I’ve seen this meme making its way around FaceBook:
I get what this meme is trying to say. I do agree that the government needs to stop borrowing from social security to cover things other than retirement/disability payments. I also agree that it’s not a kind of Robin Hood scenario, where we rob from the rich and pay to the poor. The amount of benefit you receive is tied to the amount you earned. But it’s not a savings account in the classic sense. As the Social Security Administration explains, “About one out of every four 65-year-olds today will live past age 90, and one out of 10 will live past age 95. Social Security benefits, which last as long as you live, provide valuable protection against outliving savings and other sources of retirement income.”
So while it’s true we the citizens pay into social security, it’s not true that social security is a savings account. I may get more or I may get less than I pay into it, depending on when I die and when I start accepting payments. And my money isn’t just waiting there for me. My money is spent long before I retired. Say Social Security runs out of money in 2030; it’s not like I’d get a refund on the money I’d saved through the program, or a benefit check for the amount I’d put into it.
If there were just technical errors or statements that were misleading in a minor way I’d probably let this pass, but the problem goes deeper than that, I think. The second paragraph gives the impression that I have earned Social Security so it is mine, but that’s not how I’ve thought of it at all. It’s the security of the society, not the individual citizen (even the collective set of individual citizens). We are all vulnerable at certain points in our life, and Social Security is a way of blunting that vulnerability, at least one type of vulnerability. I am entitled to social security benefits, not because that money was mine that I saved; I’m entitled because I am part of a society that has decided to support those who can’t support themselves.
To be honest, I’m honestly not sure what is meant by “The United States” as opposed to “the people of the United States” – I think of the United States as the structure that gives the society its form, not something separate from the people. If the US is stealing money from social security (and I do believe money is getting stolen), it’s because some people who are part of the government are doing the stealing. And they’re stealing from us as a society, not as individuals.
This is a big part of why I’m not a libertarian: I believe we as a society are more than the sum of our parts, and I believe that part of living in America is having an obligation to my fellow Americans. My social security savings aren’t really mine, nor will my benefits be just a payout from my own personal savings. And that isn’t anything to be ashamed of.