The phrase currently on the lips of Republican Presidential contenders is “entitlement reform.” Right-wingers claim that we have become “a nation of takers” with “an entitlement mentality” that is destroying America. Sounds awful!
The thing is, an entitlement is simply something that we are entitled to. This includes legal and moral rights, like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to pursue happiness. It also includes benefits that we are entitled to under the law, like Social Security and Medicare, and it can include rights under a contract, such as the right to receive insurance benefits under a policy.
Social Security encompasses all these definitions of the word “entitlement.” We as a nation have joined the rest of the civilized world in protecting the human right of “freedom from want,” in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words, by providing for some of our citizens’ basic needs through the Social Security system. Social Security is also an insurance program that we pay for with taxes taken out of our paychecks. When we work and pay into the Social Security system, we earn the right to benefits, when we stop working in retirement or because of disability. When we collect Social Security benefits, we are receiving the insurance benefits we have paid for and are entitled to.
Of course, Social Security, along with programs like Medicare and Medicaid, is also an “entitlement” in the sense that it is mandatory spending by the federal government. It is mandatory spending for good reason: we have the legal right to these benefits, and the government cannot decide to balance the budget by taking them away from us. This is distinguished from discretionary spending, such as the military budget and the budget for things like education and medical research.
It is reasonable to look for ways the federal government can save money, but there are two major problems with focusing on entitlements such as Social Security.
The first problem is that there is another glaringly large expenditure that needs to be cut: the military budget. The United States spent $610 billion on “defense” in 2014. That is not only the largest military budget in the world, it is more than the next seven largest military budgets, combined. Our military spending is wildly disproportional to any military threat our nation faces, and our military adventurism is a destabilizing force in the world, often doing more harm than good. No politician should talk about taking benefits away from seniors and disabled people while we continue this level of wasteful military spending.
The second problem with “entitlement reform” is that in the case of Social Security, we are entitled to these benefits in part because we have already paid for them, and Social Security therefore does not and cannot add a penny to the deficit. The Social Security system has a large and growing surplus, projected to reach $2.9 trillion by 2020, and the system as a whole is fully funded until 2033. Simply put, there is no need for cuts to Social Security benefits, whether by raising the retirement age or by other means.
Thankfully, Republicans and centrist Democrats are not the only voices in the debate. Two Democratic Presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have spoken out strongly against Social Security cuts and in favor of expanding Social Security.