This cliché often, but not always, precedes an ad hominem along the lines of the defender of individual liberty being selfish, greedy, callous or worse. However, it fails because of a few assumptions and misunderstandings: it exalts an illusion of security above liberty, presumes individuals cannot save or monitor their financial situations and accuses libertarians of forcing mass starvation of the poor.
Social security creates dependency and weakens societal responsibility and communal bonds. Instead of cultivating an atmosphere which encourages individuals to dictate their lives while caring for the unfortunate, social security is an implicit arrangement to grant illusory security in old age with the wealth of future generations. The wealth currently collected funds militarism abroad, not health care or groceries for the elderly.
Of course, some elderly individuals benefit from social security; that is easily seen. What is ignored, however, is of vastly more importance: The wealth squandered by the government, the improvement not accomplished as a result of government misallocation of resources and the loss of self-determination. Individuals lack the responsibility that energizes action. Why should I help the elderly woman down the street? She’s the responsibility of the government.
No respectable libertarian advocates the abolition of social security within 24 hours. The dependent individuals created by government overreach must have some sort of provision. Shifting their care from the responsibility of the government to the responsibility of local and regional individuals, charities and other voluntary associations is most desirable, but two immediate reforms to social security can go far: require means-testing as a prerequisite to receiving social security and allow individuals to withdraw from the program.
The logic supporting compulsory social security appears contradictory: Individuals need social safety nets because they cannot adequately prepare for their lives after retirement (plan or live in squalor provides strong incentives to prepare), yet they can intelligently make strong political decisions by voting (an activity which provides stronger incentives to be irrational and uninformed than rational and intelligent). Such paternalistic assumptions have been persuasively criticized by Glen Whitman and Edward Glaeser, among others. Individuals who have the means to save for retirement provide a difficult argument to social security. We must not forget that patience is not a virtue, it is a preference: If they have the means but decide to indulge in the present rather than moderate for the future, they should face the consequences of their actions. If they lack the intelligence, the state should disenfranchise and direct them to a much greater degree than providing a degree of wealth.
If individuals lack the means to save for retirement, the state shouldn’t provide for the capable as well as the incapable where voluntary associations don’t exist (crowded out by government action). Even better, the state should contract aid associations in the community to dole out relief. Not only would this spur personal responsibility and collective action, it would drastically reduce inefficiency (presuming non-perverse incentives, which is a large presumption). Any consistent position about social security, whether in favor or against, directs an individual to demand a drastic restructuring of the current system.
It is easy to substantiate claims of concern for the unfortunate with demands for increased government action, be it minimum wage laws, higher taxation rates on the rich, larger amounts for those on social security and other welfare programs or subsidized housing. However, it is difficult to separate emotion from sound policy. The greatest method of benefiting the unfortunate is to establish a structure (societal, economic and political) which allows the capable to become self-sufficient and care for the incapable. Encouraging wealth creation and personal responsibility will prevent mass starvation better than any government program. The state cannot create wealth and provide for individuals: It can only redistribute and destroy wealth, or deter wealth creation. Poverty is not a problem with a solution; rather, it is an issue found everywhere but fictional Utopias. Designing policies with the intention to reach Utopia usually aggravates efforts for improvement.