Has the welfare state turned America into a Nation of Takers, as Nicholas Eberstadt contends in a new book so titled? Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Centre is the author of one of two dissenting responses to Eberstadt’s thesis included in the book. He agrees that the ballooning of the liberal welfare state is “a grave threat to the character of American self-government” but disagrees that becoming a nation of “takers” is “quite the right way to think of the problems we face”. In the following excerpts from his contribution to Nation of Takers he describes a deeper problem — and a solution that still allows social support for the old and the poor.


Our reflection must begin with a general idea of the structure of American civic life, and the place of the government in it. This is a subject that has been peculiarly prominent in this intense election year. To a degree rarely seen in modern times, the 2012 presidential election appears to be raising to the surface a set of starkly different visions about the relationship between the government and the citizen in American life.

These differences have mostly been made explicit by the political left, in an effort to articulate liberals’ understanding of the character of the conservative reaction to the Obama years. In the conservative resistance to expansions of the reach and role of the federal government, and in the alternative fiscal plans drawn up by congressional Republicans since the 2010 elections, liberals believe they have seen the face of radical individualism and a complete rejection of all common endeavors and community undertakings.

President Obama gave voice to this view in his comments in Roanoke, Virginia, on July 13, 2012, where he accused his opponents of a fanatical idolatry of individual achievement that wilfully ignores the preconditions for success made possible by the larger society—which he identified more or less exclusively with the government. Numerous speakers at the 2012 Democratic National Convention made the same case, arguing, for instance, that (in the words of the convention’s opening video) “government is the one thing we all belong to,” and that (in the words of Rep. Barney Frank) “there are things that a civilized society needs that we can only do when we do them together, and when we do them together that’s called government.”

Conservatives have responded to these critics mostly by defending individual initiative and achievement, and so in effect confirming the Democrats’ charges to some degree. A fuller response would have to marvel at the thin view of American life revealed in the left’s critique of the right: a view that sees in our society only individuals and the government, and that neither discerns nor wants much of consequences in the space between the two.

Where society really thrives: the family, civil society and the private economy

But 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. Indeed, while the progressive view of government has long involved (and has been revealed once more in recent years to involve) the effort to shrink and clear the space between the individual and the state, the conservative view of government has long seen the purpose of the state as the creation, protection, and reinforcement of just that space.

Most of what we do together is not done through government but through the institutions that exist between the individual and the state, and government exists to sustain the space in which those institutions, and with them our society, may thrive. This means that government is crucially important, but it also means that limits on government are crucially important—and for the very same reason.

Without those limits, the state can gravely threaten the space for private life that it is charged with protecting. It can do so in two ways in particular: by invading that space and attempting to fill it; and by collapsing that space under the weight of the government’s sheer size, scope, and cost. In our time (and by that I mean the past several decades, not the past four years), both dangers have grown grave and alarming, and the space between the individual and the state—the space in which American life has always been lived—seems now to be in mortal peril.

Big government versus self-government

On the one hand, we see a seemingly unending succession of government efforts to fill, rather than to guard, the space in which society thrives. In the past few years, for instance, we have seen unprecedented attacks on the freedom of religious institutions to operate in civil society if they are committed to moral views different from those of the people in power. But for far longer than that we have witnessed the growth of government efforts to stand in for the institutions of civil society, to treat players in the private economy as agents of government policy, and at times even to substitute for the family in a variety of ways.

And on the other hand, we have seen the sheer girth of the growing welfare state begin to cast a giant shadow over our society—as our growing indebtedness claims an increasing share of the next generation’s material wealth for the sake of providing benefits to satisfy the current generation’s material wants. The space in which our society lives threatens to collapse under the weight of that debt even as it is increasingly invaded by the very welfare state we are funding with all that borrowing.

And here we come again to Eberstadt’s two kinds of warnings about the ballooning of the welfare state: one warning about how the trends he describes are changing our government, and another warning about how those trends are changing our citizens. The two are deeply connected in some less than obvious ways. It is true—as Eberstadt suggests— that the very extension of the reach of government benefits must have some effect on the character of our self-governing citizenry. It is a stunning fact that, as he shows, a majority of American households now receive some government benefit, and there can be no doubt that this fact has an effect on how we understand what it means to be a citizen.

Because not only the poor but the great mass of citizens become recipients of benefits, people in the middle class come to approach their government as claimants, not as self-governing citizens, and to approach the social safety net not as a great majority of givers eager to make sure that a small minority of recipients are spared from devastating poverty but as a mass of dependents demanding what they are owed. It is hard to imagine an ethic better suited to undermine the moral basis of a free society.

But there is a more to the problem, because the source of any counterforce to this tendency to corrupt the ethic of self-government must come from our institutions of civic culture and civil society, and as we have seen the precious space in which those institutions exist is itself under threat. In a free society, the government does not take the lead in shaping the citizens. Self-governing citizens are mostly shaped in that space between the individual and the state—that space where family, civil society, religion, culture, and the economy form our dispositions and proclivities. And the simultaneous invasion of that space by government and imposition on that space by government makes it very difficult for those forming institutions to function. Liberal democracy has always depended upon a kind of person it does not produce, and which must be formed by institutions that are not themselves liberal or political, but that are given room to function within our liberal society. The growth of our welfare state increasingly puts those fonts of the republican virtues in peril.

Exhaustion, inefficiency and paralysis

In essence, our country is increasingly exhausting itself just to fund the means of its own further exhaustion. It is not quite dependence that is the problem here, as Eberstadt seems at times to suggest. It is rather that we are draining away our civic energies by the sheer effort required to sustain the liberal welfare state even as—through the growth of that welfare state—we are undercutting the means by which we might replenish those energies.

This exhaustion is not merely a function of the size of our entitlement and benefit regime, but also of its immense inefficiency. That inefficiency means that the level of benefits we receive from the government does not grow in proportion to the level of resources we devote to it—we spend more and more for less and less, and it is in the spending as much as in the taking that we run the risk of undermining the ethic of our democratic republic.

[Omitted here is a section on the inefficiency of Medicaid and Medicare.]

This inefficiency is directly connected to a further profound problem: the growth of cynicism toward our welfare state. In our everyday experience, the bureaucratic state presents itself not as a benevolent provider of benefits and protector of the needy but as a slow, fat, feckless, and unresponsive behemoth. Largely free of competition, most administrative agencies do not have to answer directly to public preferences, and so have developed in ways that make their own operations easier (or their own employees more contented) but that grow increasingly distant from the way we live in an age of endless variety and choice.

Unresponsive ineptitude is not merely an annoyance. The sluggishness of the welfare state drains it of its moral force. The crushing weight of bureaucracy permits neither efficiency nor idealism. It thus robs us of a good part of the energy of democratic capitalism and encourages a corrosive cynicism that cannot help but undermine the very moral vision that has shaped the liberal welfare state.

All of this adds up not merely, or even mostly, to a nation of takers. It leaves us, rather, a nation at risk of becoming incapable of rising to the challenge of self-government.

It is often said now that our political system is paralyzed by division. But that is a misdiagnosis. In the past decade, we have seen the enactment of, among other things, a large tax reform (the Bush tax cuts), a large education reform, a huge reorganization of our domestic security agencies, a reform of corporate governance (Sarbanes-Oxley), a new Medicare benefit, a massive response to the financial crisis (including several stimulus bills, an unprecedented bank rescue, a bailout of auto companies, and more, crossing two administrations of different parties), a huge health-care reform, a huge financial-regulation reform, and a budget deal with 10-year sequestration spending caps. That is a very active period of major federal legislation—certainly more active than the prior decade or the one before that.

There is just one thing we cannot do: We cannot address the fiscal crisis being brought upon us by the welfare state. And that is less a function of division than of agreement—we do not really want to address that crisis. We want to keep the benefits flowing, but we don’t want to pay the price. So benefits continue to grow and our debt continues to mount.

The failure to address this problem is the most glaring failure of responsible self-government in our time. It is in part a function of our desire to pretend there is no problem and to ignore the sorry shape and dire consequences of the liberal welfare state. But it has also been a function of a poverty of policy imagination, born of a failure to understand the nature of the problem we confront.

With reforms, still a place for social assistance

Because the danger of our ballooning welfare state is fundamentally a danger to that essential space between the individual and the state, the solution to our problems will need to come through a re-opening of that space, and through a rethinking of the role of government that assigns to it again the task of securing that space. The reforms we require need not be directed first and foremost to reducing benefits as such but rather to restraining the reach of government and to controlling the growth of its costs.

Is there a way to provide the kinds of benefits we have come to want our government to provide—income and health benefits for the old and for the poor—without the kind of ballooning of government’s size and role that we have experienced? I believe there is, if we understand the purpose of such benefits as enabling access to the private economy (rather than shielding beneficiaries from it), and if we allow the means by which such benefits are provided to be shaped by modern markets rather than by the old social-democratic ideal of the provider state.

When it comes to providing services rather than cash— especially in health care, which is the core of our welfare state—the government should use its resources to create markets and enable competition, rather than to replace markets and command supply and demand. And when it comes to providing direct cash benefits to the poor, we should seek to follow the model of the welfare reforms of the 1990s—a defined federal role supporting state efforts that are linked to work requirements and strictly means tested. The government should not seek to stand in for the private economy, civil society, and the family but rather to strengthen them and to enable the poor and the vulnerable to access that space between the individual and the state where human thriving really happens.

Such reforms—again, especially the health-benefit reforms —would dramatically reduce the cost of our government. But, more importantly, they would move beyond the liberal model of the welfare state toward an approach that seeks to refortify and to revive the space between the citizen and the state, rather than to collapse or to invade that space. They would respond to the crisis of the welfare state with a vision of American life beyond the welfare state—a vision informed by the ideals that formed our republic but that responds in practical ways to the needs and desires of our 21st century nation. They would help us become once again a nation of self-governing citizens, and to avoid the sorry fate that Nicholas Eberstadt’s grim but timely warning has laid before us.

Because the danger of our ballooning welfare state is fundamentally a danger to that essential space between the individual and the state, the solution to our problems will need to come through a re-opening of that space, and through a rethinking of the role of government that assigns to it again the task of securing that space. The reforms we require need not be directed first and foremost to reducing benefits as such but rather to restraining the reach of government and to controlling the growth of its costs.

Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre, founding editor of National Affairs magazine, and a senior editor of EPPC’s journal The New Atlantis. Dr Levin served on the White House domestic policy staff under President George W. Bush, focusing on health care as well as bioethics and culture-of-life issues. He previously served as Executive Director of the President’s Council on Bioethics, and as a congressional staffer.

Reproduced with the permission of the author and the Templeton Press, publisher of A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic