Julian has gone and written a great little piece on themes I’ve been struggling at great length to express half as well.
What worries liberals about progressive indexing, and about the shift to a more overtly welfare-like Social Security system, is that welfare benefits tend to be politically unpopular—and much easier to cut than benefits perceived as universal. Social Security, in other words, is a massive Rube Goldberg device, an ornate and utterly superfluous system of transfers from the middle and upper classes to themselves, the sole purpose of which is to construct—and conceal—a much smaller welfare machine for elderly retirees nestled deep in the guts of the meta-contraption. Some defenders of the status quo are now attempting—though they scarcely seem to believe it themselves—to argue that Social Security is no less vital for the middle class. But corner a progressive over a quiet drink and he’ll probably admit that, in fact, the only defensible purpose of Social Security is to ensure that nobody retires in poverty. There may be political reasons for cutting a monthly check to Bill Gates when he turns 65, but there are no sane policy reasons.
And I’ve just discovered this excellent piece by William Voegli, who seems to have been reading my books and my mind. I liked this paragraph especially:
Forty-five years ago William F. Buckley noted liberalism’s penchant for turning “the skies black with criss-crossing dollars.” Those dark skies serve a purpose. As more and more dollars fly around, the confusion about where all of them start out and end up increases. The dollars often arrive ostentatiously (Social Security checks in the mailbox) but depart surreptitiously (payroll withholding and employer “contributions” to Social Security). This contrast makes it easy for each household to regard itself as a net importer rather than a net exporter of the dollars that make up this green tornado. The ultimate goal is to leave people believing an impossibility: that an enormous but nevertheless finite number of dollars can be vacuumed up and airdropped in such a way that the vast majority of people wind up gaining more than they lose.
Nicely done! (Other than leaving me wondering if green tornados leave the sky black.) And spot on!
I am truly delighted to see the Social Security-as-ignoble-lie meme catching on. With luck, my own thoughts on the illiberal manipulation at the heart of Social Security will see the light of day in the near future. Upshot: any kind of liberal who purports to cherish public democratic deliberation among free and equal citizens should want to beat down the Social Security status quo like a narc at biker rally.