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The Real Cliff

by William Voegeli

A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic, by Nicholas Eberstadt (Templeton, 132 pp., $9.95)

One way of looking at the 2012 election is that Mitt Romney provided the most persuasive explanation for his defeat — six months before the voting. A surreptitious recording at a fundraising event in May found Romney assessing his difficult electoral prospects:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the [incumbent Democratic] president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. . . . My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

People like getting things, in other words. If they’ve been getting things from the government, and have been assured repeatedly that no considerations of practicality or honor need inhibit them from taking whatever the government is giving, they will want the stream of benefits to continue, and prefer increases to decreases. And if the number of people in a democracy getting things from government reaches a tipping point, then restraining the transfer policies, much less reversing them, becomes politically impossible.

For Romney to win, according to his calculation, he would have needed to get more than 94 percent of the votes from within the slender majority of Americans who are not dependent upon government. The surprise is not that Romney lost, but that he even came close — winning 48 percent of the total vote, which would represent more than 90 percent of the votes from the 53 percent of Americans not yet aboard the gravy train.

When Mother Jones broke the story about Romney’s remarks in September, just as the general-election campaign was engaging the nation’s attention, Romney regretted expressing himself poorly. In October, however, the Templeton Press published A Nation of Takers, which doesn’t mention Romney’s controversial remarks but supports the idea that — even though many people enrolled in government programs ended up voting for him, even as many people who were beneficiaries of no such program voted for Barack Obama — Romney’s candid assessment was more right than wrong. Takers is written by Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist and demographer at the American Enterprise Institute. This slender book, an extended essay, is buttressed with 30 graphs, maps, and tables presenting data about America’s entitlement programs, along with responses to Eberstadt’s thesis by Yuval Levin of National Affairs and William A. Galston of the Brookings Institution.

The title of the 1974 Doobie Brothers album What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits is the core of Eberstadt’s lament. In the America that Alexis de Tocqueville encountered 180 years ago, “men and women viewed themselves as accountable for their own situation through their own achievements,” an attitude that produced “a horror of dependency and contempt of anything that smacked of a mendicant mentality.” Although America’s per capita GDP in 1830 was only 4 percent of where it stood in 2008, “even people in fairly desperate circumstances were known to refuse help or handouts as an affront to their dignity and independence,” according to Eberstadt.

Modern America, however, is caught in a vicious cycle, as escalating government provision both encourages and is encouraged by the attenuation of self-reliance. We have arrived at the point, writes Eberstadt, where “a treasure chest of government-supplied benefits is open for the taking of every American citizen,” and ordering items from that menu “is now part and parcel of the American way of life.” It is no surprise to learn that in 2004, decades after the establishment of Social Security and Medicare, 98 percent of households with a person age 65 or older were receiving benefits from at least one government program. It’s more sobering to read that 35 percent of households where everyone was under that age were also recipients of government assistance. In 1960, 0.65 percent of prospective work-force participants between the ages of 18 and 64 were receiving benefits from Social Security’s disability-insurance program. In 2010, 5.6 percent were — despite advances in medicine and life expectancy, not to mention the larger proportion of jobs that consist of indoor work with no heavy lifting. Of the 8.6 million Americans receiving government disability benefits in December 2011, Eberstadt observes, 29 percent qualified on the basis of diseases of the “musculoskeletal system and the connective tissue,” and another 15 percent because of “mood disorders.” It is virtually impossible, Takers notes, “for a medical professional to disprove a patient’s claim that he or she is suffering from sad feelings or back pain.”

We have traveled long distances, and are accelerating our progress, toward an America where millions of people make a living “by putting their hands into the pockets of their fellow citizens,” leading to “an impoverishment of the country’s civic spirit and an incalculable degradation of the nation’s constituting principles.” Yuval Levin agrees with Eberstadt’s diagnosis: Americans are undergoing interrelated transformations of “the sort of government we have” and of “the sorts of citizens we are.” In combination, they constitute “a grave threat to the character of American self-government.”

Levin argues that Eberstadt’s thesis is, in one important respect, too sanguine. An “entitlement epidemic” is an affliction that befalls a fundamentally healthy body politic. Levin believes the gravest danger comes from within the American experiment, not from outside it. “Liberal democracy has always depended upon a kind of person it does not produce,” he writes in his section of Takers. The old America impressed Tocqueville by producing precisely this kind of person — one firmly and conscientiously woven into a fabric of family and community; religious or respectful of religion; as well as far-sighted, proud, self-reliant, and forbearing.

Our modern predicament suggests that the entropic qualities of liberal democracy are vitiating those sources of America’s distinctive vigor. We find it increasingly tempting to construct a European welfare state because we find it increasingly difficult to reject what Charles Murray calls the “European Syndrome” — the belief that, as he phrases it, “human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate,” a worldview dictating the conclusion that “the purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible.” The individualism that worried Tocqueville culminates in the self-absorption that worries Murray, leaving us disposed to regard work, family, and community as more trouble than they’re worth, and piety and patriotism as contemptible delusions.

William A. Galston believes the entitlement problem is less dire than Eberstadt and Levin do. He finds the evidence for Eberstadt’s “alleged culture of dependency . . . thin at best,” citing counterexamples of policies that reflect and effectively promote the belief that every American should work hard and play by the rules, but not be impoverished after “serious and sustained efforts to provide for oneself and one’s family.” He also argues that many complexities of America’s social and economic policies do not fit easily into Eberstadt’s portrait of a nation of takers. Tax expenditures — “deductions and exemptions from, and credits against, otherwise taxable income” — are worth $1.1 trillion annually, according to Galston. That’s a lot of money, and it raises serious distributive-justice quandaries. For example, the deductibility of mortgage interest from federal income tax could be worth $20,000 a year to a family with an income of $300,000 and a $1 million mortgage, but of no benefit to a family making $70,000 with a $150,000 mortgage, since the latter is still better off taking the standard deduction. Is the more affluent family among the takers Eberstadt deplores?

More generally, Galston sees no reason to despair over becoming a nation of takers as long as we’re a nation of givers, too. He can find no moral difference between one retiree who lives off an annuity purchased with his life savings and another who lives off of Social Security benefits after paying its taxes over a lifetime of work — provided, however, that the income stream from Social Security is “actuarially fair.” That fairness can be guaranteed if and only if we “honor the norm of reciprocity,” aligning the benefits provided by social-welfare programs with the burdens we impose to pay for them. And if we don’t, then Galston agrees with Eberstadt that we have a problem of “generational selfishness,” in which the excessive provision of actuarially unfair benefits precludes adequate provision for national defense and long-term economic growth. “One way or another,” Galston writes, “we have to restrain consumption in favor of investment.”

If Galston is right, then the entitlement “epidemic” is really no more than a problem requiring democratic acquiescence to the policy-dial adjustments needed to establish reciprocity and actuarial fairness. Left to its own devices, however, our welfare state veers repeatedly into actuarial unfairness, and there’s fierce and usually decisive political resistance to the course corrections needed to achieve reciprocity. Those proclivities are not just unfortunate mishaps that mysteriously keep befalling the welfare state, but evidence of chronic, ongoing deformations in the sort of government we have and the sort of citizens we are. Those grim realities justify Eberstadt and Levin’s pessimism about our welfare state’s capacity to survive, and our experiment in self-government’s capacity to survive the entitlement machine America has built.

Mr. Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College’s Henry Salvatori Center, and the author of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State.

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