Property Rights: The Hidden Issue of Social Security Reform

One of the most enduring myths of Social Security is that a worker has a legal right to his Social Security benefits. Many workers assume that, if they pay Social Security taxes into the system, they have some sort of legal guarantee to the system’s benefits. The truth is exactly the opposite. It has long been law that there is no legal right to Social Security. In two important cases, Helvering v. Davis and Flemming v. Nestor, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Social Security taxes are simply taxes and convey no property or contractual rights to Social Security benefits.

As a result, a worker’s retirement security is entirely dependent on the political decisions of the president and Congress. Benefits may be reduced or even eliminated at any time. Given the program’s looming financial crisis, benefit cutbacks are increasingly likely. Therefore, the entirely political nature of Social Security places workers’ retirement security at considerable risk. Indeed, Congress has already arbitrarily reduced Social Security benefits of some groups of workers. Moreover, because Social Security benefits are not a worker’s property, they are not inheritable.

In contrast, a privatized Social Security system, based on individual accounts, would provide workers with the benefits and the safeguards of true ownership.

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