Nicholas Eberstadt’s “A Nation of Takers” argues that too many Americans have become dependent on government benefits. Over the past half-century, he notes, the share who receive a government cash transfer and/or public health insurance — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment compensation, and so on — has grown steadily. The United States, according to Eberstadt, 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.”
Eberstadt doesn’t contend that this has weakened our economy. His concern is moral. He believes reliance on government for help is undermining Americans’ “fierce and principled independence,” our “proud self-reliance.”
In Eberstadt’s way of seeing things, we are either givers or takers — taxpayers or benefit recipients. This is mistaken. Every American who doesn’t live entirely off the grid pays some taxes. Anyone who is an employee pays payroll taxes, and anyone who purchases things at a store pays sales taxes. Likewise, every American receives benefits from government. If you or your kids attended a public school, if you’ve driven on a road, if you’ve had a drink of tap water or taken a shower in your dwelling, if you’ve deducted mortgage interest payments or a business expense from your federal income taxes, if you haven’t been stricken by polio, if you’ve never had a band of thugs remove you from your home at gunpoint, if you’ve visited a park or lounged on a beach or hiked a mountain trail, if you’ve used the internet….
Eberstadt seems to think receipt of a government cash transfer or health insurance somehow renders people less self-reliant than does receipt of the myriad public goods, services, and tax breaks that government provides. But he doesn’t say why.
Once upon a time public safety was ensured by individuals and privately-organized militias. Then we shifted to government police forces and armies. At one point humans got water and disposed of waste individually. Then we created public water and sewage systems. Education of children was once a family responsibility. Then it shifted to schools. There’s a good reason for this: government provision offers economies of scale and scope, which enables the good or service to be provided to many people who either couldn’t or wouldn’t do it on their own. Did Americans’ character or spirit diminish when these changes occurred? Is there something qualitatively different about the more recent shift from individual to government responsibility in how we deal with retirement saving, health care, unemployment, and other risks? Here too Eberstadt is silent.
It’s true that some government policies encourage people to work less than they otherwise would. If we create a public pension program (Social Security) and allow receipt of benefits beginning at age 62, some who could work longer will elect to retire at that age. If we ease eligibility criteria for receipt of disability benefits, some people who could be employed will instead choose to live off that benefit. But this behavior isn’t the product of an “entitlement culture” that has weakened our moral fiber; it’s the result of incentives created by specific programs. The solution is not to “roll back the entitlement state”; it’s to alter the rules and/or generosity of the particular program that is causing the problem (or to increase the financial reward from staying in employment).
At the end of his essay, Eberstadt shifts his concern from the moral cost of government to the financial cost. Rising government expenditures on transfers and health care will require, he says, that we cut military spending, sell off public assets (land, buildings, art), or dump the burden onto future generations by running up government debt. None of these options is attractive. But there is, of course, another option: increases taxes. As we’ve transferred various functions from individuals to government over the course of our nation’s history, we’ve (usually) paid for it by asking Americans to contribute more. In many other rich nations governments provide more services and transfers than ours does, and they (usually) fund this by collecting more in taxes than we do. Perhaps Eberstadt ignores this option because at the moment one of our two political parties opposes any tax increase and the leader of the other favors a tax increase for only 5% of the population. But if history is any guide, this stalemate eventually will pass. Higher taxes, coupled with modest tweaks to Social Security and more significant reforms of our (public and private) health care system, can generate enough revenue to pay for our public goods, services, and transfers.
Growth of government spending is not, for the most part, a consequence of rent-seeking special interests or narrow-minded bureaucrats looking to expand their turf. It’s a product of affluence. As people and nations get richer, they tend to be willing to allocate more money for insurance (protection against risks) and for fairness (extension of opportunity and security to those who are less fortunate). Rather than lamenting an imagined shift from self-reliance to dependence, or claiming that we can’t afford more security and fairness, the American right would do better to focus its energy and creativity on devising alternative ways of pursuing these goals. Government doesn’t always do things best; and even when it does, there almost always is room for improvement. Nicholas Eberstadt’s essay is emblematic of the backward-looking orientation that has dominated America’s right for the past three decades. It’s an orientation that in my view has long since outlived its usefulness. The country will benefit when more smart minds on that side of the spectrum turn their gaze forward.