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An old problem

One of the most difficult balancing acts in any civilised society is in safety net provisions for the most disadvantaged members of society; particularly people at the fringes. Even in a society with vast resources, the risk of creating a welfare dependency means that the safety net shouldn't be too comfortable. One group, however, tends to suck up far more resources than natural justice dictates.

I saw a documentary once where every member of society was given a coloured piece of jewellery. The jewell changed colours depending on what your place in society was, and when it turned black you died. It was an interesting idea, although the society does risk losing people who may still be productive. Most other societies, however, let people grow old and support them throughout their old age.

I will point out that throughout this entry, I will assume certain general characteristics. Yes, there will be exceptions. Unfortunately, if you try to take into account every exception and extenuating circumstance, you end up with a big, unwieldly bureaucracy that costs even more to maintain. For people who are unlucky, well, it's bad luck, isn't it?

I really can't understand the merit in giving the elderly anything above cat-food wage. Instead, what tends to happen is that elderly get a pension which has lower requirements that other groups in need of state aid. In addition to this, they tend to qualify for a wide variety of discounts. In some cases, these discounts aren't even means-tested. Tell me why a 70 year old millionaire deserves cheap public transport while a 20 year old working a minimum wage job pays full fares? For that matter, why are people above a certain age entitled to free television when a struggling, working family has to pay for a television licence?

The cynical answer as to why the elderly are given so many perks is (in this country) because they vote. Plain and simple. Too many people neglect their societal obligations to select the least bad option, while, proportionally, more elderly vote. Consequently, politicians bribe the elderly by giving stuff they have no moral right to simply because they fear losing the grey vote. They pork the elderly and screw the electorate.

Now, a wide range of reasons are put forward for why the elderly "deserve" to suck up society's resources. A popular one is that they have paid their taxes over their life and now deserve something back. I just don't think this argument holds water. First off, anyone who, over a life time of working, has paid enough taxes to cover their pension (over and above all the other uses for their tax dollar, such as roads, health, security etc. from which they nominally benefited at the time) should have earnt enough to support themselves through their old age. Even if the Government doesn't force them to have a superannuation, if it wasn't important enough to them while they were working, shouldn't it be their problem now, not society's? And if they haven't earnt enough to pay enough taxes to cover their pensions, then this argument doesn't apply anyway.

"But elderly do voluntary work."

Now, I am the last person to dismiss the societal value of voluntary work. I do it as an extra because it helps move society in the direction I think it should go. If the justification for the elderly being given above cat-food rates is that they may do voluntary work, then it isn't really voluntary, is it? It is really just that enough elderly need to do the work to justify the pay for all. While an individual can opt out, they risk being the tipping point for when the workers say that there is no merit in giving extra for pensions. Like in communism, where an individual can parasite, but if too many people do it, everyone suffers.

More importantly, if the work is valued enough to pay above-rates, surely the money for the above-rates can be directed to the people who are actually doing the work (whether elderly and doing it because they have nothing better to do or working full time and using their scarce spare time because they think it is right). While we're at it, if someone is capable of doing useful work, why don't they get a job rather than taking money off the state?

"But they brought up children and..."

So childless elderly should go starve? More relevantly, if the children they raised won't look after them - people who, presumably, have some kind of emotional attachment - then why should society in general? Besides, every penny they spent on their children was their own choice. If we're looking at it as an investment then we do need to acknowledge that investments go down as well as up. That doesn't mean that society has to bail them out.

"But they look after grandchildren"

So I have to pay because someone chooses to use free childcare rather than making use of professionals? That is a decision between them and their children/grandchildren. If and when I have children, if my parents (or parents-in-law) choose to help out, that is between us and them. That doesn't mean I expect society to pay them to do it.

"But they can't be expected to work because they're old"

We're taught that discrimination is wrong. In the UK, this nominally applies to age as well (although you can't do a whole range of stuff if you are under 18 and old age pensioners get a range of benefits not available to others). If they genuinely can't work, then they are unlikely to be able to in the future. So where is the benefit in giving them anything?

It needs to be pointed out that this does not apply to self-funded retirees (apart from the old-age perks). If they can afford to support themselves without working, good for them. If society ain't giving them anything, they ain't draining resources that could be used to get people into jobs, or, even more importantly, could be financing politicians' visits to strip clubs.

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