Robert Nozick

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Does America's social security system, as a form of wealth redistribution, violate individual rights according to Nozick's libertarian position?

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There is no violation of individual rights in paying taxes for a safety net. People, including Nozick, have the right not to pay into Social Security if they don't want to, but most people in a democracy value the freedom that comes from knowing that when they are old and unable to work, they won't be forced to live on the streets begging for food or selling blood. So what are your thoughts? Do you agree with Nozick? Is he correct?

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Nozick argues that taxation is a form of "partial slavery" because it forces an individual to involuntarily do work for another person's benefit. Because Social Security is, to Nozick, an "entitlement" it gives others a "right" to part of your income, and thus gives the rest of society partial ownership...

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over you.

Let's unpack this a little. First, admittedly taxation, and that would include Social Security taxes, could be a payment an individual didn't want to make, and as such, could be seen as a "violation of individual rights." However, we live in a democracy. In a democracy, the people are in charge. The government enacts those programs and policies that the majority of the people have decided are for the greater good. We know that this system is imperfect, but trust that ultimately it is the best way to make decisions about governance. 

It is almost impossible to have a civil society without taxes, which is why, since Roman times, it has been said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. We may not like taxes, but they are a necessary part of living in a state. If the people collectively vote for paying taxes for a certain program in a democracy, that is not considered "enslaving" people. On the contrary, paying taxes is considered being a "citizen." As a citizen, you have certain responsibilities and obligations in return for what your country does for you and for the opportunities it affords you. You may not like them, but they are there. Just as a parent is not said to be "enslaved" because a part of his or her income involuntarily goes to his child (you will be jailed, for instance, if you don't feed your child), so you are not "enslaved" by paying taxes. In civilized societies the assumption tends to be that people willingly take on the care taking obligations of both parenthood and citizenship. This is because you love your children and your country. 

John Stuart Mill wrote about the tyranny of the majority. He saw this as a pitfall of democracy, and it is: the majority of people can make big mistakes in who they elect or what policies they support enacting. But the mechanism is also self-correcting. If people see the error of a policy, they can have it reversed. The fact that Social Security has been overwhelmingly supported for 80 years is strong evidence that it is a working system.

Further, Social Security is not an entitlement, because every individual pays into the system and because no one can necessarily collect it who has not paid in to the system for a certain number of years. People also have the right to avoid paying Social Security by not working for a cash income or by leaving the country. 

Sometimes ideology can get in the way of common sense. We might ask, does the so-called "enslavement" of contributing a small amount of your paycheck to save for a retirement income paid by the state outweigh the freedom that comes from knowing you will not starve or be forced to live on the streets begging and picking food out of trashcans when you are too old to work? Most would, and have decided they are "freer" paying into Social Security than not having such a system in place. 

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It is possible to argue this point from both sides. 

First, we can clearly see how Nozick’s argument is plausible.  When we have a social security system like ours, we require everyone who works to pay into it.  For those who are better off, we are requiring them to give up some of their money in the full knowledge that it will be given to others who have less.  We are, in effect, stealing from them and giving to others.  This is clearly an infringement of their rights.

However, this is not the only way to look at this.  People who are wealthy have not gotten that way completely on their own.  They are part of the society as a whole and they have benefited in many ways from being part of this society.  For example, one reason that they are able to be wealthy is that we have a stable society where the right to property is respected.  One reason that we have such a society is that we have a social security system that helps to ensure that we do not have a huge class of people who cannot support themselves after retirement.  When looked at in this way, the money that is taken from the rich for social security is really a payment that they owe in return for the stable society that has been created and which allows them to become wealthy.

Thus, there are two ways to look at it.  We can look at this as an infringement of rights or we can look at it as a payment that is due from everyone who benefits from the stability of our society.

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