The City Winter 2013

Page 85


grams.” But things weren’t always this way. How did we get here from there? One helpful way of understanding the transition during the postWorld War II era in the United States is to examine government expenditures by type and compare spending priorities across time. What we see is that America has moved from spending about a third of its budget on entitlements in fifty years between 1940 and 1990, to spending roughly two-thirds of its budget on entitlements from 1990 to the present. Eberstadt concludes, “Thus, in a very real sense, American governance has literally turned upside-down by entitlements—and within living memory.” The urgency of this shift really comes to the fore, however, when placed within the context of ballooning federal debt and unfunded future liabilities. The consequences may be dire for future generations. As Eberstadt writes, “For the sake of pure short-term expedience, the U.S. democracy has decided to mortgage its tomorrow for a more comfortable retirement today.” Moving from the descriptive to the diagnostic, Eberstadt contends that this shift in policy represents a sea-change in American culture. “The United States is at the verge of a symbolic threshold,” writes Eberstadt, “the point at which more than half of all American households receive, and accept, transfer benefits from the government.” The moral and cultural concerns boil down to some familiar political dichotomies, such as making vs. taking, self-reliance vs. dependence, the individual vs. the state.


virtue of William Galston’s rejoinder to Eberstadt’s case is that it helpfully complicates these dichotomies, although Galston is generally agnostic about the negative implications of the transition Eberstadt describes. Here we see a fundamental divide between the views of Galston and Eberstadt: the former is inclined to view government action as essentially benevolent, or at least benign, while Eberstadt’s position is rather more skeptical. Galston’s point is well taken, though; the changes that Eberstadt describes do not entail a particular judgment about whether society is now better or worse than it was. The key question becomes whether our society has become more or less just. The debate, in this way, essentially becomes about the validity of the logic of the modern welfare state and the history of social democracies. The same evidence 84