Federal Entitlements and the End of the American Idea


William Sullivan | American Thinker

In his excellent podcast series, “Cold War: Prelude to the Present,” Bill Whittle opens the series by describing the Berlin Wall as “not only a wall between East and West Berlin.” He continues: “It was the division of humanity into two different camps… On one side of the wall, the Eastern side, were the collectivists, who believed that society takes precedent over the person.

This collectivism was advertised as new and scientific, but the fact is that collectivism has been the default position of humanity since humanity began. No, the actual newcomer to this clash of visions were the individualists on the Western side.

The first government in history dedicated to the idea of the individual being more worthy of protection than the State, had just turned 170 years old when the 40-year conflict known as the Cold War began.” This was, indeed, the ideological framework of the Cold War. And comparatively speaking, it was true.

Freedom of speech and the press, religious freedom, the innate right to own firearms as a means of self-defense and against a tyrannical government, and due process under a system of laws that apply equally to all citizens — even if these concepts were not always adequately observed or protected in the United States, they were at least designed to uphold a national creed, enshrined in a constitution, that grants the individual citizen protective advantages that are prohibited to the State.

No such rights existed in the Soviet Union, and the power dynamic between its citizens and the State was designed with a precisely inverse aim in mind. But America was already headlong into collectivist experiments that were slowly transforming the West to be more like the East by the time the Cold War came to a close, and we should harbor no illusions about that. “Collectivism” and “entitlements” are synonyms if you break the understanding of those words down to brass tacks. Both could be described as a governmentally-enforced societal responsibility for citizens to provide resources to the government, in order for the government to redistribute the confiscated resources to those whom the government has determined “need” those resources more than the citizens from whom the resources were confiscated.

The power to discriminately confiscate wealth from individual citizens in order to provide for other citizens was, quite purposefully, not enumerated in the Constitution as a power of government. As such, the Founders likely never imagined that it could be done. More than any other moment in American history, the Sixteenth Amendment opened the door to America’s path to collectivism. Fueled by academic, political, and media resentment for the captains of industry in the late nineteenth century, American representatives ratified a federal allowance to discriminately tax individuals’ income in 1913, thus implementing a key feature that Karl Marx prescribed as one of the Ten Planks of Communism in his Manifesto – a progressive income tax.

The more you earn, the more you pay to the government coffers. Put another way, “from each according to his means.” But while the government could now seize wealth in a manner consistent with collectivism, it could not yet redistribute “to each according to his need.” “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents,” observed James Madison.

This was true, as everyone knew at the time, but this obstacle to utopia vexed many progressive politicians, academics, and journalists who, like Walter Duranty of the New York Times, presented the Soviet Union as a beacon of progress, even as the Soviet regime was employing agricultural collectivization in the Ukraine to murder millions upon millions of its political enemies. With the Great Depression came opportunity for those looking to transform America into something more akin to the Soviet Union.

Power-hungry politicians preyed upon a public that was enduring hard times with promises of government benefits, and assumed for themselves the right to expend confiscated federal wealth on “objects of benevolence.” I say that they assumed this right for themselves because, unlike the Sixteenth Amendment which constitutionally altered our social contract to give the government to the power to discriminately seize income, there was no such effort made to grant government the right to establish the welfare state. It was merely a presumption by FDR and the New Deal’s architects. The Social Security Act was legislated in 1935. It included a “Federal-State system of unemployment compensation,” and a peculiar “old age insurance” program for all Americans that would be administrated by a federal agency.

FDR initially argued that benefits would be financed by “premium,” but they quickly recognized that the government had no authority to force every American to buy an irrevocable annuity or unemployment insurance — but the government could tax Americans’ incomes. Thus, it soon became understood that the benefits would be financed by “taxes on individuals’ wages and employers’ payrolls.” This still didn’t address the fundamental problem, though, which was that the government was seizing income from one person to finance benefits for another.

As such, the Supreme Court seemed all set to strike the Act down in 1937, when FDR held a gun to the Court’s head by threatening to pack the Court with six new judges who would just uphold New Deal legislation without regard to the limitations of that pesky Constitution. One judge in particular, Owen J. Roberts, abruptly flipped his position on the question in order to maintain the integrity of the Court, now called “the switch in time that saved nine.” Even if one is capable of the mental gymnastics necessary to find this arrangement to be something other than federal redistribution of wealth, there was actually a direct welfare program buried in the Social Security Act — a three-page clause which granted federal “Aid to Dependent Children.”

By the time the Housing Act of 1937 was passed, Congress and the president had begun operating under the assumption that it was an appropriate use of federal tax dollars to provide subsidies for low-income housing, and the Court which was designed to check such abuses of federal power had been thoroughly castrated. Welfare continued to expand through the next two decades, but the federal expenditures were modest by today’s standards. LBJ, however, would introduce eight new federal welfare programs in his quest to reinvent America as a redistributive utopia that he called the Great Society.

At this point, even though the power to redistribute wealth had still never been enumerated in the Constitution, it became common understanding the federal government did, if only by tradition alone, have the power to do it. The expansion of the welfare state has only grown since then, and to be fair, it hasn’t only been Democrats guilty of it, though they are by far the worst offenders.

And here’s the thing about federal entitlements — they never go away. “Entitlements are the death of responsible government,” writes Mark Steyn in his book, After America: Get Ready for Armageddon, because “regardless of government revenues or broader economic conditions, they “mandate” spending.” “In a sense,” he continues, “they negate the American revolution.

They are taxation without representation — for, as we well know, no matter how the facts on the ground evolve over the decades, entitlements are insulated from both parliamentary oversight and election results.” The world before federal entitlements had produced the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, an era of limited government and the protections of the individual that Bill Whittle described.

Federal spending was low, budget surpluses were the norm, and validating this system of government was the “world-dominating achievements of [men like] Cornelius Vanderbilt, James J. Hill, John D. Rockefeller, and Charles Schwab,” writes historian Burton W. Folsom. In 1935, federal spending on welfare was $0. In 1960, it was an inflation-adjusted $20 billion.

In 2022, federal spending on welfare programs was $1.2 trillion, which is ~20% of the federal budget. It comprises the bulk of the federal budget deficit annually, driving our unprecedented $33 trillion in national debt, and impoverishing the nation more and more every minute. And there are no signs of a reversal to this trend which plunges us further into the depths of collectivism, which prioritizes the needs of society and the State over the rights of the individual.

A growing army of domestic and imported dependents will vote for Democrats who promise nothing less than the expansion of federal welfare programs, including the progressives’ Holy Grail — nationalized healthcare. Our only hope in retaining what’s left of the American idea lies in the election of Republican leaders who are at least aware of the problem of an ever-expanding welfare state, and who, like President Trump did in 2018, will make some effort to reform welfare in the interest of taxpayers.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the various author’s articles on this Opinion piece or elsewhere online or in the newspaper where we have articles with the header “COLUMN/EDITORIAL & OPINION” do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints or official policies of the Publisher, Editor, Reporters or anybody else in the Staff of the Hemet and San Jacinto Chronicle Newspaper.

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