Nation-of-takersJordan Ballor recently reviewed Nicholas Eberstadt’s A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic, pointing out in some additional commentary that when “government is contiguous with society…perhaps our conceptions of ‘making’ and ‘taking’ need some re-examination.” Today, he connects some more dots, including a helpful reference to Herman Bavinck.

In my own review of the book at Values & Capitalism, I offer a similar response, focusing particularly on William Galston’s critique of Eberstadt, which is included in the book itself. Whereas Eberstadt can be overly dichotomous in his categorizing, Galston gives way to a blurrying impulse.

Galston’s primary critique of Eberstadt’s maker-taker paradigm is that his emphasis on “dependency” is over-hyped and undeserved. “The moral heart of this fiscal challenge is not dependence,” Galston writes, “but rather a dangerous combination of self-interest, myopia, and denial.” For Galston, dependency is a natural and healthy part of any society. Thus, as long as all the giving and taking balances out, who cares about the particular channels of exchange?

As I summarize in my review:

For Galston, the steep climb toward increasing entitlements is only a dangerous hike if we fail to tax the citizenry accordingly. While Eberstadt emphasizes that there is more to this lopsided situation than mere lopsidedeness, Galston struggles to understand why “dependence” and “entitlement” are features to be avoided in and of themselves, pointing out that planning for long-term security through a giant bureaucracy is no different than putting one’s life savings in a retirement annuity. “I do not see why transferring this case to the public sector makes a moral difference,” he writes.

If this rash conflation of distinct social and institutional orders weren’t enough, Galston goes further, comparing dependence on the state to the safety and security of the family. “We are in no way troubled when children depend on their parents,” Galston points out. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be … As long as we contribute our share, taking is morally unproblematic. We can be a nation of takers, as long as we are a nation of givers as well.”

Father/daughter = Obama/serf?

Potato potahtoe, tomato tomahtoe.

Galston is correct to emphasize reciprocity as a key component of a flourishing society, but we must be careful to ask ourselves: reciprocity in what particular social, spiritual, cultural, economic, or political context? As Ballor indicates, the maker-taker critique fails only insofar as it ignores the richer complexity of human and institutional relationships. For Galston and many others, pointing out even this one distinction—between government and “private” life–is already one step too far. Yet as Yuval Levin counters in his response: “Most of life is lived somewhere between those two, and American life in particular has given rise to unprecedented human flourishing because we have allowed the institutions that occupy the middle ground—the family, civil society, and the private economy—to thrive in relative freedom.”

Not all exchange is created equal. Conditions matter. Relationships matter.

Until we begin to recognize the importance of these relational distinctions, we will continue to see corresponding responsibilities left unfulfilled, with “dependency” continuing to redefine itself toward a taker ethos that cares as little for stubborn data as it does for neighbor-love.