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Guest Thinkers

Change, the Elderly, and the Welfare State’s Implosion

“The central issue,” James Capretta writes, “in financing Social Security…is the long-term fertility rate.”  If it were reasonable to hope we could soon be anywhere close to returning to Baby Boom birthrates, there would be no talk today of entitlement reform.  It goes without saying that people would rather keep what they now have, and that our politicians would be relieved to let them have it. Tea Party constitutionalism would have, at best, a very marginalized constituency.

The Lockean might begin to attempt to solve this problem by saying that the old should just become more productive, and so we need to push the retirement age (and, of course, eligibility age) back, way back.  If the elderly are healthy, they should keep working.  We can expect some of that, and  responsible experts say many or most people might well be stuck working as long as they can.  But there are obvious limits to that remedy.  

A high-tech society is full of preferential options for the young;  the old might be healthy, but they still often lack the mental agility required to keep up with all that techno-change.  Even in my profession, college teaching, which isn’t very hard and you don’t have to be very smart to perform adequately in the classroom, there’s plenty of complaining that the abolition of mandatory retirement is keeping the relatively ineffective and out-of-touch around at the expense of scholarly productivity and consumer (student) satisfaction.  The aging, overpaid professorate is one of the most compelling arguments against tenure, one that will prevail soon enough in our techno-meritocracy. 

 If the old keep working, we’ll figure out soon enough, it’ll have to be in less productive and (much) lower-paid—not to mention more insecure—positions. We, after all, value the wisdom connected with age (being chastened by experience and all that) less than ever, and we’re getting more skeptical of the thought that being old means being entitled.

Some of our Tea Partiers—especially those in my rural South—believe that the destruction of the welfare state will restore the situation that prevailed in most of our country’s history of liberty:  The elderly (like on The Waltons) will return to live in the homes of their children and grandchildren.  I actually favor government programs that facilitate that happening, but again there are limits.  A Lockean or techno-productive or displaced society has dispersed families throughout the country and world. The ties that produced extended families are weaker than ever; it’s seems less natural or normal for parents and their grown children to share the same place.

 In most of our history, our health care system, such as it has been, has been dependent on most caregiving being done voluntarily by women (like on The Waltons). But that isn’t possible in most cases in a Lockean country where women have become productive individuals just like men, and where there are fewer young people to provide caregiving—either paid or voluntary—for the burgeoning number of elderly.  Not only that, health care will remain far too costly for ordinary families to afford, and techno-progress by itself won’t make it cheaper.  We’re getting better and better at keeping the old and frail around, but our wonderful success in sustaining their biological being often takes decades of expensive medical intervention.  The good news is that we’re gradually but steadily pushing back cancer and heart disease.  The bad is the default form of dying is becoming Alzheimer’s, which is a long, predictable, costly, caregiving-intensive process for which there is no cure. For young women compelled by duty or circumstances to care for a old parent with, say, Alzheimer’s, there will seem to be less opportunity than ever to become a mom, and so the situation they face will be worse still for the generation to follow.

Locke himself rather coldly suggested that the only compelling tie parents will have on their grown children will be money.  He wanted to free individuals up from the constraints of patriarchy;  he didn’t want parents to be able to rule—or order around—their grown children.  And he didn’t want people relying on love—except the love for little children (who are temporarily incapable of taking care of themselves).  If you’re going to get old—which Locke was all in favor of, you’d better get rich.  And our libertarians aren’t wrong to say we should do what we can to encourage people to save for their own futures.  Now, of course, the virtue that comes with that kind of self-reliance is coming back:  Pensions and even Social Security have become unreliable.  But so too have 401ks, which can no longer be counted on to produce returns that beat inflation.  The average person is less sure than ever that his money will last as long as he will, but he surely knows that he’ll be stuck, nonetheless, largely with depending on his own money to live well. 

The implosion of the welfare state, which is caused, most of all, by our aging society, doesn’t look like a new birth of freedom for old persons.  As we learn, say, from Socrates’ musings in The Republic, there might be nothing tougher than being old and poor in a democracy, a “regime” or society which has no idea what old people are for.  That’s not to say that we’re going to begin euthanizing them or even “rationing” them to early graves.  We know they’re free individuals or persons—they’re not nothing—and so we’re committed to helping them stay around as long as possible.  To say the least, we don’t know much about how they might have purposeful and prosperous lives in our increasingly individualistic world.


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