In January 1935, President Roosevelt submitted a proposal for "Social Security" to the Congress. The draft legislation is introduced as "a bill to alleviate the hazards of old age, unemployment, illness, and dependency..." It is entirely fitting, I think, that the U.S. government would classify old age as something hazardous, dependency as something to be alleviated. That characterization is consistent with the role of government, as so many of us see it: to take care of us when our abilities as an individual are not sufficient, and to help us survive when we require the help of our fellow citizens.
But I am glad that there are enough problems with the Social Security system that the level of public debate about how to "fix" it is increasing.
I think the concept of social security is a sound one. Who wants to think about the prospect of growing old and not being cared for, not being able to meet basic needs? Most humans cultures have some sort of basic tradition that says the elderly members of its society should be cared for, even if those members aren't themselves able to contribute any longer to the health of that society.
The U.S. Government's Social Security program is derived, I think, from this natural instinct to protect and care for those citizens. The problem is that by centering our notion of security around the promise that we'll get a certain amount of money from the government every month when we need it, we have effectively distanced ourselves from what it really means to be cared for and secure in old age. I would also suggest that, in doing so, we have reinforced a significant negative theme of modern civilization: that dependency on each other for happiness, community, care and protection is no longer necessary, as long as we can work hard enough to "earn" our own security, as long as the government is around to provide for us. When we move away from security that involves dependency on family, neighbors, friends, we become more isolated, more subject to to forces beyond our control, more afraid of the risks of stepping out to find something better.
It should tell us something that the politicians and lobbyists are fighting over what kind of a program to put in place to fix another program that other politicians and lobbyists put into place. The stacks of band-aids upon band-aids does not give me much faith that there will be any real "security" around by the time I get there. Indeed, I already see the members of generations that have come before me finding that the promises made to them have been revised, reduced and broken. But I'm fairly certain that no one in any power is thinking "how can we REALLY fix this system forever" - that might actually generate some innovation. It's all about holding things together until the last possible minute.
What's the solution, then? What would I do with Social Security? (I'm so honored that you would ask!) The answer isn't simple, but I can tell you that it does not involve repairing the system we have now. It does not include perpetuating the myth that artificial political and governmental structures can effectively and justly address the needs of every citizen crossing over into retirement.
It does involve trusting that people with enlightened self-interest can make a better use of the money that comes out of their paycheck every month than bureaucrats in Washington can. It does involve re-thinking the way our culture and our government deal with concepts of earning a wage, growing old, and creating and maintaining sustainable communities and cultures. It does involve allowing those natural human instincts to care for our neighbors and loved ones kick in. It does involve pursuing a much truer kind of social security than any piece of paper can offer.
I hope that the current debate will bring some to have a similar sense that "there must be a better way."