A Nation of Takers

Just out from Templeton Press: Nicholas Eberstadt’s A Nation of Takers. Nick’s harrowing account of “America’s Entitlement Epidemic” is accompanied by thoughtful comments by William Galston and Yuval Levin, as well as a brief reply by the principal author.

Unsurprisingly, the contributors agree that we cannot afford our gargantuan transfer state and its sharply ascending trajectory. Though Mr. Eberstadt does add—helpfully, though not hopefully—that the edifice may be sustainable for longer than we might think. We could pesofy the U.S. economy; or defund the military; or let the infrastructure crumble further, a la Atlas Shrugged. From John Galt stepping off the job to social collapse, it’s about twelve years. We could last considerably longer than that; it’s still a very rich country.

The contributors disagree, constructively, about the diagnosis—as in, what’s ultimately bad about the entitlement state? Or: if this were affordable, would we want it? Nick Eberstadt worries about a culture of dependencies, exemplified by male exit from the labor markets and rampant abuse in disability programs. Bill Galston finds evidence of a deep cultural change missing. Worrisome trends, he says, may have more to do with a aging society, globalization, profound technological changes (in the labor market and in health care), and the changed family structure. We have to adjust to all that, at a level we can afford. Yuval Levin observes that the entitlement state tends to mow down or corrupt all the intermediary institutions between individuals and the state—markets, families, charities, civil society.  Dependency is one result; but so is cynicism and a certain kind of infantilism: we can have all this, and not pay for it.

There’s much food for thought in this small book. I’ll say this: as both presidential contenders recognize, this is a debate the country does not want to have. Over the next four years of drift and deficits, though, maybe we’ll come to recognize that we have to have the debate. A Nation of Takers is a fine place to start.