A Moral Foundation for Entitlement Reform
Entitlement reform cannot succeed by eliminating dependence. Instead we should aim to promote healthy dependencies.
The last time the topic of entitlement reform was as hot as it is now, a Republican-controlled Congress and a Democratic president produced landmark legislation, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). It was rightly hailed as a model innovation in welfare policy, a rare legal reform that achieved its goals with few unintended, negative consequences.
Yet there are sobering reasons to believe that many of the benefits of the PRWORA were temporary. As Nicholas Eberstadt has documented, entitlements have metastasized in other areas, especially transfer programs for those with (often-uncertain) disabilities. Government transfers now account for nearly 18% of income in the United States. Entitlement benefits amount to $2.3 trillion per year, and nearly half of Americans live in households that receive benefits from governments. So many Americans now depend upon governments for their material provision that President Obama felt it necessary to insist during his second inaugural address that we are not “a nation of takers.” He thus called attention to Eberstadt’s book by that title, and to the growing culture of dependency that Eberstadt and others are chronicling.
Principled Entitlement Reform: Private Ordering Needs Room to Grow
Private, not public, law enables healthy dependencies by carving out space for communities of people to deliberate together about what to do with the resources available to them.
Yesterday’s essay explored the implications of material dependencies for the moral development of human beings. Humans are naturally dependent creatures. Public institutions, especially legal institutions, should not try to eliminate material dependence but should instead try to foster healthy dependencies and eliminate unhealthy ones. Healthy dependencies give people reasons to consider and act for the wellbeing of other people, and thus establish moral connections with each other. Unhealthy dependencies rest upon legal entitlements and breed moral entitlement, and thus impede moral development.
Any serious effort to reform the ways we provide for those in need should take this distinction into account. We should not be content to critique the incentives that our entitlement policies create for recipients. We should also consider the effects of entitlements upon those private institutions of provision and ordering that best promote healthy dependencies—the family, private charities, religious associations, and private property institutions, among others. We need to give those institutions room to grow.