Why Worry about Entitlements?

Matt observes that entitlement spending has been rising over the past few decades, and that I think the past few decades have been pretty good ones. So, he asks, why should I worry about the continued growth of entitlements?

C’mon, Matt, you can do better than that. I think you’ll grant as well that recent times have been pretty good, even as Republicans have won seven of the past ten presidential contests. Does that mean you’d be happy with a continuation of the GOP’s winning streak?

Yes, we can have a thriving free society and a bloated, costly welfare state — after all, we do right now. But I think we can do better.

I worry about entitlements because I’m a liberal, not a social democrat. Which means, I don’t support collectivization for collectivization’s sake. If people can handle things on their own without government assistance and control, they ought to, for a whole variety of reasons. And since most Americans have the capacity to provide for their own retirement and (whether directly or through insurance) health care, there is no need for universal entitlement programs in those areas. I support means-tested retirement subsidies. And I support health care subsidies for the poor and chronically ill (i.e., those unable to provide for their own health care). But I oppose on principle programs that slosh gigantic sums from one cohort of the middle class to another.

And I think there are good reasons for other liberals to share my worries, even if they’re much more enthusiastic generally about redistributionist policies than I am. Matt acknowledges that the public’s aversion to high taxes imposes political constraints on government spending. Which means there are opportunity costs to spending on this rather than that. Specifically, spending profligately to subsidize people who don’t need the help means spending less on people who do. Already more than a third of federal spending goes to support people over 65; that share is projected to keep going up and up. The result is that other, worthier causes go begging for funds, and the squeeze is only going to get worse.

There’s more to liberalism than serving as tax collector for the gerontocracy — isn’t there?

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

Response Essays

  • National Review Online editor-at-large and LA Times columnist Jonah Golberg offers a critical assessment of what he calls “the Brink Lindsey Project” — “a new fusionism which will make us stuffy conservatives lighten up and make pie-eyed liberals give up their enduring weakness for Gosplans.” According to Goldberg, Lindsey’s “libertarian centrism” involves a suspiciously convenient confluence of forces. “His definition of libertarian centrism is really Lindseyan centrism,” Goldberg argues. “And by writing his own priorities into the grand sweep of history, he misdiagnoses the nature of the liberal-conservative divide.”

  • Atlantic Monthly associate editor Matthew Yglesias joins Brink Lindsey in thinking that the relaxation of traditional social strictures over the past few deacades is a good thing, but he doesn’t see anything libertarian about it, citing the role of Civil Rights Act and other intrusive anti-discrimination laws in bringing about the shift. Yglesias concedes that the economy has in some ways become less regulated, but argues that this didn’t signal an “ideological triumph.” Furthermore, he argues, “libertarians interested in practical politics might want to consider that a federal commitment to health security and retirement security isn’t going away,” and suggests that Lindsey himself may have explained why.

  • Reason contributing editor Julian Sanchez spots several ambiguities in Brink Lindsey’s argument leading him to doubt the conclusion that America has become more libertarian in a meaningful sense. “To speak confidently about America’s growing libertarianism,” Sanchez writes, “we need to establish that at least some of the changes Lindsey lauds are driven by a shared conception of justice” that leans increasingly libertarian. Yet Sanchez is unimpressed by the polling data Lindsey recruits to his cause. There is no doubt we now have more choice due to increasing abundance, but “the conception of freedom that has always centrally concerned libertarians has been the freedom from restraints on choice, not the variety of available options.” But, Sanchez argues, “much of the plausibility of Lindsey’s thesis relies on [the] conflation” of these two conceptions of freedom.