I was reading an article on The Green Swan recently, and blogger JW’s article Why The Government Doesn’t Want You To Retire Early which struck a chord with me. JW argues that of the US governments $6.5 trillion in revenue, 2/3rds of this comes from the income tax and associated FICA (social security and medicare) tax. Moreover, for many Americans the income tax is by far the largest tax that they pay. As such, the government has a vested interest in ensuring that as many Americans live wasteful lifestyles so that they can work as long as possible and give to the coffers. If citizens were more frugal and stopped working earlier, they would practically fall off the grid tax-wise.
Yet, JW argues that this isn’t the moral choice because this would harm society by denying it a return on the money it invested in people by giving them (or their parents) tax breaks when they were young and not yet net-contributors. Moreover, if the early retirement movement does become broad-based, this would lead the state to change its tax burden from income tax to a huge sales tax to make up the lost revenue. While middle class families may be able to survive this change, it would hurt the poor who live hand-to-mouth, and the elderly, who paid a great deal in income tax and are then hit with more taxes in their golden years.
This is pretty much the opposite of what libertarians like Jacob Fisker believes. He often argues that you don’t owe larger society squat, that its part of a false Protestant work ethic that equates work with salvation. Just because your ancestors had to work super hard, does not mean you have to as well. Even if you happen to have some rare skill set, there is no mandate that you have to practice it (e.g. being an engineer vs. being a gardener). After all, in ancient societies people only worked the absolute minimum to provide for themselves and no more; the same should apply to us here today. **
** Note: much as I like Fisker, this idea stems from the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and has no basis in life. A study of history can provide many examples of where ancient people worked the land harder than it could support, causing ecological collapse. At the bare minimum, anyone who lives in a temperate climate needs to work harder than is absolutely necessary to avoid the risk of starvation in winter, or possible inadvertent down-time due to sickness and disease.
I think that truth lies in the middle of these things. We do owe a debt to those who have come before us, who have supported us and provided us with the resources to excel today – both material and social. I have done well because my parents worked hard to make sure I’d have the resources I needed to grow, and because the state provided them with enough support to survive in difficult times (e.g. the state allowed for trade unions, which helped support my family when my Dad lost his construction job during a recession in the late 1980’s). More importantly, I have done well because I’ve had access to the wisdom of those who’ve gone before me – people who’ve lived through chaos and ruin and argued for rules that brought order to society, or who’ve gone through the school of hard knocks and understand the true costs of everyday vices and liberal social mores. If we don’t make a contribution in our own turn, then those material and social resources won’t be there for others who need help in their time.
At the same time, we need to keep scale in perspective. While we should give back, there is no reason to do it to the point that we destroy ourselves, or to give back to something we don’t support, particularly large-scale enterprises. As Reinhold Niebuhr argues in his classic book Moral Man, Immoral Society, the level of morality in a society (or any social sphere really) diminishes the larger it grows and the more people and interests get involved. You go from a small, tight-knit group that exists in an ordered, moral universe where people can draw meaning from that moral order – to a large chaotic blob where leaders (in politics, media, etc.) must cater to a variety of interest groups and can only survive by adhering to the most common denominator. As a result, this most common denominator becomes the standard truth, at the cost of the more personal truths and moralities that guide regular people and give their lives meaning.
If we need to still give back after retiring early – but in a way that benefits our close communities and not (necessarily) society as a whole – where does that leave us? I think that living a quiet life and being the best parent to your children, best partner to your spouse, and best relative to your extended family is a worthy way of giving back. Much of the disorder in the U.S. today seems to stem from times when people shirked these simple duties. By fulfilling this work we can create happier people who can bless the lives of everyone around us.
Being active in local politics or the church is another answer. For the former, one can still tell the truth and act in accordance with their beliefs at the local level, if not higher up (unless they happen to be a billionaire). Plus there are many communities that desperately need such people to lead. Here in the Minnesota, there are hundreds of towns out-state where they can’t find even one person to run for city council or mayor. For the latter, early retirement can help you truly focus on your faith and prayer life and become more virtuous. Many churches also need volunteers, and the younger the better. As has always been the case, young people can relate to other young people and heed their advice, but tend ignore the elderly despite their experience. Early retirees can make the difference.
One could also work part-time and provide much-needed services. The construction industry is very short of labor today and many homeowners need to wait months or weeks to get decent help. Early retirees can work part-time to provide those services at high quality for the cost, because they don’t need to maximize every minute and dollar. If you walk around older buildings you can see the love and care that went into their construction. If you spent a few weeks a year making two or three homes places of beauty, homes that brought delight into the lives of their owners – would that be the worst way to live and give back to the community?
This is a subject worthy of much thought. Early retirement is a wonderful thing and makes our lives better and more convenient in many ways, but as we’ve seen in other sphere’s of life, activities or things called “better” or more “convenient” can be corrupting and lead us astray. We must make sure this does not.