National Review / Digital
Entitlement Sense


I like to think that upon arrival in this great republic I assimilated pretty quickly. Within four or five months, I was saying “zee” and driving on the right more often than not. But it took me longer to get the hang of the word “entitlement.” You don’t hear it in political discussions in most of the rest of the West, even in Canada. There’s talk of “social programs” and “benefits” and “welfare,” but not of “entitlements.” I knew the term only in its psychological use — “sense of entitlement” — in discussions of narcissistic personality disorder and whatnot.

Once I’d been apprised of its political definition, I liked it even less. “Entitlements” are unrepublican: They are contemptuous of the most basic principle of responsible government — that a parliament cannot bind its successor. Which is what entitlements do, to catastrophic effect. Recently, in the London Telegraph, Liam Halligan bemoaned the way commentators focus on America’s $14 trillion of debt — i.e., the “debt ceiling” debt — without factoring in the entitlement liabilities of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. That makes America’s real debt some $75 trillion, or five times GDP. Our own Kevin D. Williamson puts the FDR/LBJ entitlement liabilities a little north of $100 trillion. Once you add in state and municipal debt, you need to add a zero to that reassuringly familiar $14 trillion hole. The real hole goes ten times deeper: $140 trillion — or about twice as much as America’s total “worth.”

Million, billion, trillion . . . and now we’re going to need a word for the unit that comes after “trillion”? Oh, wait, how about “abyss”? I was struck by reader Dolores Proctor’s observation that, until spendaholic government showed up, 140,000,000,000,000 was the kind of number one would find only in a book about astronomy, and even then it would be pretty cosmic. In other words, our spending has literally burst the bounds of the planet. Ms. Proctor says that if you take $140 trillion and spend a thousand bucks every second from right now going backwards through time, you’ll run out of money in 2400 b.c., just in time for the invention of the abacus, which as a bankrupt time-traveler you happily won’t require. In other other words, we have outspent human history.

It’s certainly true that, if a company were to attempt to keep the bulk of its liabilities off the books the way the United States government does, some showboating jackass prosecutor would have its key execs behind bars in nothing flat, and they’d be legislating another round of Sarbanes-Oxley in Washington. Against that argument is the reassurance that that $75–100 trillion isn’t a “liability” in the sense that your car lease or mortgage is. “Entitlement commitments are not debts,” wrote John Hinderaker of the blog Powerline. “Congress can wipe them out simply by repealing Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.”

May 16, 2011    |     Volume LXIII, No. 9

Books, Arts & Manners
  • William Voegeli reviews The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama.
  • Michael Knox Beran reviews Bismarck: A Life, by Jonathan Steinberg.
  • Robert VerBruggen reviews Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think, by Bryan Caplan.
  • Jay Nordlinger on his friendship with the late composer Lee Hoiby.
  • Ross Douthat reviews The Conspirator.
  • John Derbyshire contemplates the fragility of civilization.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .