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May 03, 2005

Gripe Gripe Social Security Gripe Wank Gripe

As far as I can tell, politics has little to do with political philosophy. It's generally about various groups trying to stick it to other groups. During the sticking-it-to process, the groups dream up reasons why the sticking is just and righteous and in the best interests of everyone. Sometimes they even believe these reasons.

That's why I strive never to engage in philosophical discussions with other people about politics, at least in public. It's like masturbation: self-delusion and fantasy, either alone or in collaboration with others, can be a fulfilling experience. However, I feel it's bad manners to do it on C-Span.

I thought of this when I read this statement by Stephen Bainbridge about Social Security:

After all, while the Dems may think the people are too dumb to fend for themselves, the Dem elites are pretty bright.

Bainbridge here linked to a Los Angeles Times column by David Gelernter:

How could anyone be opposed in principle to private investment accounts within Social Security?... Because private accounts violate the Infantile American Principle, so dear to Democratic hearts. Little kids should turn over their cash to the Big Smart Government for safekeeping.

I've heard this about Social Security a million times, and I'm sure the people saying it genuinely believe it. It actually sounds pretty good, if you think about it for one second. The problem is that if you think about it for MORE than one second, it makes no sense whatsoever.

I will now explain why in detail. Of course, as I say, this kind of philosophizing has zero relevance to what actually happens with Social Security; that will be decided by the relative power of the groups involved. My doing this in public is just an impolite form of self-gratification. Nevertheless, let me just unzip my pants here and... ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

First of all, the point of having a government is that some things work much better if done on a society-wide scale. For instance, most of us think it's a good idea to have mandatory taxes pay for a national military, rather than leaving everyone free to purchase however many nuclear weapons they can afford. Believing this does not mean you "think the people are too dumb to fend for themselves." It's just that human beings have found the whole warlord system doesn't go well over the long term. Similarly, the rationale for Social Security is that (one part of) the way our society handles retirement is best organized on a national scale.

This may or may not be true. But it's important to recognize that, at least publicly, almost everyone agrees that it is. George Bush isn't proposing to abolish Social Security; ie, eliminate payroll taxes and leave everyone to save that money or not as they choose. He might privately want to do this, and that might be the final result of his plans. But he recognizes you can't get anywhere in US politics if you propose this openly, just like you won't go far if you propose disbanding the army.

So, the main question—whether or not we should have a mandatory, nationwide retirement system—is settled. The remaining question—how it should be organized—is comparatively minor. That's why all the rhetoric about striking a blow against the tyranny of Harry Reid and the AARP is so peculiar. George Bush agrees with the Infantile American Principle that we should be forced to save. All he proposes is to move from forced saving where you have no choices to forced saving where you have three or four very similar, tightly controlled choices.

On the Football Field of Human Freedom, this advances the ball perhaps three inches toward the goal line. People who continually harp on this as a great moral triumph are, to my mind, severely weird.

Whew! Well, that really relieved my pent up tension. But now I've lost all interest in the subject and am immediately going to fall asleep.

Posted at May 3, 2005 03:46 AM | TrackBack

You're being far too kind about the tightly controlled choices, Jonathan, and it will come back to haunt you.

Bush has achieved something unique. Each choice offers a worse deal than the last no matter how you arrange them. Few people have mastered the reverse Midas Touch to the extent he has. It's a gift, and people love him for it. He speaks to the inner mediocrity in each of his cheerleaders and lets them know that if only they were considerably less competent, they too could be president some day.

Posted by: Harry at May 3, 2005 05:29 AM

Great points and great writing.

The other word we need to keep using is "insurance". Social Security is an insurance program, not an investment program. Surely the 'publicans understand this concept in other arenas. Insurance is mandatory in many endeavors (driving, fireworks, etc.), and the insured does not get to choose how the premium is invested or spent. Today's payout to me is funded by today's premium from you.

Posted by: Jim Tobias at May 3, 2005 08:49 AM

Thank you!

This is my concerned-liberal topic of the moment. I've been doing a lot what we college groups call "consciousness-raising," and when I write about Social Security, I've used as sources primarily the HOSS! excerpt here, and a few stodgy research books.

But-- I've also gotten good use out of George Lakoff's "Don't Think of an Elephant!" for the question of how to properly trash privatization.

I've used the argument Jon's used here-- that "society-wide" change is more efficient when the government has the money.

But I've also used "Social Security as an investment program." It might not be as precise as the "insurance" comparison, but I've been using it to hit conservatives with their own argument-- that they're talking about misusing money they've already promised in another form.

I'm interested in hearing thoughts about whether or not I'm pitching this. I intend to do a teach-in in September if Social Security's still an issue, and I'm still putting together ideas for how that might work best.

Sorry for the horribly long post. I did decide not to include a long, unnecessary song parody, however.

Posted by: Matthew Sullivan at May 3, 2005 09:20 AM


You're right, I'm being too kind about the tightly controlled choices. But I was tired, and as I say, this was all about my own gratification.


Yes, Social Security is actually an incredibly good deal as an insurance program. As far as I know, there are very few insurance programs where beneficiaries get more out of it than they put into it. I'd be interested to learn if I'm wrong about that.


You may find it useful to quote the Preamble to the Constitution—particularly the "promote the general Welfare" part.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at May 3, 2005 10:29 AM