What, Me Worry?

I really like Russ Roberts’ post over at Cafe Hayek in response to Sabastian Mallaby’s Washington Post column fretting about how partially privatizing Social Security will burden citizens with too many choices and risks.

Here’s a key insight from Roberts:

And if you’re worried about all that stress, there is a very easy policy solution to let those worriers sleep easy. Make social security voluntary. You don’t like making your own choices? Let the government handle it. How many people would choose this voluntary option? Would you be comforted and stress-free knowing that the government is going to take those voluntary contributions and give them to today’s retirees, knowing that when you get older, the government will tax your children and the children of strangers to finance your uncertain benefits?

It’s this section from Mullaby that really bugs me:

It follows that pro-market, government-cutting schemes cannot be justified by a presumed moral superiority. When it comes to their retirement, most Americans probably want a mix of a government safety net and the opportunity to accumulate their own savings. The current system, featuring a government program that guarantees a pension equal to about a third of the average worker’s salary, plus a variety of tax-favored opportunities to save individually, may already be quite close to most citizens’ sense of the right balance.

In the absence of the moral-superiority claim, a reform that adds to the stresses of the modern world must hold out the compensating hope of more prosperity. There’s no case for Social Security privatization unless it brings a serious economic payoff.

How does any of this follow? Because some people don’t like a lot of choices and risk, there’s no moral issue with forcing a government program on other people?

I think Roberts’ take on this is about right:

I think Mallaby’s last sentence has it exactly backwards. The economic payoff from privatization will be small. The real payoff is moral—the opportunity to live as an adult, making choices and coping with the consequences, good and bad.

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