* The High Cost of Good Intentions: A History of U.S. Federal Entitlement Programs
By John F. Cogan
Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2017.
Pp. xii, 500. $24.95 cloth.
Send a student to the chalkboard and have her illustrate, using Venn diagrams, the universal set of policy positions of former U.S. House Speaker, self-described policy wonk, and Ayn Rand admirer Paul Ryan. Now ask her to do the same for former presidential candidate, current U.S. senator, and self-described "democratic socialist" Bernie Sanders. The intersection of those two sets is not large, but it is not the null set. On one issue, they agree: U.S. federal entitlement programs are, well, off the mark. Paul thinks we spend too much on too many programs; Bernie, not enough on not enough programs.
If one were curious about how this particular topic ended up at the juncture of two such opposing worldviews, one could read nine or ten excellent volumes on the history of specific U.S. federal entitlement programs. (I have in mind, for example, Sylvester Scheiber and John Shoven's thorough, though now a bit dated, book The Real Deal [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999], a detailed account of the past and future prospects of Social Security.) Readers lacking the time or commitment for such an exercise should just read John Cogan's new book The High Cost of Good Intentions. Cogan offers an excellent, concise history of U.S. federal entitlement programs and summarizes their current states. He manages to do this in 392 pages of densely packed but well-explicated text. The volume is accessible to lay readers as well as to academics and professionals.
After an introductory chapter, Cogan reviews the first U.S. entitlement programs, which, interestingly, antedate the United States itself: military pensions from the Revolutionary War. It is a bigger topic than you might think. Revolutionary War pensions were followed by pensions from the War of 1812, and those were followed by Civil War pensions, which were followed by Spanish American War pensions, and finally the Great War gave us the infamous "bonus" system. It is important to note that these pensions were not retirement pensions for the "regular" army or navy. Rather, they were, at least initially, disability and survivors' benefits for the men, mostly volunteers, serving in each specific conflict. Once the initial entitlement had been created, Congress proved unable to resist increasing both the coverage and...