My colleague Nick Eberstadt has a very short, very accessible, and very important new book out this week entitled “A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic.” In the book, Eberstadt details the rise in America’s entitlement culture over the last half-century and the increasing strain this is placing on our nation’s finances, as well as our cultural fabric.
What he finds is shocking. In 50 years, America has doubled the percentage of our federal budget spent on entitlements. In 2010 alone, governments at all levels transferred some $2.2 trillion, or three times as much as we spent on defense. Fully half of all families now receive government benefits, including many middle class and even well off families.
In a larger way, what Nick’s research highlights is the growth of zero-sum public policy in America: Policies that aren’t designed to “promote the general welfare,” as the Constitution puts it, but to take from one person and give to another. Sometimes this takes the form of interpersonal transfers, though much of the time these transfers are in effect from American taxpayers not yet born.
This mentality of using public policy as a crude tool to take from others to feather our own nests is perhaps more pernicious at the higher end of the income spectrum, however; we see it in the wide array of pathologies we call rent-seeking, cronyism, and corporate welfare. Data are hard to come by, but there’s much evidence to suggest this problem has grown precipitously over the same period in which our entitlement state expanded.
The unsustainable growth of entitlements- and the use of government policy to enrich private actors- both threaten America’s fiscal future and cultural greatness. And it’s hard to see how we can fix the growth of entitlement culture among the middle class if we don’t first fix the zero-sum policies that businesses and the connected use to shield themselves from competition.