Here is a summary of the case for social insurance. As you read this, keep in mind the post from Brad DeLong where he quotes The New York Times column Economic View: Social Security as Dramamine, by Daniel Gross. This column discusses the increase in income risk in recent decades:
...in the 1970's, income for middle-class Americans tended to fluctuate by 16 percent a year. But in the 1980's and 1990's, middle-class incomes fluctuated an average of 30 percent. For those whose earnings placed them in the bottom fifth, income volatility rose from 25 percent in the early 1970's to 50 percent in recent years....
Economic systems differ in their ability to provide goods and services and in the level of economic risk faced by a typical household. Socialism is a low mean, low variance economic system. With a planned economy, cycles in unemployment do not occur unless mandated by planners. Worker income, though low, is not subject to substantial variation over time. Other economic risks, such as access to housing and risks related to healthcare are also very low since these services are provided by the state. Economic risks for workers are low in such a system, but so is average income.
Under capitalism the average level of income is much higher, but economic risk is higher as well. In a capitalist system, workers can be involuntarily displaced as new products are invented, new production techniques are implemented, production moves outside the country, or inevitable business cycle variation occurs. These are shocks that affect workers independent of their own behavior. A worker who has shown up to work every day and worked hard to support a family can be suddenly unemployed for reasons unrelated to anything connected to his or her own behavior.
As the U.S. entered the 20th century, important social changes arising from industrialization were becoming increasingly evident and exposing the high degree of economic risk under a capitalist system. Migration to cities and the resulting breakup of the extended family, reliance on wage income as a primary means of support, and increasing life expectancy resulted in increased economic risk for the typical worker relative to the more agrarian economy that existed prior to industrialization.
In an agrarian economy, economic security is provided by extended family relationships coupled with the largely self-sufficient nature of farms. On a farm, a recession is a bad harvest, but it generally does not mean a total lack of income. Times can be tough, food can be very scarce and there can be hunger, but generating a subsistence level of income from the farm is usually possible even in the worst of years. For a worker dependent solely upon wage income, the consequences of a recession are much more severe. A recession means a total lack of income, not just hard times. Without the help of others or the existence of some type of social insurance program, abject poverty is a real possibility (see Life After the Great Depression for descriptions of the misery that followed the Great Depression).
Retirement also takes on a different character. On the farm, retirement meant gradually, if often reluctantly, letting the children take over responsibility for the farm, but it did not mean a total loss of income. Children provided for parents. But an aging worker in a city, perhaps disconnected geographically from their children, faces a different circumstance upon retirement. Such a worker may face a complete loss of income, and disability from age is not always an event that occurs according to plan. Even a worker who has diligently saved for retirement can suddenly become impoverished due to events such unexpected health costs, or even a much longer life than expected.
As industrialization progressed, 1920 marks a benchmark year where, for the first time, more than half of the population lived in cities. When the Great Depression hit around a decade later, it exposed the social changes the U.S. was experiencing and the need for new ideas regarding the government’s responsibility for the economic security of its citizens became clear. The Great Depression made it evident that in a capitalist system, where the whimsies of the marketplace can wreak havoc on people’s lives, the government has an obligation to provide economic security. It was also evident that the private sector did not provide the needed level of insurance and that government intervention was required to overcome this problem (due to both moral hazard and asymmetric information problems in the private insurance market).
It is important that the economy be allowed to change with new technology and changing preferences, but the consequences for innocent workers affected by such changes is a social responsibility that needs to be addressed. In addition, as extended family relationships are hindered by geography and the social contract between parents and children breaks down, the elderly need a way to avoid poverty. Programs such as Unemployment Compensation, Medicare, and Social Security arose as a means to mitigate these economic risks under capitalism using the least amount of society’s valuable resources.
Drawing a rough analogy, socialism is like investing in T-Bills. Low risk, but low return. Capitalism is like the stock market. There is a higher average return accompanied by higher risk. Financial theory tells how to insure against such risks and there is no reason why this cannot be applied in the social insurance arena to smooth variations in income.
There is a need for social insurance under capitalism.
[See also: Social Security is about insurance, not savings.]