John Cogan writes in The Wall Street Journal, Entitlements Always Grow and Grow:

From the end of World War II to 2019, all—yes, all—of the increase in noninterest federal spending relative to gross domestic product is attributable to the growth in entitlement spending. Defense spending declined after the Korean War. Nondefense discretionary spending shows no appreciable increase. The historic entitlement spending surge in 2020 and 2021 matches the entire increase that occurred during the preceding 50 years.

The seven-decade-long growth of entitlements and the pandemic response are the product of expansionary forces that operate on Congress regardless of who is in charge. Throughout history, the most potent force has been the equally worthy claim. The claim originates from a well-meaning impulse to treat all similarly situated persons equally under the law. Here’s how it works.

When first enacted, entitlement benefits are usually confined to a narrow group of worthy individuals. As time passes, groups of excluded individuals claim that they are no less deserving of aid. Pressure is brought by, or on behalf of, these excluded groups to expand eligibility rules. Eventually, Congress acquiesces.

But the broadening of eligibility rules only brings another group of claimants closer to the eligibility boundary lines, and the pressure to relax qualifying rules begins again. The process of liberalization repeats itself until the entitlement program’s original limited goals are no longer recognizable.


John Cogan’s The High Cost of Good Intentions traces the history of entitlement spending. I highly recommend it.

Several pertinent points:

  1.  It is the sole cost of the growth in the federal budget since WWII.
  2. It is magnified by the transition to positive rights (defined by FDR) from the negative rights of the founding.  Negative rights are the freedom FROM government control (free speech); Positive rights are the rights TO something (right to health care.)  Negative rights do not require material outlays other than the cost of enforcement; positive rights have a price tag that is much higher than anyone expects.
  3. Our government is long on promising benefits without paying for them, obscuring the costs with mandates, regulations, and proxies.
  4. The progressive trend towards federal humanitarianism is limitless.  The increase in benefits is multiplied by the increase in eligibility. Once a program is established for a limited group, there will always be constituents at the margin lobbying for inclusion.
  5. It is nearly impossible to reverse these benefits once enacted.  They are cumulative: a benefit is justified on its merits independent of other programs already available. In an avalanche every snowflake pleads innocent. (Stanislaw Lec).
  6. “The largest transfer programs are the middle‐​class entitlements, Social Security and Medicare. In addition, a large portion of the third biggest entitlement program, Medicaid, actually goes to the middle‐​class elderly and disabled individuals, not the poor. Those three programs alone now make up more than half of all federal spending.”  Yes we pay for them but Social Security and Medicare are required taxes and general revenue pays for much of Medicare.  Social Security is deeply regressive. See Why is Social Security Regressive in National Affairs.  Also Who Pays the True Cost of Medicare:

During 2014, the most recent full year covered by official government reports, nearly $600 billion flowed into Medicare and an even larger amount flowed out — $613 billion. Of this $600 billion, how much do you think came from payroll taxes? If you said less than half, you get to keep playing the Medicare money game. Medicare collected $227 billion in payroll taxes in 2014, or about 38 percent of its revenues. That leaves $373 billion unaccounted for. Premiums represent our dollars, too, so perhaps adding what we pay in Medicare premiums will justify the notion that we pay for Medicare. What do you think? Sixty percent? Fifty? Forty? Thirty? How about 21.5 percent, which translates into $80 billion in Medicare premiums.

The lesson- entitlement programs are essentially irreversible and very difficult to contain.  We should be very cautious about starting any new program no matter how small, fighting the urge as Daniel Henninger framed it “that any tear in the social fabric should be mended with permanent entitlements or subsidies