Jacob Sullum

Both programs do include some modest means tests. The monthly premiums that help fund Medicare are higher for wealthier beneficiaries, for example, and the share of Social Security benefits subject to tax is larger for retirees with higher incomes -- functionally equivalent to reduced benefits.

But with Medicare and Social Security facing unfunded long-term liabilities of $42.8 trillion and $20.5 trillion, respectively, they need to move much further in the direction feared by Ellison and Richtman. As Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute observed last year in National Affairs, "It is inevitable that Social Security, Medicare, and other government programs will become less generous toward the rich than they are today."

If progressives are having trouble adjusting to this reality, it is not only because they (mistakenly) believe means-testing will jeopardize these programs. As William Voegeli observes in his 2005 book "Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State," progressives' counterintuitive resistance to means-testing also stems from a communitarian vision that sees universal participation in tax-funded social services as inherently good.

Voegeli quotes Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, who in his 1987 book "The Life of the Party" argued that "there is immense civic value to treating middle-class and poor people alike." According to Kuttner, "a common social security program, or medical care program, or public school program" fosters "social solidarity."

You may or may not find this vision appealing. Either way, we can no longer afford it.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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