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I’ve just finished reading an essay written by George Orwell called Notes on Nationalism. It is brilliant (which is expected - it was written by George Orwell after all). Here is my favorite line: “Political or military commentators, like astrologers, can survive almost any mistake, since their more devoted followers do not look to them for an appraisal of the facts but for the stimulation of nationalistic loyalties.” And this was written in 1945! He could have been taking about any (or all) of the talking-head commentators on TV or talk radio today. Some things never change.
And now to the core of our debate on Social Security. With sufficient prodding, my conservative friends came out with the real reason they are against social security: “Social security is not an ‘insurance’ program, it is an entitlement program.” To a conservative, “entitlement” signifies everything that is wrong with America: government programs that encourage bad behavior because people are not forced to live with the consequences of their bad decisions.
Certainly, any program that encourages bad behavior, or incentivizes bad decisions, is misguided. But is that really what Social Security does? Are the 40% of retirees that rely on Social Security to survive really just a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings on the government dole, laughing all the way to the bank while real, hard working Americans suffer to pay for their vices? The image is ludicrous. The problem with this cartoonish characterization of “entitlement” programs is that it makes a very significant (and self-serving) logical fallacy: that the outcomes in one’s life are solely a result of the choices one makes.
There are three predominant factors that impact outcomes in life: one’s natural abilities, the effort and choices one makes, and the circumstances of one’s life that are outside of one’s control. Is it right to blame someone for lack of natural ability, or bad luck? There are plenty of people that have worked harder in their life than me and have barely gotten by. The formula that poor = lazy is so full of exceptions that it is more likely an exception to the rule that poor = hard work.
[So why is this “entitlement” logical fallacy self-serving? People who are successful in life want to take credit for their own success.]
Of course, the liberals have their own entitlement fallacy: people’s failures are predominantly a result of a life stacked up against them. Like the conservative entitlement fallacy, it simplifies the complex reality of consequences to the point of cartoonish caricature: the rich aligned together in a vast conspiracy to keep the poor down.
But my opinions as to the value of Social Security go beyond the simple statement that the vast majority of people that receive Social Security are not being rewarded for bad decisions. Consider the man (or woman) who really did make bad decisions throughout his life – never considering what it would take to survive at 70. Suppose he now has reached that age without friends or family able to help him, and without the means to help himself. Some people may be OK with watching him slowly starve to death, or die from lack of simple, basic medical care. I am not.
I believe that every human being has intrinsic value independent of how much that person contributes to a market economy. This belief alone is enough to justify a “safety net” social policy – providing a collection of programs that work to prevent death due to extreme poverty. Social Security is one such program – and arguable an exceptionally successful one. For those opposed to Social Security on philosophical grounds, don’t kid yourself: without it, many people will die, old and desperate.
A few weeks back I posted an optics limerick that a friend had recited for me. I think that post received more comments (in the form of other limericks) than any other blog posting I have made. Well, for all of you limerick-loving nerds out there, here are some collections of optics limericks from a 1977 contest held by Optics News:
Now, thirty years later, Optics and Photonics News is holding another optics limerick contest. Send your entries to Christina Folz at email@example.com.