Thursday, August 23, 2012

Selective sympathy

I think we should employ means testing in Social Security and Medicare. This idea has very little political traction, of course. As the great-warrior poet Dave Barry once said "If you dare to suggest that maybe we don't need to pay for the prescription drugs of wealthy retirees who own, say, more than three yachts, members of the American Association of Retired People will beat you senseless with handicapped parking placards." Luckily, small-time curmudgeons like myself are not likely to get the attention of the AARP, so I'll keep on saying it.

I was pondering last night about how I would structure means testing for Social Security. Right now, I lean toward looking at lifetime gross income. If you made more than X amount over the course of your life, you are not eligible to collect Social Security. Right now, the way we deal out payments toward Social Security is very odd. Your payments are positively correlated with lifetime income. That is, people who had the highest lifetime income, and were therefore in the best position to be able to save for and fund their own retirement, are the ones who get the most financial support! Even egalitarians should find that a bit off, no? Hence my idea - if you've made $10 million over the course of your life, and still didn't put enough away for retirement, then too bad for you. Your situation is entirely your fault.

Of course, many modern liberals like Karl Smith will reject the very idea of that. Smith argues that people who are lazy and behave impulsively deserve our sympathy just as much as people who are born blind. He does admit a moral hazard problem - people can just "pretend" to be lazy. He's willing to tolerate that, though, to make sure that society doesn't stop supporting those who are genuinely lazy, because "we lack the technology to distinguish them from those faking laziness."

And here I find myself as puzzled by Karl Smith as I was by Delong. All of these programs have to be funded out of other people's paychecks - and I don't see where that gets weighed in to their moral concerns. I'm not saying that when you weigh in that concern you will always conclude every program is illegitimate - but they don't seem to to weigh that in at all. Or if they do, they are keeping it a secret. Is there a point, according to their philosophy, where one can say "Too bad. Your situation is your own fault and you don't deserve taxpayer assistance"?

All of this recalls me to something Adam Smith says in his Theory of Moral Sentiments about the punishments of criminals. He notes:
When the guilty is about to suffer that just retaliation, which the natural indignation of mankind tells them is due to his crimes; when the insolence of his injustice is broken and humbled by the terror of his approaching punishment; when he ceases to be an object of fear, with the generous and humane he begins to be an object of pity. The thought of what he is about to suffer extinguishes their resentment for the sufferings of others to which he has given occasion. They are disposed to pardon and forgive him, and to save him from that punishment, which in all their cool hours they had considered as the retribution due to such crimes. Here, therefore, they have occasion to call to their assistance the consideration of the general interest of society. They counterbalance the impulse of this weak and partial humanity by the dictates of a humanity that is more generous and comprehensive. They reflect that mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent, and oppose to the emotions of compassion which they feel for a particular person, a more enlarged compassion which they feel for mankind.
What Adam Smith says about justice also parallels something about egalitarian liberalism which bothers me. I maintain that Karl Smith's sympathy for the lazy - and other, similar views common among the left - is a "weak and partial humanity." And I maintain that libertarianism represents a "humanity that is more generous and comprehensive," because it isn't so selective in it's sympathy.

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