Defining American Exceptionalism Downward

Last year, in a speech at West Point, President Obama told the graduating class, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”

Sadly, our once-demonstrable exceptionalism, found in our booming economy, our unparalleled class mobility, our ability to innovate, and our international clout, has been reduced to a belief. We have faith that the United States is the unique nation it once was, even though the lines of demarcation between our rivals and us is progressively more blurred.

That’s not necessarily a surprise because we did the blurring. We imported the European welfare state onto our shores, grafted it onto the unique class and economic structure we held dear, and then watched with increasing levels of ennui as we changed.

Some facts, courtesy of Nicholas Eberstadt’s recent essay for National Affairs titled “American Exceptionalism and the Entitlement State” are indicative of our decision to follow the “civilized” powers down the road of entitlement.

Between 1983 and 2012 the percentage of Americans “participating” in federal entitlement programs increased nearly 20 percent. To make that number more tangible consider that the nation’s population increased by almost 83 million over that span – and people accepting means-tested benefits increase by 67 million.

One look at the food stamp rolls tells the tale.

“Food stamp recipients increased from 19 million to 51 million – more than the combined populations of 24 states,” George Will writes for the Washington Post.

The explosive growth in the number of people ensnared by the welfare states occurred despite the fact that the total population below the official poverty line declined (albeit barely) from 15.2 percent in 1983 to 15.0 percent in 2012. This, unsurprisingly, has dramatically changed the nature of family budgets.

“Over the half-century between 1963 and 2013, entitlement transfers were the fastest growing source of personal income in America – expanding at twice the rate for real per capita personal income from all other sources,” Eberstadt writes. “In 1963, these transfers accounted for less than one out of every 15 dollars of personal income; by 2013, they accounted for more than one dollar out of every six.”

Taken together it’s clear to see that the federal government is spending dramatically more money on means-tested anti-poverty programs and yet the percentage of people in poverty has barely budged. The amount of tax dollars being pumped into entitlement transfers is unprecedented and yet personal incomes have stagnated, upward mobility has declined, and income inequality (at least in terms of wages) has increased. We’re doing much less to improve the economic situation of American families despite spending vastly more dollars on many more people.

The question is why. George Will offers up one potential explanation:

America’s national character will have to be changed if progressives are going to implement their agenda. So, changing social norms is the progressive agenda.

Expanding dependency requires erasing Americans’ traditional distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. This distinction was rooted in this nation’s exceptional sense that poverty is not the unalterable accident of birth and is related to traditions of generosity arising from immigrant and settler experiences.

Politicians once used pork-barrel projects to endear themselves to their constituents and ensure their continued place in Congress. That was a problem that in some ways has been resolved. But by far the more nefarious—at least in terms of its impact on the federal budget and the economy—attempt at vote buying has come through the expansion of the welfare state.

By expanding the number, size and scope of entitlement programs a politician is able to make Americans dependant on government largesse all while selling it under the moniker of poverty reduction. It’s why tax reform and entitlement reform are wildly popular when discussed in the abstract yet nearly impossible to accomplish once the details are discussed.

The slow creep of the entitlement state has changed, without us even knowing it, the safety net meant to catch those who fall into a comfy hammock in which they stay. And it’s difficult to call America exceptional when we’re sitting in hammocks, tipping our hats to our friends across the pond who showed us the way.