The slice taken out of my very first paycheck for “SSA” really stung. I didn’t know what “SSA” was, but I did have plans for that money. In the years since, I’ve learned that “SSA” is the Social Security Administration, but I’ve long since lost track of how much of my money has been diverted from me to it. I felt the sting again though, when Congress, dominated by self-styled fiscal conservatives, recently announced that they’re increasing spending by hundreds of billions of dollars over the next two years and temporarily suspending the debt ceiling.
In 2014, when our federal debt was significantly lower than it is today, Don Watkins wrote about how our government’s spending problem is threatening the dreams of Americans, particularly the young. Having put “SSA” and the like out of mind, I wasn’t aware for instance, that Social Security alone takes at least 12.4 percent of our earnings. That means, as Watkins points out, “that for an entire month and a half” of each year, you and I are “working to pay for other people’s retirement.” How much sooner could you pay off your student loans, open your own business, or start a family, if that weren’t the case?
“Well,” many assure themselves, “someone else will pay for my retirement, so it all works out.” But, in all likelihood, someone else won’t pay for your retirement because the ship we’re on is sinking. At the current rate of spending, Social Security won’t last 25, never mind 50 years. Our options are: 1. Do nothing and get skinned alive, or 2. Begin correcting course immediately.
“If the situation were really so dire,” it may occur to you, “wouldn’t politicians be doing something about it?” Truthfully, most feel that their hands are tied. “Don’t touch my retirement!” would be the immediate refrain, and poof—there goes their voting base. Change must start with those who have a gun against their head: young Americans. Don Watkins’ RooseveltCare shows that the stakes are deadly serious and that we do have a moral right to end the programs that will otherwise torch our future. If you want to defend yourself, here’s what you need to know to get started.
1. America was once the land of self-reliance.
Watkins explains that, “America was born out of the Enlightenment, a philosophical, cultural, and political epoch in which people embraced the view of the individual human being as a rational creature, who has the ability and the right to live according to his own independent judgment, for the sake of his own success and happiness.” Living for your own happiness was not about shunning help and offering none. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, who embodied the enlightenment and “was able to restrain alike thunderbolts and tyrants,” also spearheaded countless cooperative enterprises such as: the Union Fire Company, the University of Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania Hospital, to name but a few. Yet, the founders thought that: “The sum of good government,” as Jefferson articulated, is “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”
So, what happened?
2. FDR and the New Dealers had to deceive Americans in order to enact Social Security.
Watkins explains that prior to government-enforced programs such as Social Security and welfare, self-reliant Americans took it upon themselves to create “their own private safety net.” Mutual aid societies, for example, allowed people to insure one another against hard times. There was no reason for bureaucrats to redistribute people’s earnings, and most believed that doing so was unethical and un-American.
However, “progressives”—who wanted to “progress” beyond the founding vision of a rights-protecting government—openly attacked self-reliance. FDR, who shared their views, realized that their undisguised attacks on American ideals had not gained them much ground. So, he devised a Trojan horse. Watkins describes the ploy: “They weren’t against individual rights—they were expanding the existing set of rights: not just a right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness, but a right to a job, food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, and recreation, among others.”
Of course, one man’s “rights” to these things requires that someone be forced to supply them: someone who no longer has any rights. This is what “progressives” aimed at—and they sold it by claiming that free markets hadn’t worked.
3. All Americans, including the elderly and poor, have been made worse off by entitlements.
“The entitlement statists’ aim is not to eliminate poverty,” says Watkins, “It’s to eliminate those who eliminate poverty.” Social Security is a Ponzi scheme where the money taken from one generation is not invested but immediately spent. Stripped of the cash they could otherwise choose to more wisely and profitably invest, retirees are forced to settle for less than they could have had. The businesses that they would have invested in are simultaneously stripped of the cash that could expand research and development and increase productivity, meaning we have less progress, less wealth, and fewer jobs than we could have had. The economic destruction wrought by the entitlement state is enormous. Watkins writes:
If, starting in 1870, economic growth had been just 1 percent lower each year than it was, our standard of living today would be lower than Mexico’s. One economist estimates that the welfare state has lowered the income of the average American by 25 percent before he pays a single penny in taxes.
Perhaps the saddest casualty of the entitlement state is the American spirit. “If self-reliance was a manifestation of individualism,” says Watkins, “the entitlement era saw a gradual shift away from individualism, self-reliance, and self-assertion to a dreary sort of conformity.” By incentivizing non-work, apathy, and vice, the paternalistic entitlement state has soured American optimism and ingenuity.
4. Entitlements are immoral.
Is it good for people to be able to retire comfortably, to have access to medical care when they need it, to be able to afford the basic necessities of life? Of course, it is.
Is it good to forcibly take money from some people to give it to others who need it? Absolutely not. As Watkins says, “It sabotages the virtues that enable us to survive, prosper, and enjoy our lives—and the social system that lets us exercise those virtues.” It sabotages our ability to invest in ourselves. “If self-reliance consists of supporting your life through productive work,” says Watkins, “then money is the instrument of self-reliance.” A slice of your paycheck is a slice of your ambitions. “Every dollar the government seizes comes at the expense of your hopes and dreams.”
If the entitlement state impoverishes Americans both spiritually and materially, if it is, as Watkins calls it, “A Weapon of Mass Destruction,” what’s keeping us from abolishing it
5. We can restore America as the land of self-reliance.
Campaigns have been waged against the entitlement state, and they have failed. They were doomed at the outset because, as Watkins puts it, “They have been against communism, and socialism, and Social Security, and Medicare, and welfare. But what have they been for? Aside from a few vagaries—‘Americanism’ for instance—there hasn’t been an answer.” Without a positive vision of what we are fighting for, the entitlement state cannot be beaten. Yet, as Watkins illuminates:
This country has seen vast and rapid changes in thinking before: from the propriety of breaking with Great Britain to our view of slavery, to women’s suffrage, to gay marriage. In every case, the winning side triumphed by taking a principled stand in the name of the good. They controlled the moral high ground.
As Watkins demonstrates throughout the book, those who advocate a self-reliant society have every right to the moral high ground, and entitlement statists have none. To reclaim our rights and rebuild the land of self-reliance, we must know our case and speak it unapologetically. You can help lead the movement to avert disaster. Arm yourself by reading RooseveltCare. You can get a free copy by joining Mr. Watkins’ email list.