A Nation of Takers

In A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic, one of our country’s foremost demographers, Nicholas Eberstadt, details the exponential growth in entitlement spending over the past fifty years. As he notes, in 1960, entitlement payments accounted for well under a third of the federal government’s total outlays. Today, entitlement spending accounts for a full two-thirds of the federal budget. Drawing on an impressive array of data and employing a range of easy-to-read, four color charts, Eberstadt shows the unchecked spiral of spending on a range of entitlements, everything from medicare to disability payments. But Eberstadt does not just chart the astonishing growth of entitlement spending, he also details the enormous economic and cultural costs of this epidemic. He powerfully argues that while this spending certainly drains our federal coffers, it also has a very real,long-lasting, negative impact on the character of our citizens.

Also included in the book are responses to Eberstadt’s argument from other leading political theorists, William Galston—who questions Eberstadt’s causal links between government programs and dependence—and Yuval Levin—who suggests that the problems posed by dependence may, in fact, run even deeper than Eberstadt suggests. A final response from Eberstadt puts everything in perspective and invites the rest of us to lend our voices to the conversation.

“Our modern predicament suggests that the entropic qualities of liberal democracy are vitiating those sources of America’s distinctive vigor. We find it increasingly tempting to construct a European welfare state because we find it increasingly difficult to reject what Charles Murray calls the ‘European Syndrome’—the belief that, as he phrases it, ‘human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate,’ a worldview dictating the conclusion that ‘the purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible.’ The individualism that worried Tocqueville culminates in the self-absorption that worries Murray, leaving us disposed to regard work, family, and community as more trouble than they’re worth, and piety and patriotism as contemptible delusions.”

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“Readers will draw their own conclusions, but people wanting a quick introduction to one of the most important policy debates in the United States today (and one with significant implications for global power politics, if Eberstadt’s analysis is correct) will do well to consult this useful work.”

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“Eberstadt’s most striking statistics are the growth of these programs between 1960 and 2010. In constant 2010 dollars, entitlement programs grew from about $250 billion to $2.2 trillion. Given that the U.S. population also grew during this time, perhaps a more useful comparison is per capita entitlements, which grew from about $1000 per person in 1960 to over $7000 per person in 2010, a staggering seven-fold increase.

The increase in entitlements as a percentage of total federal expenditures is another troubling trend. In 1960, entitlements accounted for about 30 percent of federal budget outlays, but in 2010 that figure had climbed past 65 percent. In other words, nearly two-thirds of government spending is for entitlement benefits. Eberstadt uses this trend to raise the possibility that entitlement expenditures might eventually “squeeze out” other federal programs, particularly those mandated by the U.S. Constitution.”

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About the Authors

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he researches and writes extensively on demographics and economic development generally, and more specifically on international security in the Korean peninsula and Asia. Domestically, he focuses on poverty and social well-being. Dr. Eberstadt is also a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR).

His many books and monographs include Poverty in China (IDI, 1979); The Tyranny of Numbers (AEI Press, 1995); The End of North Korea (AEI Press, 1999); The Poverty of the Poverty Rate (AEI Press, 2008); Russia’s Peacetime Demographic Crisis (NBR, 2010); and A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic (Templeton Press, 2012). His latest book is Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis (Templeton Press, 2016).

He has offered invited testimony before Congress on numerous occasions and has served as consultant or adviser for a variety of units within the US government. His appearances on radio and television range from NPR to CNN’s The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.

Mr. Eberstadt has a Ph.D. in political economy and government, an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government, and an A.B. from Harvard University. In addition, he holds a Master of Science from the London School of Economics.

In 2012, Mr. Eberstadt was awarded the prestigious Bradley Prize.

Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the editor of National Affairs magazine.

His essays and articles have appeared in numerous publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and others. He is a contributing editor of National Review and The Weekly Standard, a senior editor of EPPC’s journal The New Atlantis and, most recently, author of The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. He is a recipient of a 2013 Bradley Prize for intellectual achievement.

Before joining EPPC, Mr. Levin served on the White House domestic policy staff under President George W. Bush. He has also been Executive Director of the President’s Council on Bioethics and a congressional staffer. He holds a B.A. from American University and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

William A. Galston holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a senior fellow. A former policy advisor to President Clinton and presidential candidates, Galston is an expert on domestic policy, political campaigns, and elections. His current research focuses on designing a new social contract and the implications of political polarization.

He is also College Park Professor at the University of Maryland. Prior to January 2006, he was Saul Stern Professor and Acting Dean at the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, founding director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), and executive director of the National Commission on Civic Renewal, co-chaired by William Bennett and Sam Nunn. A participant in six presidential campaigns, he served from 1993 to 1995 as Deputy Assistant to President Clinton for Domestic Policy. From 1969 to 1970 Galston served as a member of the United States Marine Corps and was honorably discharged.

Galston is the author of eight books and more than 100 articles in the fields of political theory, public policy, and American politics. His most recent books are Liberal Pluralism (Cambridge, 2002), The Practice of Liberal Pluralism (Cambridge, 2004), and Public Matters (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005). A winner of the American Political Science Association’s Hubert H. Humphrey Award, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004.

Galston has appeared on all the principal television networks and is a frequent commentator on NPR. He writes a weekly column for the Wall Street Journal.