Brooks says fiscal cliff offers opportunity to fight the morally bankrupting elements of the entitlement state

Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute shares with Wall Street Journal readers his thoughts about a potential opportunity tied to the fiscal-cliff debate.

[E]very year, fewer and fewer people earn their way in America without a government subsidy. As my colleague Nicholas Eberstadt has written, entitlements have doubled as a percentage of the ballooning federal budget since 1960. Today, more than half of American households receive government transfer benefits.

And this isn’t just a case of senior citizens taking the Social Security they have paid for. Unearned transfers are exploding. Consider that the number of Americans receiving disability benefits has increased almost 20-fold since 1960, to 8.6 million today from 455,000. The Tax Foundation notes that nearly 70% of Americans now take more out of the tax system than they pay into it.

It is a simple fact that the United States is becoming an entitlement state. The problem with this is not just that it is bankrupting the country. It is that the entitlement state is impoverishing the lives of the growing millions dependent on unearned resources. The good news is that we have a golden opportunity to rein in entitlements, for the first time in many years.

But there is bad news, too. President Obama argues that the real problem is undertaxing the public, not overspending on entitlements. He is currently asking Congress for $1.3 trillion in tax increases over a decade but less than $1 trillion in spending cuts—largely deferred, meaning much of that may not even take place. A study by Ernst & Young shows that Mr. Obama’s proposed tax hikes would force small businesses to eliminate about 710,000 jobs.

Mr. Obama’s proposal suggests he is entirely comfortable with an entitlement state. His telling entrepreneurs that they weren’t responsible for their success on the specious grounds that government was responsible for the country’s infrastructure—”You didn’t build that”—wasn’t just an inartful turn of phrase. It implied he is blind to the moral difference between what is earned and what is unearned.

Before us today is a chance to improve the true welfare of our nation while changing our overspending ways. By reforming entitlements and the tax system instead of extracting more money with higher tax rates, the economy could be reoriented away from unearned transfers to earned wages. This would make the economy fairer and sounder. And in the process it could build a happier country for ourselves and our children.

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