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Don't Pull Up That Ladder Behind Us, Sonny

David Callahan

If you believe that self-interest is both the strongest and most virtuous motive for human behavior, you may well calculate that current Medicare recipients wouldn't object to a plan that leaves their benefits alone while gutting the program for future retirees.

And there you would be wrong. In fact, seniors don't want to pull the Medicare ladder up behind them, as Paul Ryan's budget plan, "The Path to Prosperity," proposes to do with a scheme for replacing guaranteed benefits with vouchers and sticking tomorrow's retirees with big out-of-pocket expenses.

According to a new poll published today in the New York Times, a majority of respondents over 55 in three key swing states -- Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin -- said they favored keeping Medicare as it is, instead of moving to a voucher system. Indeed, older Americans said they favored the current program by a slightly higher margin than younger ones.

And an overwhelming majority of likely voters -- 76 percent -- said they thought Medicare was "worth the cost to taxpayers." Even 69 percent of Republicans agreed with this statement, and -- again -- older voters voiced more support for Medicare than younger ones.

The poll showed that a majority favored some changes to Medicare to reduce the deficit, but few backed major changes and most favored only minor changes.

All this is yet more evidence of the often contradictory ways that Americans think about government. Most voters distrust government, as is often noted, and the Times poll found that a majority of respondents felt that government was trying to do too much. But when it gets down to specifics -- like support for Medicare or Social Security -- people often line up strongly behind government.

Ideologically, many Americans may embrace the rugged individualism that Ayn Rand espoused. But operationally, we want to take care of each other. Seniors aren't just worried about themselves. They are worried about future retirees who will be in their shoes one day.

Empathy -- or as the Europeans might call it, social solidarity -- is a powerful motive for human beings, one that many scholars believe is hard-wired in us because looking out for others made survival more likely in the distant past.

America's big entitlement programs need to be put on a more financially sustainable trajectory, for sure. But the way to do this isn't by imagining that today's old people don't care about tomorrow's seniors.