What If We Scrapped Social Security?

by Conor Friedersdorf

Noah Millman is imagining how it might be replaced:

A key component of the real rationale for a “retirement age” is paternalistic: we can’t trust that people will plan properly, so we need to socialize some economic risks, and we can’t afford to provide “social security” – i.e., lifestyle insurance – from cradle to grave. So we compromise: we provide that insurance to the elderly, who are more vulnerable in aggregate and have less time to “make up” for past mistakes in planning, and withhold it from everybody else. And the result, undoubtedly, is some misallocation of labor resources. But the aging of the population makes that misallocation a bigger and bigger problem, which will require us to revisit that compromise in some fashion.

And there are lots of ways to revisit it. The “raise the retirement age” solution is a relatively regressive one, as Matt is fond of pointing out. But we could revisit it by being less-paternalistic and more progressive. For example, we could enact something like a Guaranteed Minimum Income and abolish Social Security entirely, saying, in effect, we’d rather not provide lifestyle insurance at all (if you want a comfortable retirement, then you’d better plan for it) but we don’t want anybody to live in conditions of true poverty, elderly or not. The strongest arguments against such a scheme are, again, paternalistic – that providing a no-strings-attached income to working-age people creates a very bad incentive structure for individuals who are poor planners, a set that overlaps substantially with the set of people living in poverty.

I must say that this appeals to me. I definitely want there to be a government provided safety net – or universal social insurance if you prefer – that takes care of folks who cannot care for themselves, or those who fall on hard luck, or whatever. But I want to focus redistributed income on actual poor people. I understand why Social Security was adopted, and it was tremendously successful at decreasing poverty rates among the elderly. That's great. But at this point I can't help but wonder why we're redistributing money from poor working people to elderly rich people, given that shifting demographics and a society radically different from New Deal America makes it more burdensome every year.

These are tentative thoughts offered on a hugely complex subject. And I certainly don't want to scrap Social Security without replacing it with something. But if I had a system to design now it would look a lot different.