The Corner

How Do We Make People Understand that They Aren’t Entitled to Entitlement Programs?

This morning, I heard a relatively interesting story on NPR about political compromises, and it included a clip from a DCCC ad against Paul Ryan’s Roadmap:

In a series of newspaper ads and robocalls, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has accused Republicans of trying to gut Social Security. “Everyone knows that Social Security belongs to the people who worked their whole life to pay into the system,” says one robocall. “But Rep. Paul Ryan wants to use Social Security and Medicare as a piggy bank for the government.”

And that’s where I need your help. It is simply not the case that “Social Security belongs to the people who worked their whole life to pay into the system.”

Social Security doesn’t belong to taxpayers, even those who have paid into the program their entire lives. It is not an entitlement: Congress can change the law at any time, cut benefits or abolish the program at will. If the law isn’t changed, then when the trust fund runs out of IOUs, benefits will be cut across the board for everyone — including people who have paid into the system their entire lives. Finally, the trust fund’s IOUs can only be repaid if the federal government increases its borrowing or raises taxes. Taxpayers don’t have a right to Social Security benefits. They just don’t.

The Supreme Court made this perfectly clear in its 1960 decision in Flemming v. Nestor, where it described Social Security as a “noncontractual . . . social welfare program.” In other words, yes, we pay into the program, but it’s not an entitlement. We do not have a property right over the money we paid into the program.

Now, how can we make  people understand that entitlement programs are not an entitlement? How do we reach out to them?

Veronique de Rugy — Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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