Acton Institute Powerblog

America: Exceptional Or Entitled?

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It’s no secret that government entitlement programs have increased dramatically over the past few decades. It’s no secret that some would like to continue to expand such programs. And it’s no secret that America cannot afford to keep doing this, either economically or morally.

Nicholas Eberstadt tackles the issue of entitlement in “American exceptionalism and the entitlement state.” It’s a worthy read; I’d like to offer a few salient points.

Eberstadt begins by likening America to a transplant patient. The transplanted organ is healthy, but the patient is still really sick. America – the patient – has attempted to graft a foreign organ – the European welfare state. That transplanted organ is doing what it was designed to do, but it’s killing the patient nonetheless.

Eberstadt notes that Europe’s history (yes, I know that “Europe” covers a lot of territory geographically and historically, but the point remains) is that poverty is a permanent state. Therefore, you must have permanent programs that aid people from cradle to grave. America, on the other, hand,

had no feudal past and no lingering aristocracy, poverty was not viewed as the result of an unalterable accident of birth but instead as a temporary challenge that could be overcome with determination and character — with enterprise, hard work, and grit. Rightly or wrongly, Americans viewed themselves as masters of their own fate, intensely proud because they were self-reliant.

Therefore, America (until fairly recently) viewed aid to the poor as temporary. But not anymore.

Over the past several decades, however, something fundamental has changed. The American welfare state today transfers over 14% of the nation’s GDP to the recipients of its many programs, and over a third of the population now accepts “need-based” benefits from the government.

The War on Poverty did more damage than good, in Eberstadt’s understanding. It created “an increasing treasure trove” of benefits that every American was entitled to. Thus, we moved from exceptionalism to entitlement.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA),

official transfers of money, goods, and services to individual recipients through social-welfare programs accounted for less than one federal dollar in four (24%) in 1963. (And, to go by BEA data, that share was not much higher than what it had been in 1929.) But by 2013, roughly three out of every five federal dollars (59%) were going to social-entitlement transfers. The still-shrinking residual — barely two budgetary dollars in five, at this writing — is now left to apply to all the remaining purposes of the federal government, including the considerable bureaucratic costs of overseeing the various transfer programs under consideration themselves.

Who or what is to blame, asks Eberstadt. His answer?

The corrosive nature of mass dependence on entitlements is evident from the nature of the pathologies so closely associated with its spread. Two of the most pernicious of them are so tightly intertwined as to be inseparable: the breakdown of the pre-existing American family structure and the dramatic decrease in participation in work among working-age men.

Now, it is “mainstream” for many Americans to experience inter-generational government dependence. There are no “deserving poor;” everyone is entitled to what the government is handing out. No shame, no judgement, no cut-off dates; it’s all-entitlement, all-the-time. And that is the death knell of American exceptionalism.

Read “American exceptionalism and the entitlement state” at American Enterprise Institute.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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