Forty thousand dollars. That’s roughly your share of the U.S. national debt. That’s bad, but it’s nothing compared to the debt the government’s going to be racking up in the years ahead thanks mainly to America’s old-age welfare programs.
As the Baby Boomers retire, the bill for Social Security and Medicare will grow fast, setting off a debt tsunami. Economists can estimate the difference between how much government is on track to spend and how much it will raise from taxes. They call this “the fiscal gap.” That number is astronomical: $205 trillion dollars, or more than half a million dollars per person.[i]
Today you and millions of other young Americans are being drafted into debt. Like the military draft, the Debt Draft treats the lives of young people as the property of the state. You have been conscripted to finance other people’s retirement and health care needs, regardless of what impact this will have on your life. Your duty is to set aside your own happiness in order to serve the needs of the old.
Responsible individuals only take on debt they can manage, and only when it serves important goals and values: to go to college, buy a home, start a business. But imagine being forced to pay someone else’s student loan debt, or someone else’s mortgage, or someone else’s credit card bill. Would that be fair? Of course not. But that is what the Debt Draft amounts to.
Now, let me be clear. Whatever the parallels between today’s debt disaster and the military draft, there is a vast difference. The military draft left countless young Americans maimed or killed, which is something that we should be careful not to trivialize. But there is a parallel between that and the welfare state that we must not ignore. Both turn young people into servants.
The welfare state has always involved transferring wealth from the young to the old. Each generation was told, in effect: “Your parents’ and grandparents’ generation will exploit you today, but don’t worry — someday you’ll get to exploit your children’s and grandchildren’s generation for a whole lot more than you ever paid in taxes.” The difference is that the bill you’ll be handed is so large that its effects can no longer be ignored: unless we do something, it is going to rob you of many of your hopes and dreams.
The math is straightforward. Right now, the average elderly American receives $30,000 from the welfare state annually, with that number expected to rise to $40,000 two decades from now. Meanwhile, there will be fewer workers to carry that burden. When the welfare state was first created, there were forty workers to support each recipient. Today there are only three. As the Baby Boomers continue to retire, that number will drop to around two. That means you’ll be responsible for $20,000 a year to support your elders, in addition to whatever other taxes you’ll have to pay to support the government’s other functions. That’s the equivalent of buying someone else a new car each year — and, of course, we haven’t even mentioned state and local taxes yet.
But let’s be clear: the Debt Draft isn’t a problem tomorrow — it’s a problem right now. The average college graduate starts out making about $45,000 a year. Well, you have to hand over 15.3% of that — $6,750 — to current retirees just to fund Social Security and Medicare Part A. That’s not a new car a year, but it’s more than enough to make monthly payments on a new car. Is it any wonder that young people are waiting longer to move out of their parents’ house, waiting longer to start families, and are saving next-to-nothing?
That’s the bad news. Here is the good news. A solution is possible — one that will not only ward off catastrophe, but one that will make America a freer, more prosperous, more moral nation. But we have to act soon.
Why You’re Being Exploited
Parents don’t generally steal from their children. On the contrary, they work hard to make sure their children will have a better life. So how did we get to where we are today?
America didn’t always have a welfare state. It is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. For the first 150 years this country existed, each person was responsible for supporting his own life through productive work (slavery being a deplorable exception). The government didn’t redistribute wealth. It didn’t take one person’s property and give it to others. As Jefferson warned, “To take from one . . . in order to spare others . . . is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, — the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry, & the fruits acquired by it.”
[iii] Instead, the government protected each person’s right to work, to keep what he earned, and to use it to build a life for himself.
With government’s functions limited, its costs were low. With the exception of the Civil War, federal government spending during this nation’s first 150 years hovered around 3% of GDP (today it is more than 20%). Before the welfare state was created in 1935, federal debt never hit 40% of GDP, even in wartime, and often stayed below 10% (today our debt is closing in on 100% of GDP).
It was during this era that America became the mightiest economy in history.
The Collectivist Revolt
Not everyone approved of this individualist system — most notably the leading intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They called themselves “Progressives” for the reason that they believed America needed to “progress” beyond the principles of the Founding Fathers. They rejected the principles of limited government. They wanted a government with expansive powers that could be wielded for what they considered the “national interest.”
“You know that it was Jefferson,” recalled leading Progressive Woodrow Wilson, “who said that the best government is that which does as little governing as possible. . . . But that time is passed.” Instead of a limited government, he wrote elsewhere, “Government does now whatever experience permits or the times demand.”
The Progressives were collectivists. Their theories amounted to the view that, in philosopher Ayn Rand’s words, “the individual has no rights, that his life and work belong to the group . . . and that the group may sacrifice him at its own whim to its own interests.”
[vi] They did not approve of the American system, which enshrined individual freedom and individual responsibility. According to Herbert Croly, another leading Progressive, Americans needed to forswear their own happiness and devote themselves to “individual subordination and self-denial” for the sake of the collective. “[T]his necessity of subordinating the satisfaction of individual desires to the fulfillment of a national purpose,” he added, “is attached particularly to the absorbing occupation of the American people, — the occupation, viz.: of accumulating wealth.”
When it came to the economy, then, a major part of the Progressive platform was the creation of an American welfare state. Welfare programs would transfer wealth from those who earned it to those who didn’t but allegedly needed it. Whatever the source of a person’s need — whether it was bad luck or bad choices or his own immorality — the sheer fact that he needed something would mean that others had a duty to serve him. Individuals would no longer be able to focus on making the most of their own lives. They would have to set their own hopes and dreams aside and spend a substantial part of their lives working to take care of the needs of others.
Social Security and Medicare
For nearly half a century, Americans rejected Progressive demands for a welfare state. The first major welfare program didn’t come until 1935. The Social Security Act was signed into law by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who shared the basic philosophy of the Progressives but preferred to speak of “improving” or “updating” America’s founding principles rather than rejecting them.
Social Security was a government retirement scheme in which the government would tax current workers in order to pay for retirement benefits for the elderly (generally those 65 or older). The program would grow from a relatively small part of the government’s budget to the most expensive program in American history. Today Social Security takes more than $700 billion from workers each year and hands it out to retirees.
From the start, the Progressives also advocated a welfare program to cover health care. FDR sympathized with this goal, but the political opposition to a government takeover of health care was too intense in 1935. It would take another thirty years before Lyndon B. Johnson signed Medicare into law.
The details of Medicare are complex, but the basic idea is simple. Just as Social Security taxes younger Americans in order to provide retirement benefits to the old, so Medicare taxes younger Americans in order to provide health insurance benefits to the old.
When it came to the costs of Medicare, they went out of control almost immediately. Like Social Security, the program faced the problem of fewer workers supporting more and more beneficiaries. But it also encountered another problem: when people were offered virtually free health care, their demand for it turned out to be virtually unlimited. Shortly after Medicare was created in 1965, Americans were told it would cost $12 billion by 1990 — its actual cost was $98 billion. Today Medicare costs working Americans $600 billion a year — and that number is projected to nearly double over the next decade, reaching $1.1 trillion in 2023.
Welfare State Exploitation
That’s where we are today. Remember that working Americans already pay 15.3% of our income to fund Social Security and Medicare — more than $6,000 a year for many of us. And, of course, those taxes will have to increase substantially to keep the system going in future years.
Think of what this does to young people who are just trying to start out in life. Six thousand dollars a year — to say nothing of $20,000 — can sentence a person to a high-crime neighborhood, keep him from starting a family, or force him to stay at a dead-end job rather than following his dream to start a business.
The question we need to ask is: Why? Why did we create this system and why do so many people continue to support it? Is there any reason to support it? What could possibly justify exploiting America’s youth?
The conventional answer consists of five myths: (1) the Earned Benefit Myth, (2) the Generational Pact Myth, (3) the Poverty Myth, (4) the Security Myth, and (5) the Compassion Myth.
The Earned Benefit Myth
Myth: Young people are not being exploited. Older Americans earned their benefits by paying in to the system during their working years.
Fact: First of all, we need to realize that Baby Boomers are scheduled to receive about $300,000 more from the government than they ever paid in taxes. (Meanwhile, your future children are slated to pay about $400,000 more in taxes than they will ever receive from the government.)
More important, the money taken from the Baby Boomers when they were young was not saved and invested to provide for their future. If it had been, there wouldn’t be a debt crisis. Instead, every penny taken from them was immediately spent by the government. The only way for them to get their “earned benefit” is to take money from you and your children.
It’s true that some older Americans are dependent on Social Security and Medicare: a lot of the money they could have used to prepare for old-age was taxed away to support their parents and grandparents. But that doesn’t make their Social Security check an earned benefit. You cannot earn the right to exploit people — even if you were once the victim of exploitation. You don’t have the right to rob people just because you were once robbed.
Social Security and Medicare do not deliver earned benefits. They are welfare programs, plain and simple.
The Generational Pact Myth
Myth: Old-age welfare programs represent a pact between generations: our promise to take care of those who once took care of us.
Fact: There can be no such thing as a “pact” consisting of one generation’s determination to loot future generations.
Parents don’t breed servants — they create sovereign individuals. Children don’t choose to be born, and so while parents have an obligation to support their children, children have no moral obligation to support their parents. They might choose to do so out of goodwill, but their parents cannot demand it as a matter of right.
What’s true at the individual level goes doubly for society as a whole. If we don’t owe support to our own parents, we certainly don’t owe it to strangers we have never met.
In an individualist society, each person is responsible for his own life, including his own retirement and his own medical needs. If an elderly American needs help, he is free to seek others’ voluntary assistance. If a young American wants to provide help, he is free to do so. But no one is born into this world beholden to others.
The Poverty Myth
Myth: Without Social Security and Medicare, millions more Americans would be in poverty.
Fact: The path to prosperity is not welfare state looting but the free market. Had we continued to follow individualist principles, most Americans today would be far richer.
Before we examine the effect of welfare programs on the economy, however, we need to step back and look at the big picture. Poverty is mankind’s natural state. In the era before capitalism emerged during the early nineteenth century, even citizens of relatively prosperous nations lived on only a few dollars a day. The free market created by the individualist society gave individuals the greatest possible freedom and incentive to produce. Anyone with an idea for how to do things better was free to give it a try. And if he succeeded? The rewards were his to enjoy. The result was an outpouring of ability and ingenuity on a scale the world had never seen.
It was an era in which people’s incomes quadrupled, life expectancy climbed from under forty to over sixty, and science and technology revolutionized the way we lived. Millions of immigrants flooded into the country, seeking to make a life for themselves in “the land of opportunity.”
Life, to be sure, was still hard. It had always been hard. But it was better than it had ever been and it was improving faster than it ever had, as free individuals lifted themselves out of poverty and into prosperity.
It was when welfare state spending really took off during the late 1960s that America’s poverty rate stopped declining.
[xi] This shouldn’t come as a surprise. When the welfare state transfers money away from the people who create it, it undermines how much wealth gets produced in the first place.
If the individualist society provided people with the greatest possible freedom and incentive to produce, then the welfare state curtails that freedom and dampens those incentives by taxing work and subsidizing idleness and dependency. Social Security, for instance, incentivizes enormously productive workers — workers with decades of knowledge and experience — to stop working years before they might otherwise retire. (If you continue working and earning money after you apply for early benefits, your benefits are reduced.)
At the same time, a substantial portion of the wealth doled out by the welfare state is taken out of the hands of people who would have saved and invested it, and put into the hands of people who consume it, while also making people feel as if they have no need to save. This has contributed to the collapse of America’s national savings rate from around 15% to just about zero.
This is a disaster: it is savings and investment that increase our standard of living over time. The less we save and invest in things such as more efficient factories, better machinery, and research and development, the less technological innovation, productivity, and prosperity we’ll see. That’s how we raise our standard of living. As individuals produce more, they earn more — and the more they earn and save, the more they can produce in the future. Rising productivity is the cure for poverty and the path to prosperity.
The welfare state did not end poverty — it reduced prosperity. The result, for the average American, has been to make our income far lower than it would have been had we never embraced the welfare state. By how much? It’s impossible to say precisely. But consider this: if, starting in 1870, economic growth had been just 1% 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% before he pays a single penny in taxes.
It is in this context that we have to evaluate the fact that poverty among the elderly has declined significantly since Social Security was created. There is every reason to suspect that if Americans had been free to keep and invest their money, poverty among the elderly as well as other groups would have declined even faster.
In any case, we cannot ignore the victims of Social Security. To the extent Social Security made older Americans better off, it did so by making younger Americans worse off. In America before the welfare state, one person’s prosperity didn’t come at anyone else’s expense — his gains made others better off. Contrary to what we’ve been taught, it’s not capitalism that is dog-eat-dog: it’s the welfare state.
You might wonder at this point: If the welfare state is so economically destructive, then how is it that America has become richer in the years since Social Security? The short answer is that we have grown richer despite welfare programs, not because of them.
If welfare state programs were the cause of our prosperity, then it is curious that economic progress started more than a century before the welfare state was created and has slowed, not sped up, in recent decades. If welfare programs were the cause of our prosperity, then Western Europe — which has a much more expansive welfare state — should be the most prosperous place on the planet. Instead, countries such as Greece, Spain, and Italy are in crisis, with France doing only marginally better. And several countries, such as Sweden, have found that, after reining in their welfare state programs, their economies have gone from moribund to robust.
If you care about prosperity, your first priority should be resurrecting America’s free market. If you support the welfare state, you’ve given up any right to claim that you care about improving Americans’ standard of living.
The Security Myth
Myth: The individualist system creates immense economic insecurity among the elderly, who often cannot work and yet don’t have enough money to retire or to pay for needed medical care. Only a welfare state can provide a safety net to relieve this insecurity.
Fact: Creating a system in which other people can take your wealth whenever they decide they “need” it is the antithesis of security. True security means that you, your freedom, and your property are sacrosanct.
The free market not only provides that security and maximizes your ability to prosper in your younger years — but it enables you to use your resources to prepare for old age and create a robust private safety net.
For starters, you can diversify your investments or purchase annuities (in essence, guaranteed streams of income). You can purchase various forms of insurance. And not only familiar forms of insurance, such as health or life insurance. In America before the welfare state, individuals often insured themselves against economic risks including permanent disability and job loss.
As for health insurance, a free market provides ample ability for you to insure against old-age medical costs. In fact, before Medicare, most elderly people were able to get the health care they needed. A growing number (more than half by 1960) carried insurance, while the others paid out of pocket, relied on friends and family, or turned to private charity. (It’s worth noting that even with Medicare, today’s seniors are paying about the same amount out of pocket for medical services as they were before Medicare, and that their coverage does not even provide catastrophic protection: Hospitalized for over 150 days? Medicare doesn’t cover that. Need long-term care, such as a nursing home? Medicare doesn’t cover that.)
There were certain challenges faced by the elderly when it came to getting health insurance. But these problems were created by the government. In particular, the government gives huge tax preferences to health insurance purchased through one’s employer, and by the 1960s, many Americans were covered under employer-sponsored plans. The trouble was that many Americans eventually retired. At a time when their health risks were highest, these Americans found themselves having to purchase new health plans at rates far above what they had been paying. Absent this tax preference, few people would have elected to get insurance through their employer. Instead, they could have entered into long-term contracts directly with insurers to guarantee that they would have affordable coverage when they reached old age.
Finally, in a free market you can seek support from your friends and family if you need it. You may choose to spend your final years living with your children and grandchildren. Or, if you want to remain independent or don’t want to impose on your family, you are free to accept their financial support.
What would happen to very poor elderly Americans in an individualist society in cases where they have no friends, family, or neighbors they can turn to for help? They can ask for private charity, which has always been abundant in America. “In fact,” writes historian Walter Trattner of the era before the welfare state,
so rapidly did private agencies multiply that before long America’s larger cities had what to many people was an embarrassing number of them. Charity directories took as many as 100 pages to list and describe the numerous voluntary agencies that sought to alleviate misery, and combat every imaginable emergency.
How effective are these strategies? If we look at history we find that the elderly did so well that, as late as World War I, even those pushing for an American welfare state did not argue that old age was a major source of poverty and insecurity in the United States.
[xvi] That’s incredible when you recall that capitalism had only started to remedy pre-industrial poverty, and that America was welcoming about a million immigrants a year, many of them poor, uneducated, and unskilled.
The welfare state, by contrast, makes old age more precarious. It saps us of resources when we are young and healthy and leaves us largely at the mercy of the government: our income consists of whatever politicians decide to give us at the moment. The Debt Draft isn’t making us more secure — it’s impoverishing us and may one day push the greatest nation in history off the edge of a financial cliff.
The Compassion Myth
Myth: The individualist system is immoral. It demonstrates a cruel lack of compassion for those who hit hard times and are unable to support themselves. Old-age welfare programs represent society’s compassion for some of its most vulnerable citizens.
Fact: A moral society is one which above all respects the rights of individuals — their right to make something of their lives and to dedicate their days and hours to the pursuit of their own happiness. It’s a society in which each of us is responsible for our own life, and we deal with others only on the basis of their voluntary consent. It is, in other words, a society based on the principle of individualism, not collectivism.
If you want to get a college education, a moral society is one in which you and your parents have to set aside income or find someone willing to give you a loan — you aren’t entitled to a subsidy at my expense. If a retiree wants the latest arthritis treatment, a moral society is one in which he has to pay for it or ask others to help him — he isn’t entitled to raid your savings account.
This does not represent a regrettable burden, but a great privilege. In a moral society, we get to decide what we want out of life and pursue it as we see fit — we aren’t forced into a one-size-fits-all retirement or medical program. Our only limitation is our ambition and ability.
But under the welfare state, you have no right to a single penny you earn if someone else “needs” it more. Your parents, for instance, might have worked sixty-hour weeks for twenty years in order to afford to pay for your education. But a welfare state has no compunction about seizing your college fund and giving it to elderly citizens if it decides their “need” outweighs yours.
When need is viewed as a moral entitlement to other people’s money, time, and effort, you get the worst injustice imaginable. People are punished for their success and rewarded for their failure. The more ambitious and self-responsible a person is, the more he owes to others. The more lazy and irresponsible he is, the more others owe to him. As for the tiny few who are truly helpless through no fault of their own, they are trotted out by welfare statists in order to disguise and whitewash this injustice.
Looting innocent victims is not compassionate but immoral. It’s immoral when rich people plunder poor people — and it’s immoral when poor people plunder rich people. It’s immoral when the powerful minority exploits the majority — and it’s immoral when the majority helps itself to the property of the minority. It’s immoral when young people mooch off the old — and it’s immoral when old people mooch off the young. If the essence of justice is that each person receives his due, then it is only a society that protects the rights of every citizen that can be called a just, fair, or human society.
The desire to show compassion is not a moral blank check that can justify treating other people as a means to your supposedly noble ends. If you want to help your grandfather or someone else’s grandfather pay his bills, then in an individualist society, you’re free to be compassionate with your own money. You’re not free to be “compassionate” with someone else’s.
The truth is that those pushing to expand old-age welfare programs have no right to claim they are compassionate. There is nothing compassionate about stifling economic growth and thereby sentencing more Americans to poverty. There is nothing compassionate about making the elderly dependent on welfare. There is nothing compassionate about drafting young people into debt and crushing their opportunities, hopes, and dreams.
For all their talk of compassion, the welfare state pushers are not really interested in helping people. If they were, they would be much more alarmed by the failure of the welfare state to lift people out of poverty, and they would be the most vocal champions of capitalism, which is the only system ever to create mass prosperity.
The Compassion Myth is not an argument but a smear designed to shame and silence those who dare question the welfare state. But we must question it. The welfare state is one of the cruelest, most inhumane, most immoral institutions ever devised. The most compassionate thing a person can do is fight for its abolition.
Ending the Debt Draft
During the Vietnam War, many defended the military draft using arguments virtually indistinguishable from those used to defend the Debt Draft. They said that Americans had a duty to serve society by fighting in the military. They said that the costs of a volunteer military would be too great. They said that only a draft could achieve national security. These arguments were plausible. Americans could not really project what the country would be like without a draft. But these arguments were false — and the institution they were used to defend was deeply immoral. The parallel to today’s Debt Draft is exact.
In an individualist society, we prosper, we protect ourselves from risks, and we do it all without looting or exploiting others. Had we never created Social Security and Medicare, the elderly would not be impoverished — they would be enriched. And young Americans would not be starting their lives hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
There is no justification for the Debt Draft. There is no reason why young people should have to see their futures washed away in order to support older Americans. And there was no reason older Americans should have spent their youth carrying the burdens of their elders.
It’s time to end our collectivist old-age welfare system and restore the free market and American individualism. In an individualist society, you have a right to exist for your own sake and deal with others on voluntary, mutually beneficial terms. You keep what you earn and you get to use it to pursue your goals and dreams. You are not your grandfather’s keeper. No one has the right to be kept.
Our aim should not be to save Social Security and Medicare, or make them affordable, but to abolish them. They are inherently immoral programs that force some people to serve the goals and purposes of others. They are tools of exploitation.
To be sure, we should not get rid of these programs overnight. They must be phased out over time so that those who have been rendered dependent on the government have time to adjust and adapt. But the goal is clear. A moral society cannot tolerate turning its citizens into servants.
What can you do to fight the Debt Draft? Help wage a moral crusade against the collectivist ideas that have led to it. The welfare state cannot exist without the consent of its victims. It counts on the people being exploited to accept that they are being sacrificed for a noble cause. If the victims ever rebelled publicly and said they do not consent to being victimized — that the Debt Draft is immoral — then the whole thing would collapse.
Speak out for the individualist ideas this country was founded on. Tell the world that you are not the property of society and that your duty in life is not to pay for other people’s retirement homes and hip replacements. You have a right to pursue your own happiness through your own independent effort.
Here are three small, simple steps you can take immediately.
1. “Like” the End the Debt Draft Facebook Page. Not only will this keep you up to date on our latest activities, but if we hit significant numbers, the world will know that there is a highly motivated group of Americans willing to stand up for their rights. Just visit www.facebook.com/debtdraft.
2. Educate Yourself. To win this fight, you must know your case. Start by visiting www.endthedebtdraft.com where you will find a ton of free resources that will leave you intellectually armed to the teeth and ready to fight the Debt Draft.
3. Distribute Great Content. We need to get our ideas heard. The highest leverage activity for most people is to find great content — persuasive books, articles, videos — and help them gain a wider audience. Start by distributing this pamphlet to your friends, family, and classmates.
During the Vietnam War, young Americans rallied against the military draft. Not all of them did so for honorable reasons. But there were some who recognized that your life belongs to you, not to others. It is time for a new student rebellion, a moral rebellion against welfare state exploitation.
About the Author
Don Watkins is one of today’s most vocal opponents of the welfare state, and coauthor, with Yaron Brook, of the national best-seller Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government.
A fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute, Don studies Social Security reform, the welfare state, and the moral foundations of capitalism. He has been interviewed on hundreds of radio and TV programs, and speaks regularly at conferences and university campuses, including Stanford, Brown, University of Virginia, and the University of Chicago, and he regularly debates supporters of the welfare state.
His writings have appeared in The Guardian, USA Today, Forbes, Christian Science Monitor, Investor’s Business Daily, The Daily Caller, and FoxNews.com, among many others.
Don’s latest book, RooseveltCare: How Social Security Is Sabotaging the Land of Self-Reliance, is a moral critique of the welfare state.