06 January 2014

The retrospective pensions swindle

In view of the current debate about the possible cutting of benefits to pensioners, I thought it worthwhile re-posting this piece from 2010.

I have a book entitled The Great Pensions ‘Swindle’* which, 40 years ago, made some useful points about the likely unreliability of state pensions. The following, however, is unrealistic:

The breaking point is not postponable indefinitely. The resistance to periodic increases in ‘social insurance’ contributions will begin all the sooner when the ‘contributors’ realise they are paying not insurance contributions but an income tax. (p.128)

In fact, no significant realisation arose that ‘National Insurance’ contributions were just a form of income tax, which increased the Government’s current spending money. Otherwise the book anticipates very much what has happened. What happens when a future generation decides it prefers to spend its money on what is fashionable at the time (overseas ‘aid’, social workers, ‘universities’, etc.) rather than providing a former generation with the pension it thought it was paying for? The pensions are ‘too expensive’; they are suddenly means-tested, and paid at ever later ages.

Not least, let it be clearly understood that ‘right’ (to the pension) and ‘contract’ are two more good words that have been made misnomers. A ‘right’ to a pension that a man acquires by saving for it is unambiguous. The ‘right’ a man has to an income when he can no longer work is of a different kind. The word has been re-defined to mean a moral right or claim on society. But transfers of income from one age-group, or class, or generation, to another represent decisions by one group, or class, or generation, to help another in time of need. No group, or class, or generation has a ‘right’ in any absolute sense. ...

In civilised parlance ‘contract’ means a voluntary agreement between two parties each of whom thinks it will gain. There is no such voluntary agreement between the generations on pensions. Indeed, there can hardly be one since future generations cannot be consulted; and if they could they would hardly agree since the terms are loaded against them. (pp.129-130)

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Retrospective legislation has become increasingly frequent, and by now no one seems to remember that there was ever anything against it. It used to be said that the individual had a right to know what was legally open to him (in taxation, etc.) so that he could plan his affairs to secure the best outcome in view of his own interests and priorities, as he conceived them to be.

The recent changes in the ages at which state pensions become payable is really an egregious example of retrospective legislation, and directly affects people in as bad a position as we are. If a company which offered pension schemes were suddenly to announce that all its pensions were to be paid two years later, those who had been paying into the schemes might well wish to sue it for breach of contract. When the government does the same thing, no legal redress is available. This has happened recently and seems likely to happen more, so that my junior colleagues’ pensions recede as one approaches them. The age at which one of them will start receiving her pension was first shifted from 60 to 62, and then again to 64. Another’s pension was shifted from 65 to 67, and seems likely to be further delayed to the age of 68.

Thus the state has already deprived us, who are trying to build up towards an adequate academic institutional environment, of seven years’ pension money, i.e. £35K at today’s pension rate.

I have previously pointed out how means-testing of pensions retrospectively reduces the benefit received in return for contributions paid. This means nearly two thousand pounds per person per year. The proposed tax of £20K towards the cost of state ‘nursing care’, whether such care is received or not, was first proposed as a tax on estates on death, but is now suggested as a capital levy to be paid by every pensioner on reaching retirement age. If that were made retrospective, so that it applied to myself as well as to my colleagues, that would represent an additional confiscation of £80K.

‘There are several other examples of abandonment of principles, and I should be able to write about them at length because they are extremely serious, though no one else appears to recognise this. If Oxford Forum were provided with adequate funding, we could be writing and publishing analyses on this issue of a kind currently ignored in favour of the usual pro-collectivist arguments.’ Celia Green, DPhil

‘We hereby apply for financial support on a scale at least adequate for one active and fully financed research department. We make this appeal to all universities, corporations and individuals who consider themselves to be in a position to give support to socially recognised academic establishments.’
Charles McCreery, DPhil

* Arthur Seldon, The Great Pensions Swindle, Tom Stacey Books, London, 1970. Arthur Seldon CBE was joint founder president, with Ralph Harris, of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a free-market think tank.