Nicholas Eberstadt on Entitlements

by Reihan Salam

In an essay on the expansion of entitlement spending and its consequences for America’s political culture, Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute notes an uncomfortable truth:

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. [Emphasis added]

Social democratic egalitarians committed to the expansion of entitlement expenditures have a number of structural advantages over their conservative and libertarian critics. Perhaps the most important is that when social democrats fail to expand a particular program, they can always try again in a few years time. And once a program is created or expanded, it is extremely difficult to shrink or eliminate, due to loss-aversion on the part of beneficiaries. Indeed, even notionally “temporary” expansions are difficult to reverse.

Right-leaning policymakers are as a result devoting more effort to building alternative frameworks and institutions that can address the underlying demand for social insurance and other public programs, though of course much more can be done on this front. The coverage expansion strategy embraced by Sen. John McCain in his 2008 presidential campaign and by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Tom Coburn during the debate over President Obama’s health reform was an excellent example of a market-oriented approach that could have proved politically sustainable. Unfortunately, it was far easier for congressional Republicans to form a blocking coalition against the president’s coverage expansion effort than to unite around an alternative. This is a persistent challenge. And when center-right politicians do unite around an alternative, as in the recent debate over Medicare reform, it is reasonable to expect that the center-left will unite in opposition. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.