The Morality of Accepting Social Security Benefits
by Ari Armstrong
Recently I wrote a document entitled "Pledge to Renounce Social Security Benefits." In this document (available at http://www.freecolorado.com/1999//04nosspledge.html), I summarize the problems with the Social Security (S.S.) system in the United States, call for the renunciation of S.S. benefits, and call for the United States Congress to PHASE-OUT the S.S. tax by increasing the age at which benefits are paid by three months every year.
My two main purposes in writing and publicizing this document were to raise popular awareness of problems with the S.S. system and to offer a simple, libertarian way of phasing out the tax.
My purpose with the renunciation of benefits was to draw awareness to the moral repugnance of the system and to my document. Judging from the responses I've received on the issue, though, the bit about renunciation has stolen the show. To my mind, renunciating S.S. benefits is less important than educating the public about the problems of the system and about the PHASE-OUT reform. (Please note that I'm trying to make the label, "PHASE-OUT," stick in peoples' minds.)
I made a tactical, error, then, in over-emphasizing the renunciation of benefits. To compensate for this error, I have changed the title of the document to "Call for Congress to PHASE-OUT Social Security." I've also made available a new version of the document that doesn't include the paragraph renouncing benefits. I hope that those uncomfortable with renouncing their benefits will sign this alternative document and send it to their representatives in Congress. (It's linked from the page cited above.)
That said, the issue of whether one should renounce S.S. benefits is important. It is also difficult. I'll here attempt to deal with the many intricacies of the matter.
The most important reason I included the paragraph on renunciation in the original document was to draw public attention to the issue. It's a less extreme version of setting one's self on fire, standing in front of a tank, or starving one's self in protest. It gets publicity.
Further, it was the only way I could think of to express my deep, moral disgust with the S.S. system. Social(ized) (In)Security is fundamentally corrupt, fundamentally dirty, and I can no longer bear to hold my nose and pretend everything's rosy.
I hope that renouncing S.S. benefits is effective as a public protest. However, that doesn't mean others have an obligation to make such a public protest. The question of whether accepting S.S. benefits is moral must be answered on different grounds.
The common argument put forward in favor of accepting S.S. benefits can be stated, "Since the S.S. funds were taken from me by force, I have the right to take some of this money back from the system." This view was advocated by Ayn Rand, who wrote:
The victims [of government transfer programs] do not have to add self-inflicted martyrdom to the injury done to them by others; they do not have to let the looters profit doubly, by letting them distribute the money exclusively to the parasites who clamored for it. Whenever the welfare-state laws offer them some small restitution, the victims should take it . . . The same moral principles and considerations apply to the issue of accepting social security, unemployment insurance or other payments of that kind. It is obvious, in such cases, that a man receives his own money which was taken from him by force . . . (Ayn Rand Lexicon, page 194, reprinted from The Objectivist, June 1966, page 11)
But is it obvious that a person, by accepting S.S. benefits, receives his or her own money back? The proposition is far from obvious, and it is indeed false.
The "get my money back" argument relies on a reification of the State. Within this fallacious view, government is seen as a big bully who takes our money and keeps it. If we take money back from this big bully, we are simply getting back that which was taken from us.
But that's not what's really going on. In reality, the "government" is merely an organization of people who take S.S. money for other people. To truly take back one's money, one would have to collect it directly from the recipients of the S.S. benefits. Obviously, that's not going to happen.
Right now, the S.S. tax I pay goes directly into the pockets of those who receive S.S. benefits. The money is not kept by the big bully "government," such that I can take it back again from the government. If I took S.S. benefits when I retired, I would be taking money out of the pockets of the younger generations, not out of the (metaphorical) pockets of "government."
Let's use an analogy. Let us say that Allen steals $100 from Bob. Bob, to restore his wealth, could steal $100 from Carl, but would this be fair? Some might be prone to argue that two wrongs don't make a right. If we suppose that Allen is 70 years old, Bob is 45 years old, and Carl is 20 years old, the applicability of this analogy to Social Security becomes readily apparent.
Saying "the government takes money for Social Security" is merely short hand for saying, "the government takes money for Social Security on behalf of those who receive Social Security benefits." If we want to call Social Security legalized theft, then the government is merely the intermediary, the hired gun.
To extend our little analogy, let us suppose that Allen hires Gary to steal $100 from Bob. Bob, understandably miffed, asks Gary for the money back. Gary replies, "I can't get the $100 back from Allen. However, I can steal $100 from Carl and give that money to you. Deal?" That's Social Security.
I think I've made the case that accepting Social Security benefits is morally questionable at best, at least for libertarians. Are there any exceptions to the rule?
Ayn Rand accurately described some transfer programs: one can actually receive the same moneys one paid in as taxes through some programs. In such cases, her arguments for taking the benefits remain sound.
There's a possible way that one might even justify taking Social Security benefits on the grounds of getting one's money back. If one's children pay, say, $12,000 to the tax every year, would it be acceptable to take $12,000 worth of benefits so long as one had the permission of one's children? Then, in effect, the children would be getting some of their money back in a limited way. (It would even be possible to give the money directly back to one's kids.) This argument might be sturdy enough to hold up; I'm not really sure. I can only counsel each individual to weigh the arguments and make a real effort to make a principled decision, even though doing so is all but impossible under the corruptive State.
I can add a separate argument that might justify taking government benefits, regardless of whether or not one paid into the particular system. If a particular amount of funds is to be paid out, these funds would do the most good in libertarian hands, who will work toward the eventual elimination of the government program. The hazard here is that, by taking the funds, the libertarian might increase the demand for government transfers, thus putting expansive pressure on the program.
While in college I accepted a small amount of grant money from the government as well as government-guaranteed loans. I accepted these funds on the grounds that my parents paid into the system, so they might as well get some of this money back in the form of my education. Further, I thought to myself, "If I don't take this money, somebody else will. By not accepting the money, I wouldn't be reducing the over-all tax burden. Plus, at least I'll work for the eventual abolition of the coercive programs."
Still, I have a lingering guilt over the matter, because I am not sure that my arguments are sound. Could I have renounced the grant money and thereby reduce the overall tax burden? I'm not sure. I don't know if grants for education are limited to a particular total amount or given without limit. If they are given without limit, then it would seem my reasoning was faulty on the point. The point about my parents' contributions to the tax would still stand, though.
In terms of Social Security, now the tax takes in more than is paid out in benefits. (This will change dramatically as the Baby Boomers retire, when the system is projected to run huge deficits.) This excess revenue goes directly into the general treasury. By taking Social Security benefits, one is reducing the amount of the tax that is used to subsidize general expenses, thereby increases the amount of bonds the Federal government borrows. Bonds are merely future taxes. As soon as the S.S. system starts to run a deficit, taking S.S. benefits will more directly add to the present tax burden.
The question of renouncing benefits does raise the problem of the "free rider." If a few libertarians renounce benefits, it's not really going to affect the system. Everyone else will "free ride" on the efforts of the few to renounce the system. My only reply to this is that sometimes the only moral course is to bite the bullet and not be a free rider. Martyrdom, as Rand calls it, can be an excellent way to earn publicity and take a stand for one's principles.
But let's be realistic: for me, renouncing S.S. benefits doesn't mean a whole lot. I place the odds of the S.S. system surviving into my old age at less than 50-50. I might just as well pledge, "I will not ride any unicorn that walks into my yard." Social Security is a pyramid scheme, and today's younger generations are at the bottom. When the Baby Boomers bulge the pyramid at the top, it's going to topple.
Besides, I don't plan on letting myself be dependent on Social Security. I'm going to save for my own retirement -- the S.S. tax be damned.
What if I were not able to save for my own retirement, though? To return to our analogy, what if Gary stole all of Bob's wealth in order to give it to Allen? Further, imagine if Gary said to Bob, "Listen, you're not going to survive as things stand. But I'll steal some of Carl's wealth for you so that you can continue living." What's Bob going to do? Today, government takes almost half of everyone's wealth. At some point, a person is forced to rely on government handouts, because he or she is otherwise left with too little to get by. I can't blame someone for taking government handouts to alleviate dire need.
After writing the initial draft of this essay, I heard the argument that one should take S.S. benefits simply to hasten the fall of the system. But this rationale borders on rationalization. What does it really mean to hasten the fall of the system? It seems to mean little other than to incite the youth to political revolution. Again, we mustn't reify: "the system" is not some monolithic evil that we can physically attack and topple. "The system" is just a social structure in which the agents of the State force the youth to transfer money to the elderly. In terms of our analogy, the strategy might be stated, from Allen's point of view, "I know it's wrong to rob Bob, but all of my peers are robbing all of Bob's peers, so maybe if I rob Bob to the utmost I'll incite him and his peers to overthrow the entire system." Hmm. It seems to me that there are better ways to advance political change.
However, what if one took the money and used it directly to advocate the free market? If it's possible to sustain this line of argument, taking government money from any program might be justified.
Note that I have not proven any of the arguments that favor taking government benefits. I have merely put them forward as possibilities. I have shown that some of the arguments cannot apply to Social Security, though.
Beyond the arguments of moral permissibility are considerations of the value of public protest. Even if an action is morally permissible, sometimes not taking the action creates valuable public awareness. That's the main reason I'm renouncing my (future) benefits now: to raise public awareness about the issue, and in particular about the PHASE-OUT reform.