Not the virtues and vices of the federal system, mind you, but the concept: lower case ‘s’ social security (which the federal system of upper case “Social Security” is designed to promote, of course.) In the thread on taxes, the issue has come up of what the government is going to provide, and what it should provide–the right-wing argument says that taxes should be for for the armed forces, for highways, in short for all the tangible immediate indisputable goods and services that we clearly require in order to live, but very little more. The left-wingers maintain that the government is responsible for helping its poorer citizens avoid the horrors of poverty–homelessness, no medical care, short-term economic pressure to drop out of school, no retirement funding, etc.
To their credit, most right-wingers have come around to seeing some need there, though they want (if I understand them correctly) to restrict social programs to the recipients with the direst need, and as little of that help as is necessary. So even rightwingers don’t begrudge paying an 80 year old with no savings enough social security money to live in a crumby and small apartment in a bad neighborhood and to get to eat enough to survive. (Some right-wingers do begrudge even a nickel, on principle, but the concept of social programs has, I think, prevailed so the practical issue there is a matter of degree.) But what I want to discuss is the intangible qualities of social security.
Why should we, as a society, be the least bit generous in funding social programs? If that retired person can scrape by on 8,000 per year, eating sparely, living in a shack, doesn’t that exhaust our responsibility? If some 15 year old gets herself knocked up, how much should the government have to shell out (on training programs, food stamps, etc.) to prevent her life (and her kid’s life) from being utterly wasted?
Rightwingers complain that they don’t want to shell out extra tax money (that should go into their own pockets, not to the government) so that the retiree can have a more comfortable apartment, or so that the 15-year old can buy her baby some nice clothes. “What’s wrong with eating dog food?” they ask. “You can live on that. Let the stupid bitch get her kid’s clothes from the Salvation Army. I don’t want to see my tax dollars going for brand-new clothes. Poverty’s supposed to hurt, to give these people some incentive to get out of it. I don’t want poor people being taken care of comfortably, and on my dime too.”
But does it really work like that? I would submit that, unfair as it may seem, and as long as it may delay your ability to buy a new plasma TV, to afford another week in a luxury hotel in Barbados, you really do get advantages from giving everyone in the country some modium of dignity and enjoyment to their lives, much as that concept grates on you.
Let’s look at Social Security as an example. I contend that working people spend their careers seriously worried about their retirements. Under the present system, they wonder if they can get by on the money in the Social Security accounts. (Answer: No.) You might argue that this worrying is good, because it motivates them to work harder, and to save some additional money for their retirement, and you’re right, but it’s also bad in that worrying also motivates them to do some stupid things–commit crimes, defraud their employers, gamble–and it motivates them to relax in ways that are counter-productive (serious drug abuse, for example). It’s not a good idea to have some large portion of the population feeling aggrieved, deprived, marginalized. Everyone’s quality of life goes down, not just those who feel the pinch directly.
Not your problem? Yes, it is. When people feel insecure socially, wondering where their next meal is coming from, they will do things they shouldn’t do, and then it becomes your problem. Yes, you work hard for your money, and you don’t want to work so some undeserving slob gets a free ride. Believe me or not, I understand your complaint.
But there’s a reason that every country in the world has become more socially responsible since the days of Dog-Eat-Dog (misapplied) Darwinism and Dickensian capitalism: it is unproductive to promote social insecurity. If we provide a modicum of housing, health care, retirement funding, the lives of even our poorest citizens are elevated above bone-crunching horrific poverty, and living in such a society is good for everyone, in material ways.
What happens in a society where people can live fairly comfortably without working too hard? I contend that this is NOT a formula for “Hell in a handbasket.” There will still be large differences between income levels, only not quite so large as we have now. I will still envy those who make 10 times what I earn in a year, and I will still have to decide if I want to put the effort into earning those salaries. But maybe the guy who would have earned 100 times my salary will only be earning 90 times my salary–I still think he will scrape by on that, especially if that means that I will encounter fewer kids on the subway raised in homes earning 5% of my salary, as I do now.