anti-poverty programs might reduce work ethic and mitigate aspirations, but these programs for the elderly are thought by their recipients to have been earned by decades of paying in. They are wrong. Grandparents take out more than three dollars of Medicare for every dollar they put in, leaving their grandchildren to make up the difference somehow. But the elderly are neither actuaries nor economists, and they believe in something they have been told by experts and politicians who are, or who have such people working for them. Galston’s position is that we are a nation of takers—not really a nation of dependents—and that we can get along with a large welfare state as long as it’s actuarially sound.
Galston challenges Eberstadt’s twin alternatives of dependence and independence. There is a third possibility, Galston claims, of interdependence, which most accurately describes the modern welfare state. When a man is young, he pays for the old, and when he is old, the young will pay for him. When a man is poor, he receives some aid—aid he will help finance when he is rich.
For his part, Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs, takes issue with Galston’s notion that the welfare state is an outgrowth of American interdependence. Americans are interdependent, Levin acknowledges, in the vast and diverse array of families, neighborhoods, religious groups, civic associations, and businesses that color the American landscape. We call this space between the individual and the government civil society. Yet civil society is under two different types of pressure from the welfare state. There is a top-down pressure created by the welfare state’s desire for certain ends (for example, universal access to contraceptive and abortifacient drugs). The state seizes policymaking control of various institutions grown from civil society (Catholic and other religious hospitals) to use civil society’s means for government’s ends. The other pressure comes from the gradual crowding out of civil society (the private economy most directly) by a ballooning government, leaving fewer of the interdependent transfers that characterize the free-enterprise system. What Levin calls the “slow, fat, feckless, and unresponsive behemoth” takes the place of private philanthropy and market-driven innovation.
Eberstadt is right that there is more to our political predicament than math, but the focus on dependency touches only on an ancillary part of the great moral crisis of what it means to be a nation of takers. The welfare state deserves a critique with many facets, but these critiques—dependency, inefficiency, liberty—address but fail to embrace and seize the heart of the matter. For reasons of political appeal and clarity of principle, conservatives need to be better at sketching why a nation of takers, a nation in which so much is redistributed, is a less vital, less forward-looking, and less happy nation.
A nation of takers is not a nation of addicts, tripping on false sensations until the spigot runs dry and induces painful withdrawal. But it is a nation likely to find less satisfaction in its daily doings. When one considers the greatest sources of contentment and satisfaction, one thinks of things that will be subtly undermined, cast aside, and weakened by the steady expansion of government.
I would argue that happiness has two main sources: earned success and our associations and relationships. By earned success, I mean the feeling of a job well done. Such a feeling is not confined to the workplace; it extends to our domestic lives and public service. We yearn for recognition and our consciences demand deserved recognition; if we are to be truly happy, we need hurdles to jump, difficulties to see ourselves through. Just as we sometimes choose to watch television rather than read a book even though we know we would probably enjoy the time spent with the book more, we sometimes avoid the troublesome tasks of genuine gain and prefer the easy handouts. There is great dignity in a man feeling himself able to put a roof over the heads of his wife and children. It deserves recognition and he can take satisfaction in that. But what happens when the state, saying no one should be without a roof, hands out subsidies or builds housing projects? More people may well have a roof over their head, but the small but solid success available to every man or woman of some discipline disappears, and so does its resulting satisfaction.
Over the past few decades, men have left the workforce like never before. We should not dismiss the idea that they have left in part because the culture has made not working vastly less unappealing then it once was. Nor should we dismiss the idea that the post-industrial economy poses problems for men. But credit also goes to the way the welfare state has reduced the satisfactions attainable through work, especially for those of modest skill, by providing the material result as an entitlement.
The unique satisfaction gained from associations and relationships is another key reason to prefer the dynamic reality of civil society to the antiseptic interjections and infringements of the administrative bureaucracy. Left to their own devices, people who share interests and concerns tend to link up spontaneously. Whether in romantic courtship, dutiful care for their parent or their child, communal worship in a house of prayer, compassionate attentiveness to vulnerable neighbors, casual conversations with the clerk at the hardware store, collaboration with coworkers, or long nights laughing with their poker buddies or the book group, they find profound worth, meaning, and satisfaction in these relations. All of this goes far beyond the material. These organic associations are the key to the “morality and intelligence of a democratic people,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville. “Sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another.”
The nation’s GDP represents the sum of our monetized toils, itself a fraction of our daily energies; as government grows as a fraction of GDP, it also grows as a fraction of our work. More and more of what we do culminates in resources the government will reapportion—thereby steadily reconstructing our web of relations. Likewise, as more and more naturally forming institutions are given their marching orders by the state, the meaning and satisfaction we derive from civil society will diminish. Our pursuits become more contrived and our interactions are increasingly carried out through federal intermediaries. Insidiously, we begin to see some of these associations as the government’s job. Why feed someone in need when he can get food stamps?
This is all not to argue that we should dismantle the welfare state. We are a better and happier society when there is a safety net to catch those who are about to fall into true and often inescapable penury. The goal, though, should be a delimited welfare state that leaves maximal room for civil society, a welfare state that is not too burdensome or manipulative of free associations, and a welfare state that guards against the inescapable difficulties while not removing all the obstacles. Entitlements should be more efficient, and more strictly means-tested, and should encourage the use of the recipient’s energies and infuse, whenever possible, the vitality of civil society. These impulses are the seeds of an agenda very near the Republican agenda: using markets to improve the bang for the buck of entitlements, restraining anti-poverty spending to those actually in or very near poverty, adding and improving work requirements, and remaining more than open to faith-based initiatives.
Eberstadt powerfully contends that we are becoming a nation of too many takers and too few makers. If so, we need to be clear-eyed about the problem with such a society; it isn’t an inequality in income, but an inequality in personal satisfaction.
Makers, those earning success and those crafting new and rich associations, are content, fulfilled, happy. If conservatives are going to advocate for a government that can “close the circle of our felicities,” as Jefferson put it, or “clear the path of laudable pursuit for all,” in Lincoln’s words, then they need to do more than throw up their hands at the problem, as Mitt Romney did when he was caught on videotape saying that the 47 percent of Americans who take government benefits were out of his reach politically.
Conservatives cannot be solely concerned with the economic inefficiency of the entitlement state or the injustice of redistribution. Such worries are, at best, tangential to the true problem of the welfare and entitlement state. That problem is that while it is designed to provide aid to those who require it, the nation of takers is also designed to deny its citizens the intangible benefits of a free society—the benefits they actually need most.