Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Defending Social Insurance: Solidarity is More Powerful than Individualism

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I recently argued against a common framing when it comes to fending off attacks on Social Security and Medicare, which come in the form of referring to these programs as “entitlements” which must be “reformed.” The standard response, as I said then, is  ”Social Security (or Medicare) is not an entitlement.  It’s an earned benefit.” I argued that this is troubling because it is weak to simply deny the claim and that it is factually wrong, because these programs are entitlements (i.e. rights).  By making the rights frame explicit, we can put opponents on the defensive by using their own term against them and better mobilize our side. That’s how you build power.

I didn’t point out, but I should have, that this phrasing also suffers from the “Don’t Think of an Elephant” problem. As George Lakoff has says, when someone tells you not to think of an elephant, you will in fact think of an elephant. Using the word evokes the image, even if you do so as a denial. That’s just how our brains work.

But I also said that  ‘earned benefit’ is just a weak term.  It’s that claim I want to defend here.

First off, I’m not saying that these programs aren’t earned benefits (with some caveats), nor that one should never say ‘earned benefit’, nor I am saying that one shouldn’t make the point that (most) people have in fact earned their Social Security and Medicare benefits. So what am I saying?

I think ‘earned benefit’ cues an individualism frame. It’s ‘I paid for it therefore I get it’ not ‘we are all deserving by virtue of being human beings, we’ve paid for it’. At the very least, I think it should be used with a ‘we,’ as in ‘we (the people) have earned these benefits.’ And it’s important to note that you don’t necessarily get back from Social Security what you paid for it.  First, there is what’s traditionally called a ‘redistributive’ element to old age insurance benefits–with those at the bottom doing somewhat better in relation to what they ‘paid in’ than those at the top. Second, what you get out of it depends in part on how long you live. Thankfully, no matter how long you live you will continue to collect benefits. In addition, Social Security is not limited to old age insurance, despite our unfortunate tendency to conflate them.  If you die  your survivors will receive benefits that they did not pay for, and if you become disabled you will receive benefits regardless of your age. There are more caveats, but you get the point.

This is even more true of Medicare, where the amount paid out on your behalf will depend on things like whether you are healthy or sick, or have a chronic illness.  And Medicare also covers those with permanent kidney failure regardless of age, in part because this is a particularly costly condition and so it’s best to spread those risks across the whole population, just as we do the risks associated with old age. Shifting more illnesses into Medicare, especially chronic illnesses that have especially high costs when they aren’t treated, would be a good idea, but you can’t make the case for that with ‘I paid for it.’

More generally, the underlying ethos of these programs is solidarity. Social Security and Medicare are social insurance programs. Social insurance, according to Jacob Hacker, is “the notion that certain risks can be effectively dealt with only through institutions that spread their costs across rich and poor, healthy and sick, able-bodied and disabled, young and old.”

Steven Attewell explains the original vision behind “social security” (pdf), which is often misrepresented in present day discussions “as an intergenerational compact between retired citizens and the active generation of American workers”:

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt established a “Committee on Economic Security” in 1934 to deliberate over the creation of a social insurance system that could ease the country’s economic crisis and protect it from a future Great Depression, the Committee’s discussions ranged well beyond the limited question of providing for old-age pensions. Instead, the system that emerged as Social Security was meant to be a social contract between all members of society to protect one another from all of the “vicissitudes of modern life,” of which old age was but one element.

We all face these risks, and therefore we all benefit from government acting to protect of us all from those risks.

In general, I think we overestimate the power of claims centered on getting what you pay for.  Just look at the effort to go after pensions.

What’s more, there’s no way to use this framing to expand either Social Security or Medicare, which is what we really need.  It also can’t be used to advance the cause of ensuring the basic needs of the non-elderly population (or rather people’s needs before retirement) are also being met. It is important to remember that the old and the young aren’t different classes of people, but rather people at different stages of the life cycle.  Today’s workers are yesterday’s students and tomorrow’s retirees.

Instead of getting into an argument about relative deservingness of individuals, it would be better to have one about what people deserve by virtue of being human. Social insurance is necessary for achieving democratic equality. It shouldn’t be treated like a consumer good.

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Written by David Kaib

October 31, 2013 at 2:46 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] unfair. But only if you take an ultra-individualistic, short-term view of fairness. As David Kaib nicely explained in a post yesterday, the concept of social insurance rests on a sense of social solidarity. We […]

  2. […] Honorable Mentions. Entitlement Means Right and Defending Social Insurance: Solidarity is More Powerful than Individualism […]


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