During his State of the Union address, President Obama made the obligatory reference to “equal pay for equal work” as part of a larger public debate which has been going on for some time now. There have been numerous articles in liberal and conservative publications, countless white papers, and an endless parade of political pundits on cable news trying to diagnose the problems of women in the workplace, their families, and our society at large. However, the arguments of both right and left in the so-called “war on women” are really symptoms of the deeper problem of the welfare state.
On the left, the bogeyman of choice is that women are still treated as inherently inferior to men in the workplace without noting that women often choose motherhood over a career in business or academia. On the right, the Supreme Court cases which opened up unrestricted access to contraception and abortion are presented as the root of our present difficulties. There is no question that women do not make as much money as men or that abortion is one of the greatest evils that humanity has ever faced. However, these facts did not spontaneously arise in the years 1960-1973, but have their root in human nature and in the latter case, the societal dislocation of the Great Depression.
Social Security was created in 1935 as an intergenerational contract at a time when massive unemployment and migration left the elderly without traditional means of support in their later years. Money paid into the system today goes to previous generations who have already reached retirement age. However, the benefits that are paid out are based on the lifetime income of the beneficiaries, not on the number of people paying into the system. As a result, Social Security is already running a shortfall and, absent major reforms, will be unable to pay full benefits within a decade or two.
The political left seems unwilling to even confront this reality. It is impossible for conservative politicians like Paul Ryan to even bring up the subject of Social Security reform without being vilified as extremists who would sell their own grandmothers to make a quick buck. This fear-mongering will not address the problem. If we wish to have a safety net for the elderly, we have to fix the system. There are two ways to accomplish this: either we must reduce benefits that are paid out or increase the revenues that are paid in. In the latter case, the easiest way to do this is to increase the population.
As any married couple will tell you, raising a family is hard work. The competing demands of family, career, personal development, and civic involvement have not been made easier by the ubiquitous propagation of supposedly “labor saving” technological advancements. Worse still, even for those supermoms who can somehow manage to “have it all,” the cost of raising a family has been steadily increasing. The Department of Agriculture estimated that the cost of raising each child born in 2012 to adulthood will be nearly a quarter of a million dollars as a national average, and that’s not even including the cost of college.
Even if we leave aside the deleterious consequences of contraception and abortion for women, the economic incentives are vastly more powerful. In our careless society, children are seen as a burden and come after the needs of their self-centered parents—if indeed their would-be parents choose to have any children at all. The liberal dogma of individualism does not help the situation, but this can be overcome if people see that the benefits of raising children go beyond the abstract rewards of spiritual and emotional fulfillment, but also include tangible financial motivations. The tax code already provides considerable incentives for raising children, but as the birthrate falls each year, plainly it is not enough.
The success or failure of Social Security depends on raising up future generations to pay into the system. Let us imagine we have twin brothers, Ron and Remy. Ron remains a bachelor all his life but Remy marries and has three children. They both work for 35 years at the same company and have identical salaries. Under the current system, they will receive the same benefits upon retirement. Ron and Remy both paid the same amount into the Social Security system, but Remy will have also paid over three quarters of a million dollars to raise his three children. In effect, the children of Remy will be paying the Social Security benefits for both their father and their uncle, but this really means Remy will essentially be paying for his brother’s retirement. Basic fairness dictates that the benefits paid should be in some way proportional to the number of children one has.
This is not without precedent. Faced with the deviant and decadent sexual proclivities of the ancient Romans in a time of crisis and domestic upheavals, Emperor Augustus codified the Lex Iulia de Maritandis Ordinibus (i.e., the Julian Law of Marriage). The measures he implemented were severe but effective and proved popular enough that they were later strengthened by the Lex Papia Poppaea. At the heart of these laws was the forfeiture of inheritances for those who remained childless. A similar measure today would restore the financial incentives of child-rearing and strengthen families in general.
Instead of wonkish proposals like increasing the retirement age or indexing benefits to chained CPI or means-testing (all of which are unpopular options that do not address the problem of shrinking revenues), we could gradually restrict benefits for each age cohort eventually down to 50% of what would otherwise due to those without children for people who are of childbearing age today. For couples with only one child, benefits would gradually be reduced to only 75%, and for those with two or more children, only then would benefits be paid in full. As an added compromise between Democrats and Republicans, the estate tax could also be phased out gradually with each child as a gentler version of the Augustan Leges Juliae. Naturally, such benefits would also apply for adopted children (which was not the case in ancient Rome).
These provisions would have the effect not only of reducing benefits paid to singletons and childless couples (who do not bear the financial burden of raising children), but also would lead to the eventual increase in revenues as people of childbearing age today respond to the incentive to bring enough lives into the world to support them in their dotage. This combined with the estate tax phase-out would also create an additional incentive for couples that have more than just the minimal 2.1 children on average required to keep the population at current levels. Indeed, with these incentives Social Security benefits could actually grow over time instead of shrinking.
Such reforms would strengthen families and the institution of marriage without poking the hornets’ nest of women’s sexual liberation. Instead of outlawing contraception or abortion, people will respond to the serious financial incentives of a renegotiated intergenerational contract by forming families and becoming more open to life of their own volition. With this openness to life as the starting point, society can begin to heal the many second- and third-order effects that have ravaged our society over the last 80 years and especially the last few decades. Anyone who doubts the efficacy of such a reform need only look at how banefully influential the welfare state has been in the first place.
At a more philosophical level, this proposal would also transform Social Security from a government entitlement into a natural expression of family ties. When Social Security was created, it was taken for granted that each generation would care for their elders, but this was not enough to defend the family from what followed. The baseline assumptions have changed but the laws have not. Social Security created the problems that we face as a society today, but with the right reforms, we can harness its transformative power for good. Save Social Security, and you will save marriage–and the world.