Entitlements: Today’s biggest moral dilemma

by Ryan Streeter on September 3, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Are our entitlement programs – Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, and the new health care law – weakening us as a people?

That’s the question Nick Eberstadt poses in his weekend WSJ column. He answers yes. Bill Galston responds with a “no” in a column of his own.

Lane Kenworthy responds with a post critical of Eberstadt that I think nicely sums up the moral dilemma of our entitlement system and debate.

Reading all three of these pieces together shines a bright light on this question: does our dependence on entitlements corrupt us morally in a way that our reliance on other publicly-funded goods like roads and police do not? In other words, our taxes build roads and bridges, and we all benefit from that. So why should we think of entitlements any differently?

Eberstadt’s point is that our dependence on government transfers to take care of things like our retirement security and health care have made us less self-reliant, which is a clear departure from the historic American way. Paying for these programs pits classes of Americans against one another. Galston and Kenworthy argue that entitlements shouldn’t be seen all that differently than other public goods, which we all benefit from.

Here’s Eberstadt:

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 (emphasis added).

Eberstadt’s point is that entitlements have turned us increasingly into a nation of “takers” – people who vote themselves benefits from the government at the expense of others. Galston counters that entitlements are the result of our interdependence on each other. They are basically a good thing, the result of good policy aimed at protecting all of us from deprivation and ensuring no one falls too low. Galston is, as ever, well-spoken and thoughtful, even to those who don’t agree with him.

Kenworthy doesn’t defend the entitlement state but rather takes aim at Eberstadt. He points out that, long ago, we used to pay for our water and sewage privately, handled education privately, and took care of public safety privately. We have made all these things public now, and entitlements are merely a part of this trajectory. We should raise taxes to deal with the fiscal imbalances these programs create, he says. Kenworthy accuses Eberstadt of being part of the backwards-looking American right, which is using a view of government that has outlived its usefulness.

This debate sums up the clash of worldviews alive in America today.

Kenworthy’s criticism of Eberstadt raises very good questions that conservatives too often avoid. At the same time, he doesn’t deal with a fundamental piece of Eberstadt’s main point, italicized in the clip above: we have created a system of entitlements that taxes the young and unborn to pay for today’s older beneficiaries. No tax increase scheme will truly manage to handled the demographic reality we face. Left-leaning, pro-tax-increase writers typically ignore what tax increases do in terms of decreased economic activity and revenue. Whose taxes go up, and are we willing to shoulder that cost? You can’t do it merely by taxing the rich. The middle class will have to be a part of this compact, too, and that raises the question as to whether raising their taxes rather allowing them to manage a defined contribution (such as in the Ryan plan) is the better way.

Kenworthy also glosses over education as one example of how we went from private to public. And yet there’s hardly a greater example of how the public sector has failed to keep Americans competitive than our public school bureaucracies. We are at a point where it is fair to ask whether if we had stayed private all along we would have, on net, performed better for all Americans over time. Even if we wouldn’t have, educational institutions’ failure stands as a pretty strong counter-point to Kenworthy’s positive view of public monopolization of goods and services.

But the real moral dilemma is found in how we demand by law that the ¬†young subsidize the old. The way we demand it, the way we finance it, the way we borrow to support it and thus make the future even grimmer for the young and unborn. On this point, I’m with Eberstadt.

  • http://twitter.com/getsocialpr Rodger

    I’d like to see a discussion about how entitlements called corporate welfare are weakening corporations and forcing the people to pay for corporations which are losing their competitive edge globally. On another note, I’d like to see a discussion about how politicians feel entitled to get paid for their service, or why they feel entitled to subsidized health care by the people. Shouldn’t they pay for that themselves. Doesn’t seem too self-reliant. Just a few thoughts.