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.

Eberstadt argues that the moral hazard of this culture “is plain.” In today’s essay, I develop this line of thinking, arguing that entitlement policies harm our moral development because they deprive us of opportunities to forge moral connections to other human beings through private relationships and associations. In tomorrow’s essay, I explain the importance of these relationships and associations for ordering society, and the threat that entitlements pose to them.

Naturally Dependent Humans

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In his address, Obama placed entitlement programs in perspective, observing that many people fall on hard times through no fault of their own. “We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives,” he said, “any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.” He lamented a bygone era “when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.”

Here the president touched on a very real concern for many Americans: the fear of being left to fend for oneself. While economic rights are reasonably viewed as liberating, their liberating function can be overstated. Humans are by nature dependent beings. Even independently wealthy people are dependent upon others for goods such as friendship, art, and learning. And most people are not independently wealthy.

So lawmakers cannot, and should not attempt to, do away with humans’ dependence upon others. Instead, they should aim to foster healthy dependencies and to eradicate unhealthy ones. At its best, law does not free us from others but instead channels our dependence toward those who will take our wellbeing into consideration and act upon it. It encourages moral connections between dependent people and other dependent people.

Usually those people are members of our own family. We generally share resources with our family members because we love them. At the very least, we share because we have obligations grounded in promises and biological ties. Actions motivated by love and familial obligations improve the moral character of the family and its members.

As each member deliberates about and decides what to do with the resources available, each considers not only his own preferences but also the needs and plans of the others. In a real sense, each member takes the wellbeing of other members into his own reasoning. Interdependence among family members makes potentially selfish people into others-focused people.

Acts of sharing and exchange within the family establish moral connections. Parents have natural obligations to provide for their children. Children who are dependent upon their parents owe to their parents obligations of obedience when young, and honor and respect in mature age.

Charitable acts function in the same way, though less comprehensively than acts of sharing within families. When one gives a gift to a friend, buys a sandwich for a homeless person, or makes a donation to a scholarship fund at one’s alma mater, the reason for the gift is the wellbeing of the recipient. The donor perceives a human being or community of human beings and chooses to make their wellbeing his own goal to be achieved. The donor takes the life and plans of the recipient into his own reasoning, and thereby into his character.

Like familial obligations, then, a gift changes both the donor and the recipient for the better by focusing their attention on the wellbeing of someone else. The donor becomes someone who acts for the good of another. The recipient becomes a matter of concern to another human being. The investment that the donor makes in the life of the recipient gives the recipient a reason to live well not only for his own sake but also for the sake of the donor.

By contrast, sheer transfers for value harness a more modest incentive to take others’ interests into account: self-interest. A free-market exchange is an important mechanism for satisfying human needs and desires, and the legal rights that make the exchange possible thus perform important work. The connection between the participants is not the same as the moral connection between a mother and the child she feeds, or between a donor and a scholarship recipient. But the wellbeing of the other party to a market transaction must be a matter of at least instrumental concern to each party in order for the deal to succeed.

While a market-based exchange creates a weaker moral connection than family sharing and charitable acts, public entitlements destroy the moral connections between people altogether. Government agencies, as impersonal institutions, do not satisfy entitlement claims for altruistic reasons. They do not choose to bestow benefits on particular recipients due to their merit or promise, or to invest in their hopes and dreams. They do not subject their own hard-earned resources to others’ plans. They act to satisfy the requirements of law.

Nor is the taxpayer invested in the life of the recipient. Recipients cannot be specific objects of concern to taxpayers. So, the transfer gives the recipient no new reason to live well (apart from satisfying any minimal legal qualifications).

Entitlements destroy a natural incentive that recipients would otherwise have to develop into morally responsive and responsible human beings. Though many recipients may very well take the concerns and hopes of their own dependents into account when they apply for benefits, they are freed from dependence upon those who would care for them, and relieved of the burden and privilege of providing for their dependents’ needs from the fruit of their own efforts. The law tells an entitlement beneficiary that he should receive the money. The fitting response to a check from the disability office is not to write a thank-you note. Because the recipient qualified for the entitlement, he was owed the money. Whoever paid the money did so to satisfy a legal obligation, and the recipient had a legal right to receive it. If law is the only force operating upon the recipient’s reasoning, then he will come to consider it an injustice not to receive the benefit.

In other words, legal entitlements beget moral entitlement.

So the nature of dependence matters. Human dependence is an ineradicable fact, but different types of dependence have radically different moral implications. There is a spectrum of dependencies, from those within families, where material dependence is a source of moral improvement, to dependence upon government, where dependence is a source of moral entitlement.

A First Principle of Reform

It is now old news that the expansion of entitlements has not proven conducive to family life and moral development. One reason is that entitlements offer the benefits of shared economic life without (in the short term) any of the legal and moral costs.

Before PRWORA, the statute that authorized “Aid to Families With Dependent Children” was expressly designed, in the words of Congress, to enable parents of dependent children to attain “maximum self-support and personal independence.” It did not say independence from what, but the most obvious candidates would be families, religious associations, and other private charities. Naturally, a legal regime designed to render the functions of families and private actors obsolete was inimical to the moral development of citizens and the wellbeing of children.

Congress eventually declared a truce in its assault upon the economic conditions of family life. In its 1996 welfare reform act, Congress expressly found that “Marriage is the foundation of a successful society” and an “essential institution … which promotes the interests of children.” Congress wanted to promote “responsible fatherhood and motherhood.” (That same year, it enacted the Defense of Marriage Act.) If the federal government was powerless to create healthy families, it seemed prepared to stop undermining them.

The real lesson of our last effort at entitlement reform is this: the first principle is to do no harm. But we must go further. Tomorrow I will argue that tinkering with existing entitlement policies is not enough. We must consider the effect that entitlements have had upon our reasoning, and think differently about how to deliver goods and services to those in need.