Mero Moment: American Character and the Welfare State

Last week, in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, two titans of intelligentsia, one conservative and one liberal, squared off over the effects of the welfare state on the character of the American people. The conservative, Nick Eberstadt, a professor and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that the welfare state has softened our character, while the liberal, Bill Galston, a professor and scholar with the Brookings Institute, responded that while possible, there’s no real proof that the welfare state destroys character.

Eberstadt writes in The Wall Street Journal that up until 1960 the role of the federal government was governing, and that since that time its role has changed to largely transferring wealth from the haves to the have-nots. In 1960, using current dollars, entitlement payments accounted for less than a third of all federal spending – about the same as at the height of the Great Depression. But today the outlay on entitlements is two-thirds of our federal spending – we’re talking Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, income assistance and other entitlements such as food stamps.

Eberstadt writes, “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.”  He adds, “As Americans opt to reward themselves even more lavishly with entitlement benefits … [t]he 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.”

The loss of character is manifest in the pace at which Americans today are accepting more and more government dependence at the expense of future generations.

Galston responds by saying not only is this growth in entitlements not a problem, there is no loss of character among Americans because all of these entitlements are part of a social compact we accepted to take care of one another – that is, this growth shouldn’t be a surprise given that the population is aging and we agreed a long time ago to take care of the sick and elderly. Galston says, in fact, that living up to that earlier social compact shows we actually have character. He says that to view such experiences as a struggle between dependence and independence is narrow-minded and that we should think of our situation as a matter of interdependence.

He writes, “There is no necessary relation between the growth of means-tested government benefits and the increase in the kind of dependence we care about from a moral point of view.”

Further, Galston argues that Eberstadt never shows any evidence of dependency and actually cites public opinion surveys to the contrary that show Americans still dislike government programs by and large.

I think Galston’s defense of entitlement spending is partly true and partly false. I happen to think that Eberstadt is correct despite what Galston calls a lack of evidence. There are matters of human character that are self-evident and don’t need decades of research to prove them valid. For Galston to say that our massive welfare state doesn’t create dependencies is ludicrous. Welfare reform in 1996 – that required people to work to gain benefits and resulted in dramatic drops in welfare rolls – is just one obvious example of how government can manipulate dependence.

Yes, we do have a social compact to care for those in need. We believe in a “safety net.” But balancing dependence and independence within that safety net always has been precarious. Few people, when given a choice, turn down something for nothing – just ask the “feeders” who shop at Costco on a Saturday. Unfortunately, that’s just human nature. That Galston now ignores human nature unless it’s somehow quantifiable is an intellectual’s game. Our Founding Fathers knew human nature when they saw it. And some of us still do today.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.