Social Security and Medicare

Social Security and medicare generally do not impinge on individual liberty directly, but they do so indirectly by using taxation to transfer wealth from some individuals to others. This transfer may or may not enhance overall liberty (depending, for example, on whether there is a net benefit to the transferees), but most would reject the idea that this kind of utilitarianism is, as general matter, good policy. That is, most would not generally endorse forcibly taking from some to give others just because the others can make better use of it. In short, the fundamental right to liberty does not in itself not mean there is a right to have one’s own liberty increased or maintained at the expense of others.

There may, however, be compelling governmental interests that, under certain conditions, justify taking from some in order to give others. See The Problem of “Net Negatives.” In the case of Social Security, two possibilities come immediately to mind:
1. The government has already promised (in effect) that a certain general level of retirement, disability and health benefits would be provided. Our government is therefore under a strong moral obligation (if not a legal obligation) to make good on this commitment. In a real accounting sense, the nominal national debt vastly underestimates the government’s real indebtedness when the present value of all its social welfare commitments is taken into account.

2. The government is the provider of last resort (having largely supplanted religious and other private institutions in that role), and it is also the only entity that can effectively act to keep various inevitably shared assets and facilities (such as streets open to public traffic) in good order. People who cannot provide for themselves do not just “go away.” In order to have the kind of public environment and society that the vast majority of people want, some provision has to be made to deal with those who might otherwise be found starving or dying of disease in the streets. These who cannot provide for themselves but do not just “go away” can be dealt with humanely or (if you are so inclined) inhumanely, but the bedrock fact it that they must be dealt with. And no matter how they are dealt with, there is a cost.
The prevailing values of the times are, of course, what ultimately determine whether a governmental interest is “compelling,” and the interest in assuring a humane solution to the problem of old-age destitution is no exception. In our times it seems clear that assuring a humane solution to this problem is a “compelling” governmental interest.

It must be remembered, however, that the existence of a compelling governmental interest does not mean that any and all impingements on liberty become permissible. The restrictions must be narrowly tailored to serve the compelling interest and there must not be any less restrictive alternatives. With these latter qualifications in mind, it is almost certain that Social Security as they now exist would have to be modified in order to accommodate a fundamental right to liberty.

This is, of course, not the place to solve the problem of financing Social Security and Medicare. However, perhaps one approach would be to provide a “second track” for those who prefer to risk a less comfortable future in exchange for short-term advantage. (This would be similar to the way that participation in some private retirement plans is, at least partially, voluntary.) Those unwilling to pay to support Social Security and Medicare as we know them could opt to be on the second track. They would be permitted to pay merely their share of the taxes needed to humanely deal with old-age destitution and, in exchange, they would have to settle for only the most minimal sustenance and palliative care at the end.

But, again, the point is not to solve the problem here but to suggest that a fundamental right to liberty means we should be ever on the lookout to discover possible solutions that consider, not just fiscal or political advantage, but the interest in liberty as a first priority.
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