The American middle class has become increasingly dependent on government programs, from guaranteed student loans for the young to income and medical support for the elderly. But few people are willing to pay for the benefits they receive. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, the average male Social Security recipient receives an average 21 percent more in benefits than he (and his employers) paid into the system in taxes.
Medicare recipients receive an even higher ratio of benefit to taxes paid in. The National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare estimated that by 2016, the average male would receive about 160 percent in benefits from what he and his employer paid in taxes, and the average female an even higher percentage. And an estimated 25 percent of Medicare expenditures go for care in the last year of life, a figure that has remained steady over the last several decades.
Third, politicians will never become accountable so long as voters believe they are actually "entitled" to any government programs. The whole debate over "entitlements" suggests a right that simply doesn't exist. The guarantees in our Constitution have mainly to do with individuals' civil and political rights -- such as the right to equal protection of the laws -- not with promises of specific government programs. Article I gives Congress the power to "provide for the common defense and the general welfare of the United States," but there is no inherent right to a specific level of defense spending or entitlement to government assistance. The people can receive only what they are willing collectively to pay for, which is what elections are all about.
In a democracy, the people generally get the government they deserve. If Americans are serious about reducing our national debt, we'll elect officials who are willing to make hard -- even unpopular -- choices. If not, we'll continue to mount up bills and we'll have no one to blame but ourselves. In the end, it won't be the Republican Party that loses, but America.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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