Who pays the bill for handing out $2.2 trillion of entitlements per year?

This article by Nicholas Eberstadt is the most popular article on the Wall Street Journal right now. I found it through Doug Ross’ links.

First, a quick review of the entitlement situation:

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.

Government’s job used to be to handle responsibilities like roads and bridges or like defending us at home and to defending our national interests abroad. But now government seems to be more interested in redistributing money taken from job creating businesses and their workers to those don’t create jobs and those who don’t work. What happens when you punish people for trying to succeed and reward people who don’t even try?

This is the result of wealth redistribution:

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.

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.

We used to want to earn our own success. Now we want to live on the backs of children not yet born. Slavery is a horrible crime, no matter where it is practiced. Isn’t it a kind of slavery to live it up now and then pass the bill for it on to generations not even born yet? It strikes me as a kind of slavery – taking an unfair portion of the income of others so that we can live at a higher standard than what we can afford through our own choices and labor.

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