Third Party & Independents Archives

The Libertarian Principle- Social Security and the Drug War

Among the mainstream of American politics, there are two seemingly unrelated government policies which are especially destructive, coercive, and paternalistic. Social security and the war on drugs. Interestingly, the strongest defenders of each of these policies often diverge in their political ideology- there are few programs as important to the left as social security, and there are few measures that social conservatives are more committed to than the war on drugs. Both of these two positions are wrong, and they are wrong for the same reason. Yet neither party has taken a strong stand against either social security or the war on drugs, largely because these two programs are based upon the same paternalistic rationale, and neither party can offer a complete critique of one without seeing the flaws in their defense of the other.

First, the basics. There are two kinds of people in a state- those capable of taking care of themselves and being held responsible for their own actions (self-responsible adults), and those incapable of self-maintenance and true culpability (children and the insane). Largely, our criminal justice system acknowledges this significant difference- there is a different criminal justice system for children and there is a well-recognized criminal defense of insanity. Yet our social and economic policies conflate the understanding at the heart of personal responsibility- and the result is the drug war and social security.

When the government tells an adult that he cannot make the decisions to take marijuana, for example, they are treating them like a child (disclaimer: my argument here is based purely on principle, I have never even smoked a cigarette, let alone done any drugs). When social conservatives say drug use is “immoral”, they are using the term loosely, so as to cover whatever they feel is displeasing to them. I have no problem with the government outlawing things that are wrong (truly wrong- like murder, rape, theft ect), but there is no consistent moral principle that can explain why an action by one human being that does not infringe upon the rights of another human being is “wrong” in a way so as to justify inference by government force.

The decree is thus not “you are doing something that is wrong, and we must prevent you from doing it”, but is rather “we know how to live your life better than you do, and because we are the majority, we can tell you how to order your lives”. The conflict with the principle underlying our criminal justice system is clear- if adults are responsible for their actions, they must be allowed to live their lives and make their decisions, until those decisions hurt other people. To the extent one prohibits activities that are not harmful to anyone but the responsible individual adult, they are treating them like a child. This is just the argument on principle- the consequential effects of the war on drugs are monumental as well. The detrimental effects of the drug war are numerous and outside the scope of this column. Here are some good resources for some facts and analysis: list of articles , libertarians on the drug war, effects of mandatory minimum setences, statistics on police deaths resulting from the drug war

Social Security is based upon the same principle as the drug war. Anyone who has ever gotten a paycheck knows the sizable deduction taken out by the government for social security (about 12.4% of the income of the average working person). We are told that this money is based saved for us for when we retire, but this is not the case. The money is being taken to be given to those who are retired now, we have no property rights in our social security payments, and what we will receive back is not a fair return on our “investment” (generously assuming the system does not go bankrupt by the time we retire).

There is no doubt that if someone invested the money social security takes out of his paycheck the average worker, or even the poorest worker, would end up with far more money at retirement than social security will ever provide (if the worker invested in Bonds, they would have a significant increase, and considering the average growth of the stock market, the average low-wage worker would MORE THAN triple the amount of money they get from social security- see this article for more detailed statistics). Social security is not a hand up to the poor, or even beneficial to the average retired person- it is forced investment into a system that no one denies is extremely inefficient, when far more efficient alternatives are available in the free market (and lest you counter that the free market is volatile- all a person would need to do is to invest a portion of their money in low-risk sorts of investments, like bonds, and they would easily get a better yield than social security).

Given the above considerations- why would anyone, especially those who care about the “working poor”, want to continue social security? The answer lies in the same paternalistic principle that underlies the drug war- that many people believe they know better how to order the lives of their fellow adults, and are willing to use government force to do it. The argument always runs “well how about those who do not choose to invest, or who invest poorly?” The answer to that comes from the redoubtable Milton Friedman- “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.” Just as conservatives do not believe that we can trust people to make decisions about their own in regards to drugs, so liberals do not believe they can trust adults to plan for their own retirement.

Even a libertarian must acknowledge that some adults will not take good care of themselves. They will get hooked on terrible drugs or refuse to invest their money. Yet the libertarian principle, and the principle upon which our nation was founded, is that we have no right to make that determination for other adults. A true belief in freedom and self-responsibility would oppose these two huge government “programs”, yet neither party has come close to touching them. We get a little resistance from the right, pushing for a privatization of some small portion of social security, and a little resistance from the left, pushing to get rid of unfair sentencing guidelines from drug users. Admirable as there proposals are, they do not touch the principle at stake in either issue because neither party can articulate the true principled grounds upon which their position on these issues lie, lest they undermine the rationale for their own beloved government programs.

My solemn hope is that a statesman who has sufficient rhetorical skill can explain this to the American people and we can reinvigorate the principle of individual responsibility and freedom that our nation was founded to protect. Until then, our parties will continue to drift in a sea of slippery slop arguments, getting angry about the horrible measure the other side wants to perpetrate (they want to starve the old people! They want to flood our schools with crack!), serenely unaware of the principles that underpin their judgments.

Posted by Misha Tseytlin at February 14, 2004 9:33 PM