Are entitlements corrupting us? Yes, American character is at stake

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Article Highlights

  • Over the past 50 years, the apparatus of American governance has undergone a radical transformation.

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  • In some basic respects, the US government today would be scarcely recognizable to FDR, much less to Lincoln or Jefferson.

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  • What is monumentally new about the American state is the empire of entitlement payments that it protects, manages & finances.

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  • In 2010 alone, US government at all levels oversaw a transfer of over $2.2 trillion in money, goods and services.

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The American republic has endured for well over two centuries, but over the past 50 years, the apparatus of American governance has undergone a radical transformation. In some basic respects—its scale, its preoccupations, even many of its purposes—the U.S. government today would be scarcely recognizable to Franklin D. Roosevelt, much less to Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson.

What is monumentally new about the American state today is the vast empire of entitlement payments that it protects, manages and finances. Within living memory, the federal government has become an entitlements machine. As a day-to-day operation, it devotes more attention and resources to the public transfer of money, goods and services to individual citizens than to any other objective, spending more than for all other ends combined.

The growth of entitlement payments over the past half-century has been breathtaking. In 1960, U.S. government transfers to individuals totaled about $24 billion in current dollars, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. By 2010 that total was almost 100 times as large. Even after adjusting for inflation and population growth, entitlement transfers to individuals have grown 727% over the past half-century, rising at an average rate of about 4% a year.

In 2010 alone, government at all levels oversaw a transfer of over $2.2 trillion in money, goods and services. The burden of these entitlements came to slightly more than $7,200 for every person in America. Scaled against a notional family of four, the average entitlements burden for that year alone approached $29,000."In 2010 alone, government at all levels oversaw a transfer of over $2.2 trillion in money, goods and services. The burden of these entitlements came to slightly more than $7,200 for every person in America." -- Nicholas Eberstadt

A half-century of unfettered expansion of entitlement outlays has completely inverted the priorities, structure and functions of federal administration as these were understood by all previous generations. Until 1960 the accepted task of the federal government, in keeping with its constitutional charge, was governing. The overwhelming share of federal expenditures was allocated to some limited public services and infrastructure investments and to defending the republic against enemies foreign and domestic.

In 1960, entitlement payments accounted for well under a third of the federal government's total outlays—about the same fraction as in 1940, when the Great Depression was still shaping American life. But over subsequent decades, entitlements as a percentage of total federal spending soared. By 2010 they accounted for just about two-thirds of all federal spending, with all other responsibilities of the federal government making up barely one-third. In a very real sense, entitlements have turned American governance upside-down.

Government data on public transfers can be used to divide entitlement spending into six baskets: income maintenance, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, unemployment insurance and all the others. Broadly speaking, the first two baskets concern entitlements based on poverty or income status; the second two, entitlements attendant on aging or old-age status; and the next, entitlements based on employment status. These entitlements account for about 90% of total government transfers to individuals, and the first four categories comprise about five-sixths of all such spending. These four bear closest consideration.

Poverty- or income-related entitlements—transfers of money, goods or services, including health-care services—accounted for over $650 billion in government outlays in 2010. Between 1960 and 2010, inflation-adjusted transfers for these objectives increased by over 30-fold, or by over 7% a year. Significantly, however, income and benefit transfers associated with traditional safety-net programs comprised only about a third of entitlements granted on income status, with two-thirds of those allocations absorbed by the health-care guarantees offered through the Medicaid program.

For their part, entitlements for older Americans—Medicare, Social Security and other pension payments—worked out to even more by 2010, about $1.2 trillion. In real terms, these transfers multiplied by a factor of about 12 over that period—or an average growth of more than 5% a year. But in purely arithmetic terms, the most astonishing growth of entitlements has been for health-care guarantees based on claims of age (Medicare) or income (Medicaid). Until the mid-1960s, no such entitlements existed; by 2010, these two programs were absorbing more than $900 billion annually.

In current political discourse, it is common to think of the Democrats as the party of entitlements, but long-term trends seem to tell a somewhat different tale. From a purely statistical standpoint, the growth of entitlement spending over the past half-century has been distinctly greater under Republican administrations than Democratic ones. Between 1960 and 2010, the growth of entitlement spending was exponential, but in any given year, it was on the whole roughly 8% higher if the president happened to be a Republican rather than a Democrat.

This is in keeping with the basic facts of the time: Notwithstanding the criticisms of "big government" that emanated from their Oval Offices from time to time, the administrations of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George W. Bush presided over especially lavish expansions of the American entitlement state. Irrespective of the reputations and the rhetoric of the Democratic and Republican parties today, the empirical correspondence between Republican presidencies and turbocharged entitlement expenditures should underscore the unsettling truth that both political parties have, on the whole, been working together in an often unspoken consensus to fuel the explosion of entitlement spending.

From the founding of our nation until quite recently, the U.S. and its citizens were regarded, at home and abroad, as exceptional in a number of deep and important respects. One of these was their fierce and principled independence, which informed not only the design of the political experiment that is the U.S. Constitution but also their approach to everyday affairs.

The proud self-reliance that struck Alexis de Tocqueville in his visit to the U.S. in the early 1830s extended to personal finances. The American "individualism" about which he wrote did not exclude social cooperation—the young nation was a hotbed of civic associations and voluntary organizations. But in an environment bursting with opportunity, American men and women viewed themselves as accountable for their own situation through their own achievements—a novel outlook at that time, markedly different from the prevailing attitudes of the Old World (or at least the Continent).

The corollaries of this American ethos were, on the one hand, an affinity for personal enterprise and industry and, on the other, a horror of dependency and contempt for anything that smacked of a mendicant mentality. Although many Americans in earlier times were poor, even people in fairly desperate circumstances were known to refuse help or handouts as an affront to their dignity and independence. People who subsisted on public resources were known as "paupers," and provision for them was a local undertaking. Neither beneficiaries nor recipients held the condition of pauperism in high regard.

Overcoming America's historic cultural resistance to government entitlements has been a long and formidable endeavor. But as we know today, this resistance did not ultimately prove an insurmountable obstacle to establishing mass public entitlements and normalizing the entitlement lifestyle. The U.S. is now on the verge of a symbolic threshold: the point at which more than half of all American households receive and accept transfer benefits from the government. From cradle to grave, a treasure chest of government-supplied benefits is there for the taking for every American citizen—and exercising one's legal rights to these many blandishments is now part of the American way of life.

The U.S. is now on the verge of a symbolic threshold: the point at which more than half of all American households receive and accept transfer benefits from the government." -Nicholas Eberstadt

As Americans opt to reward themselves ever more lavishly with entitlement benefits, the question of how to pay for these government transfers inescapably comes to the fore. Citizens have become ever more broad-minded about the propriety of tapping new sources of finance for supporting their appetite for more entitlements. The taker mentality has thus ineluctably gravitated toward taking from a pool of citizens who can offer no resistance to such schemes: the unborn descendants of today's entitlement-seeking population.

Among policymakers in Washington today, it is very close to received wisdom that America's national hunger for entitlement benefits has placed the country on a financially untenable trajectory, with the federal budget generating ultimately unbearable expenditures and levels of public debt. The bipartisan 2010 Bowles/Simpson Commission put this view plainly: "Our nation is on an unsustainable fiscal path."

The prospect of careening along an unsustainable economic road is deeply disturbing. But another possibility is even more frightening—namely, that the present course may in fact be sustainable for far longer than most people today might imagine.

The U.S. is a very wealthy society. If it so chooses, it has vast resources to squander. And internationally, the dollar is still the world's reserve currency; there remains great scope for financial abuse of that privilege.

Such devices might well postpone the day of fiscal judgment: not so the day of reckoning for American character, which may be sacrificed long before the credibility of the U.S. economy. Some would argue that it is an asset already wasting away before our very eyes.

—Mr. Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. Excerpted from "A Nation of Takers: America's Entitlement Epidemic," forthcoming from the Templeton Press. To read the complete essay, go to www.templetonpress.org.

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