Social Security is the largest spending program of the federal government, the largest tax paid by most workers, and the largest source of income for most retirees. It pays benefits to Americans, from birth through death, in the form of survivors’ benefits for children, disability benefits for working-age individuals, and retirement benefits for older Americans. And it is going broke. This presents Americans with difficult choices. The decisions we make will depend on both our values and our judgments regarding how to represent those values through policies that are both efficient and consistent with our views regarding individual freedoms and collective responsibilities. Most articles or books regarding Social Security focus on why the program is going insolvent. This one will be no exception to that rule, although it will present some alternatives to traditional explanations that may be most familiar to readers. But it is equally important to focus on why Social Security exists in the first place—why we have such a program and what we hope it can accomplish. It is impossible to decide where we wish the program to go over the coming decades until we first understand the multiple and sometimes conflicting goals a national pension program must seek to meet. As a society we have a moral obligation to care for those who are unable to care for themselves. In addition to theologians and moral philosophers, even thinkers such as Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, and Friedrich von Hayek—economists who are strongly associated with the ideas of free markets and minimal government—believed in a strong safety net for the poor. Social Security provides that lifeline for the low earners, the disabled, and survivors. However, our duties to the less fortunate notwithstanding, we also have a moral obligation to protect responsible individuals against free riders who would take advantage of generosity to the poor. That is, generous protections for the poor cause a certain number of people to fail to take responsibility for their own financial situation. A program of universal retirement saving ensures that those who can afford to care for themselves will do so, limiting demands on society to those programs needed to support the truly poor. For most people, Social Security is simply mandatory retirement saving, albeit in a form that is often distant from the way we usually think of saving. And finally, we have a moral responsibility to ourselves not to give up too much of our freedom of choice in return for a security that government may or may not be able to deliver. This is why the growth of Social Security should be limited in the future and its resources focused on protecting the truly needy. One of the ways we express ourselves as independent beings is through the planning and execution of important decisions in our lives, including financial decisions. How to prepare to support yourself and your family during a retirement that could span decades is probably the most important set of financial decisions an individual will ever make. Financial decisions are often difficult, and public policy can simplify these decisions and better inform individuals—rich, poor, financially savvy, or new to saving—about the choices they make. Even then, some people will make financial decisions with better outcomes than others. But if we take away all important decisions in the name of preventing all negative financial outcomes, we also take away individuals’ free choice, the exercise of which is a distinguishing characteristic of being human. All of this says that while Social Security’s goals should remain unchanged, the ways in which it achieves those goals need to be both modernized for the twenty-first century and personalized to give individuals a greater stake in the program. This book will argue that aspects of Social Security need be changed, some radically so. But it will also argue that the founding principles of Social Security continue to make sense, even to people who believe in limiting the size of government and increasing individual responsibility and freedom. Moreover, the book will argue that in some cases, the government should do more with regard to Social Security—in particular, providing a better minimum benefit for the truly poor, many of whom can fall through the safety net as currently constructed. At the same time, in many cases the government should do less: specifically, Social Security pays billions of dollars in benefits each year to middle- and high-income households who could and should save more for retirement on their own. Social Security should be simplified to better target benefits and to make it easier for Americans to know how much they will receive and how much they need to save on their own. Although the general reason why we have a Social Security program is widely accepted among policy analysts and economists of all political stripes, the decisions we make in meeting its broad goals will differ from person to person. The choices outlined below will not be shared by everyone; rather, they are designed to present an outline of a reformed Social Security program that serves the system’s main policy goals while preserving and enhancing individuals’ opportunities to make important decisions regarding their lives.
The Story of Its Past and a Vision for Its Future