L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 310, March 13, 2005
"Words and Guns"
End it, Don't Mend it
Exclusive to TLE
Political reality has set in. President Bush appears to be giving up on the idea of partially private Social Security accounts, and turning his energies toward more modest reforms, such as raising the retirement age. Although the private accounts plan tried to address one of the system's biggest flaws, the lack of individual ownership of any financial assets, many libertarians correctly opposed it for adding a forced government savings plan on top of an already bad idea. Several libertarians have proposed more reasonable plans to phase out Social Security over the next several decades, realizing that any true reform must solve the problem permanently. There is a more obvious solution, however, and one that libertarians shouldn't be afraid to rally behind: Stop taking money from working people in the name of Social Security, and stop giving it to other people. Immediately.
The objections to such a plan are easy to predict, and come from all sides, including those who agree that Social Security is a bad system. It's not politically possible to end it all at once, some argue. The old people receiving the benefits are more organized in voting for the continuation of those benefits than the young people who are being victimized to pay them. (Funny how that works.) Others say they want to end the system eventually, but don't want to see the old people who have grown dependent on Social Security checks freezing to death and eating dog food. Even past Libertarian Party presidential candidates have asserted that the government should keep its promises to retirees, and find some way to keep paying the benefits, perhaps by selling government-held land.
Political reality may indeed preclude an immediate end to Social Security, but it shouldn't preclude libertarians from pushing for it. Should we stop calling for the repeal of the income tax, simply because a majority of voters oppose the idea? If libertarians won't promote a libertarian solution, who will? If others want to propose gradual phase-outs, or opt-outs, go ahead and lend them your support, but never be afraid to call for the immediate end of widespread theft. Or are you okay with widespread theft? Sometimes, a radical proposal can garner more support than mere tinkering. Ending Social Security income confiscation overnight would create a sizable financial benefit for tens of millions of young working people. Perhaps that prospect would galvanize more political support than some sixty-year plan.
What about the people who would go hungry if the Social Security checks stopped arriving tomorrow? It would be cold and heartless just to say it serves them right, for electing Franklin Roosevelt four times. The government created the problem, by taking large sums of money from them when they were productive, but that doesn't mean the government must solve the problem. Families could fill part of the gap. My own parents receive less in annual benefits than their four grown children are forced to pay each year. We could help them out, and still have more left over to save for retirement, if the Social Security Administration were shut down today.
What about retirees in less fortunate circumstances? Millions of Americans would rally to their aid, and would have far more disposable income available to help with. It is obvious that most Americans don't want the elderly to starve, because it is such a common objection to ending Social Security. The fact that a lot of people want something isn't a good argument for making it a mandatory government program -- it's really an indication that no government program is needed, because enough people want the goal to achieve it voluntarily. Even if less total money is raised for the cause, the unquestionable efficiency advantage of private charity could make up the difference. (The same argument can be made for ending government schools -- if so many people want to give poor children a good education, why don't they?)
The final objection raised at this point is one of dignity. This is often cited as an advantage of Social Security -- a retiree can take a government handout and maintain his dignity, since he "paid into" the system when he was working. The government made promises, the reasoning goes, and the government should keep those promises. But as it turns out, there are no promises in Social Security. Congress can change the benefit payouts, or the retirement age, or the tax rate on benefits, or any other aspect of the system, at any time. There is no Social Security contract, because no one in his right mind would have ever agreed to sign one. Many of us were forced into the system before we were old enough to enter into a legal contract anyway. When you realize that you have been duped, it's only natural to feel a little less dignified.
Social Security was a mistake from the beginning. It depends on taking money from young working people against their will, giving it to retirees, and then repeating the process with the next generation of young people. Any short term excess in receipts (theft) is quickly spent on other government programs, and replaced by promises to rob the taxpayers more in the future. A system built on widespread theft and dependence on government has no place in a free society, and every day it remains in place is one more day that America isn't free. We should end it as soon as we can.
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