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"Immanuel Kant and Social Security": A Commentary

By Merrill Matthews

Dallas, TX – If the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant were around today, he would say we have to reform Social Security, and reform it now. How do I know this? Kant spent a lot of time thinking about ethics, or how we decide what's right and wrong. His goal was to find one principle, or moral absolute, that would guide people in all of their ethical decisions.

Kant concluded that, when confronted with an ethical dilemma, you should take an action only if you could will that it would become a universal law. That is, in any given situation, if you can will that everyone do what you're considering doing, then and only then should you do it.

For example, suppose a prospective buyer asks if a car you're trying to sell has ever been wrecked. If it has, and you tell the truth, you may get less money or lose the sale. So what do you do? Kant would say that unless you are willing that everyone selling a car lie about its condition, then you can not lie about your car's condition.

How does Kant's ethical principle - what he called the Categorical Imperative - apply to Social Security? The Social Security Trust Fund currently takes in more money than it pays out. However, by 2016 - just 15 years from now - it will begin paying out more than it takes in, according to Social Security's trustees.

Workers currently pay 12.4% of their income to Social Security. By 2030, when all of the Baby Boomers have reached retirement age, Social Security will need 16.6% just to maintain the same benefits. Here's where Kant comes in. While YOU may not mind being taxed more to keep Social Security solvent, can you will that ALL workers pay more taxes? If you can't, then supporting a payroll tax increase is not ethical, according to Kant.

If politicians can't raise taxes to keep Social Security solvent, they may consider cutting benefits - not for you, but for your children. The wisdom of the Categorical Imperative is that it forces each of us to think about everyone, not just ourselves. Can you will that the next generation get less from Social Security than your generation because you are unwilling to deal with its problems?

So what type of Social Security reform might be compatible with Kant's moral absolute? How about one in which people who pay into the system get back what they paid with interest? I can certainly will that to be a universal law. But that can only happen if Social Security is fundamentally changed to allow workers their own personal retirement accounts. President Bush has put together a Social Security commission to consider just that kind of reform.

If Immanuel Kant were alive today, I think he would say that's the right thing to do.

Dr. Merrill Matthews is a visiting scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas.