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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Constitutional Quick Sand and Social Security

The Tea Party has forcefully reminded the GOP of the constitutional limits on the powers of the federal government; the Republican majority in the House has responded with promises to adhere more closely to its oath of allegiance to the Constitution. On the other hand, the electorate largely favors many New Deal and Great Society social welfare programs whose constitutional bases are hotly contested (most often by people not running for office) . This places our newly empowered constitutional conservatives in a weak position. When conservatives oppose legislation which violates the Tenth Amendment's stricture:
"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,"
the left can always respond that the same argument would apply to Social Security and challenge its opponents either to repudiate Social Security (and the sea of baby boomer voters with low net retirement savings) or to abandon their constitutional principles. Social Security sits as a massive counter example to most claims of strict adherence to the Constitution.

The constitutional conservative has two principled responses to the Social Security challenge. He can repudiate Social Security and hope that this does not lead to decades of governance by Obama clones. A politically powerful, albeit less fiscally responsible alternative, is to propose a constitutional amendment that simultaneously narrowly legalizes (constitutionalizes?) Social Security while further clarifying the limits of federal power. I have no yet formulated what form such an amendment should take (and welcome suggestions). Certainly such an amendment should at most permit a social security plan and not mandate one. In debating such an amendment, we would necessarily revisit the rationale for such a program, and likely redesign it. If we grant, for the sake of discussion, the desirability of offering government pensions, we may perhaps justify removing them from state control by the simple observation that the freedom to move between states would lead a rational citizen to spend his productive years in a low tax state and then move to a high benefit (and presumably therefore higher tax) state upon retirement.

My proposed amendment does not imply that the current Social Security program is an intelligent use of our limited resources. I have saved for my retirement and do not understand why less comfortable workers should augment my income when I retire in a few decades. At the very least, I think we should have some means test for Social Security, even though that will introduce new issues of moral hazard.
Nonetheless, the integrity of our Constitution requires us to legitimize the status quo, as we are exceedingly unlikely to repeal Social Security in the current political and demographic climate. The current willful avoidance of the issue simply encourages further erosion of respect for the Constitution and its restrictions on federal power.

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