Debate Right, 10/02

T he dangers of the entitlement society

By David Watson

The French political thinker and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, was best known for his book “Democracy in America.” After traveling across the country for two years, in 1835 Tocqueville wrote of America and its emerging democratic order. Tocqueville wrote of his travels through America at a time when the market revolution, Western expansion and Jacksonian democracy were radically transforming the fabric of American life. Of his many observations the following quote from his writing is a prediction that we are beginning to see come true today, as an entitlement mentality increasingly grips this nation.


Tocqueville observed, “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years.”


So here we are, 177 years later and the words of the Frenchman are ringing true.  We have nearly spent ourselves into oblivion, and there is no appetite for reining in the bloated federal government’s budget. As we view the financial chaos around the world in countries like Greece and Spain, we see where overspending can lead.


Last May, Governor Romney was giving a speech at a fundraiser in California, when he made an observation about the number of people in America who don’t pay any federal income tax.  This group he went on to say, which according to the non-partisan Tax Policy Center is now at 47 percent of Americans, are probably voting for Obama no matter what the candidates’ positions might be on the other critical issues of the day. Romney reasoned that these voters, like those in Alexis de Tocqueville’s example, are not likely to vote against self-interest by supporting a fiscal conservative who might not extend the benefits they have come to enjoy.

While Romney’s reasoning is sound, his math is not exactly on all fours. While it is true that there are 47 percent of Americans who are not paying a net figure in income tax, not all members of this group are on the government dole while having never contributed to society.

In fact, (again according to the Tax Policy Center), of the 47 percent, nearly 61 percent of that group (28.3 percent of the population) pays some form of payroll taxes, such as Social Security, Medicare and even some income tax. However, these taxpayers have enough deductions and tax credits that their federal income tax liability is zero. Included in this group are taxpayers who participate in the Earned Income Credit (EIC), designed to redistribute the wealth by helping low-income filers receive money back from the federal government, usually returning more to them than they paid into the system.  Many eligible taxpayers for the EIC are single parents and were eligible to receive a maximum of $5,666 for tax year 2011 with the credit. While polling would suggest that a large majority of this group supports Obama and the liberal agenda of wealth redistribution, Governor Romney is incorrect to assume that all members of this group are so inclined.

The balance of the 47 percent, about 10.3 percent of the population, are retirees who receive a retirement benefit but at such low levels that the tax code exempts them from paying income tax on that income. Again, according to polling, Governor Romney would be wrong to assume that this is a monolithic voting block for Obama. He would be equally wrong to assume that the 53 percent is of a like mind and will support the policies of financial restraint Romney and the Republicans are promoting. Many in that group support the redistribution policies of the President and will be voting for him.

While Romney’s comments may not have been politically correct and were offensive to many Americans who fall in the 47 percent, they’re not entirely detached from reality. A growing number of Americans do rely on government entitlements, and their determination to protect those benefits, despite the overall effect on the country, is a political reality.


Over the past half-century, the growth of entitlement payments has accelerated.  U.S. government transfers to individuals in 1960 totaled about $24 billion in current dollars, according to a report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Fifty years later, in 2010 that total was almost 100 times as large. Entitlement transfers to individuals have grown 727 percent over the past half-century, even after adjusting for inflation and population growth. In 2010, government at all levels oversaw a transfer of over $2.2 trillion in money.


Many of these dollars represent a return of money paid into the government during those individuals’ working lives. But many of the dollars paid out far exceed any contribution paid into the system. In 1960, entitlement payments accounted for well under a third of the federal government’s total outlays. But in the last 50 years, entitlements as a percentage of total federal spending have skyrocketed.  They accounted for nearly two-thirds of all federal spending, with all other responsibilities of the federal government making up barely one-third.


America’s ever-expanding desire for entitlement benefits has placed the country on a financially untenable trajectory.  What Governor Romney should have said is that unless we want to make a prophet out of Tocqueville, something has to change.  As long as our federal budget generates uncontrollable levels of expenditures and public debt, our nation is on an unsustainable fiscal path. That goes for the 47 percent and the 53 percent.



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2 Responses to “Debate Right, 10/02” Subscribe

  1. David Bonney October 2, 2012 at 11:27 pm #

    It is clear that David Watson has never read “Democracy in America.” Nevertheless, he cobbles together an argument, citing Tocqueville as his prophetic authority, vis-a-vis the dangers of an entitlement society. He does this through the use of a specious quote that one will never find in any of Tocqueville’s writings, for the simple and singular reason that he never said it.

    The quote has often been attributed to an 18th century Scottish history professor named Alexander Tytler, who is supposed to have written it in his work, “The Fall of the Athenian Republic.” This raises two significant problems: 1) the quotation cannot be found, and 2) neither can the book. The quote surfaced on the internet sometime after the 2000 presidential election, so we’re probably looking at authorship by a Republican political operative who remains anonymous.

    If Mr. Watson would like a more fertile prophecy from the pen of Tocqueville, instead of this “largesse” nonsense, I would direct him to Volume II of “Democracy in America,” the chapter entitled “How an Aristocracy may be Created by Manufactures.” Here Tocqueville writes:

    “I am of the opinion, on the whole, that the manufacturing aristocracy which is growing up under our eyes is one of the harshest that ever existed in the world; but at the same time it is one of the most confined and least dangerous. Nevertheless, the friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed in this direction; for if ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy penetrates into the world, it may be predicted that this is the gate by which it will enter.”

    Tocqueville envisions the possibility of the Corporate state, and that is precisely where we find ourselves today. We have passed beyond the realm of democracy, notwithstanding the residue of its empty forms and trappings, and we have crossed over into the region of oligarchy.

  2. Johnathon Gallienne October 3, 2012 at 4:59 am #

    You referenced Alexis de Tocqueville, I commend you for this, Most of the Debate Right columnists in the DCP just regurgitate whatever right wing media espouses about Topic A or Topic B so for that kudos to you.

    However, you selected one political philosopher who came to America for a short period of time early in this country’s history. While it’s certainly more intellectually sound than people paraphrasing Rush Limbaugh or Glen Beck … I would offer up that the opinion of one man holds no more weight with me because of the scholarly nature of the source.

    Though, I will not only partake in your game … I’ll even use the same hand you dealt me. The works of Alexis de Tocqueville. In his second book, Democracy In America II (1940) he got off this gem of a line, “I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all.”

    While your quotes concerning entitlement programs certainly speak to the nature of the modern Democratic Party. The quote I dug up speaks to the nature of the modern Republican Party who at ever turn seem to be looking at every new theory as danger, every social advance as the first step toward revolution, and they most certainly absolutely refuse to move at all.

    Furthermore, you miss the point of entitlements being wrong when you bring up Mitt Romney’s quote in relation to what Tocqueville said. Mitt Romney got a 70,000 dollar plus tax credit because he owns a horse. He may be able to talk the talk, but he is certainly not walking the walk. Mitt Romney is just a guilty of taking entitlements as anyone who uses social welfare. The difference, is that we call the entitlements Mitt Romney gets subsidies and we view them as rewards for success and hard work. Whereas we demonize welfare recipients because they are taking from the system and are stereotyped as not putting anything back into the system. I would direct you and any like minded readers of the DCP to the story “Taking Responsibility on Welfare” from the New York Times to see that perhaps the people who receive social welfare aren’t just leaches sucking the leftovers from the bottom of the system.

    Your resourcefulness in referencing a preeminent philosopher is respectable. However, the way you simply applied it to Romney’s 47% quote and went on to demonize people who receive social welfare entitlements was not at all respectable. It was, if anything, a vindictive indictment of the lower class … while the upper class and their entitlements went untouched by you. And it’s not that I don’t think the upper class is undeserving of their success, they worked for what they have. I also understand you are a Conservative and I’d assume are supporter of Mitt Romney. It’s fine you don’t want to shit where you eat, however its not admirable. And honestly … I think Tocqueville would be disappointed.

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