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The War on the Young

Obama tries to fool them again.

Oct 11, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 04 • By YUVAL LEVIN
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The fact is that the implicit ideal of the left—the European-style social-democratic welfare state—is hostile to the young and to future generations. It prioritizes present benefits over future growth, present retirees over productive workers, and the present generation over those to come. No society can remain wealthy and strong with such distorted priorities. It is up to the young in particular to resist further steps in this direction, and to press the nation’s leaders to change course and reform our entitlement system. 

To do so would not be selfish of today’s young voters. On the contrary, to keep America strong, members of this generation will need to be exceedingly unselfish—paying taxes now to support the retirement of their parents and grandparents, but trimming and means-testing their own future benefits so their children and grandchildren can thrive. 

One way or another, today’s younger voters will be the ones to shoulder the costs of reforming the American welfare state, and the longer we wait the more burdensome and difficult that reform will need to be. Therefore, the best thing today’s policy-makers can do for young voters is to get on with that work. 

Among other steps, such reforms will need to include raising the retirement age, tying benefits to prices rather than wages, some means-testing of Social Security and Medicare (carefully designed to avoid creating disincentives to save) so that benefits go to those who need them, and turning Medicare in particular into a defined-contribution program so that it stops inflating health care costs uncontrollably. This should be combined with greater tax incentives for private retirement savings. No one over 55 should be affected by these changes, and for those below that age reforms should be phased in gradually to allow people to plan. 

But if such gradual reforms are to be possible, they must begin soon. That means taking the blindfolds off of our eyes and acknowledging the plain reality that the century-old liberal dream of a social-democratic welfare state—the dream at the heart of the Obama administration’s agenda—is neither attainable nor desirable. 

Instead, we should pursue a free economy with a robust safety net—a society that values young workers and parents no less than retirees, and that helps the poor become more independent rather than making the middle class less so. 

Everyone should want that, and especially the young.

Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and the Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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