Over the past 50 years, the U.S. government has fundamentally shifted away from its original design and destiny. As Nicholas Eberstadt diligently chronicles in his book, “A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic,” “the United States of America has become an entitlements machine … American governance has literally turned upside-down by entitlements.”

Nation of Takers

Eberstadtoffers an impressive amount of data about this shift, and, as many fellow Values & Capitalism bloggers have already demonstrated, the numbers can be examined in a variety of compelling ways. But one of the primary questions in this debate surrounds the nature of dependency. What does it mean to be a nation of takers, and is it really all that awful to have the bulk of economic exchange shift toward government-citizen transfers as long as the give-and-take stays nice and balanced?

In the book, Eberstadt’s work is followed by two critiques. The first, from William Galston, argues that Eberstadt goes too far, while the second, from Yuval Levin, argues that Eberstadt doesn’t go far enough. Both examine issues that stretch beyond the data, with Galston taking the most issue with Eberstadt’s negative framing of dependency. “The moral heart of this fiscal challenge is not dependence,” Galston writes, “but rather a dangerous combination of self-interest, myopia, and denial.”

For Galston, the steep climb toward increasing entitlements is only a dangerous hike if we fail to tax the citizenry accordingly. While Eberstadt emphasizes that there is more to this lopsided situation than mere lopsidedeness, Galston struggles to understand why “dependence” and “entitlement” are features to be avoided in and of themselves, pointing out that planning for long-term security through a giant bureaucracy is no different than putting one’s life savings in a retirement annuity. “I do not see why transferring this case to the public sector makes a moral difference,” he writes.

If this rash conflation of distinct social and institutional orders weren’t enough, Galston goes further, comparing dependence on the state to the safety and security of the family. “We are in no way troubled when children depend on their parents,” Galston points out. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be … As long as we contribute our share, taking is morally unproblematic. We can be a nation of takers, as long as we are a nation of givers as well.”

Galston is correct to emphasize reciprocity as a key component of a flourishing society, but this response simultaneously ignores one important premise in Eberstadt’s paradigm. As Eberstadt writes in response to this critique, the “problem with our entitlement archipelago is precisely the lack of reciprocity.” The dependency critique is valid in part because that voluntary exchange and reciprocity are long gone.

As Eberstadt records, the predominant attitudes of our time seem fundamentally fixed on the taker-as-taker status quo with no recognition of the hefty “giving” that must soon accompany it. “Social welfare programs are no longer reluctantly defended, but instead positively celebrated as part of the American dream,” Eberstadt notes, “and the promise to not only defend these but to increase their scope still further is offered as a positive reason for Obama’s reelection.” Even if we see “dependence” as acceptable as long as it constitutes interdependency—quite apart from the other corrosive tendencies of government management—now would still not be the appropriate time to celebrate the expansion of that which is unsustainable.

Yet to downplay this frightening rut we’re in as a consequence of mere demographic shifts and pesky political gridlock, as Galston proceeds to do, is nonetheless a good enough starting point for answering his question about private versus government exchange. Is there no distinction between the good and the beautiful exchanged between a father and son, on the one hand, and Harry Reid and “the American people?” Conditions matter. Relationships matter. Not all exchange is created equal.

Levin tackles these distinctions head-on in his response, arguing that the shift has more to do with a loss of self-government and a growing confusion about political and civic order—an argument that dovetails nicely with AEI scholar Charles Murray’s recent book. Aside from the unhealthy dependency that a distant, detached and uninvolved federal bureaucracy implicitly or explicitly fosters in dealing with this or that individual, for us to ignore that our federal bureaucracy is, in fact, distant, detached and uninvolved is a problem in and of itself.

As Levin demonstrates, whether or not “dependency” is the primary issue underlying U.S. entitlements, our inability to recognize good dependency from bad dependency is indicative of a deeper problem:

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 the consequences in the space between the two.

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 … 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.

The moment we disregard the value in varying social and institutional relationships—beginning with a holistic disregard of the distinct responsibilities of the government vs. the business vs. the school vs. the church vs. the father vs. the daughter vs. the grandmother—is the moment we should expect to see “dependency” become warped toward a one-sided “entitlement archipelago” that serves the self, and little else.