Are 401ks and IRAs Safe?

There is a legitimate argument to be made that 401k plans, IRAs, and other retirement plans are not safe.  In saying the word “safe”, I am not talking about the threat of financial institutions going bankrupt or the threat of a stock market collapse, although those may be legitimate threats too.  When I say “safe”, I am talking about safe from government confiscation.

I go back and forth on this issue.  I think the government would love to get its dirty mitts on retirement accounts.  Governments are in “need” of money and it is only going to get worse.  Politicians will do almost anything they can get away with.  While it has been tried in other countries and even been partially successful (from the government point of view), I think it is less likely in the U.S.

In the U.S. there is a lot of wealth being held in retirement accounts such as 401k plans and IRAs.  While this makes it a big target for governments, it also adds a layer of protection.  With tens of millions of Americans in 401k plans, it means that there will be fierce opposition to any government attempt at confiscation.

The only way that the U.S. government will be successful in confiscating retirement funds is by doing it in baby steps.  Isn’t that the way we have turned into a virtual welfare state?  It is the story of putting a frog in boiling water.  If you don’t want the frog to jump out, you have to slowly heat up the water.

There are a number of measures the U.S. government can take to start heating up the water, even if slowly.  These are just a few ideas.  The politicians could raise the minimum age for withdrawal without a penalty.  The politicians could increase the penalty for an early withdrawal.  The politicians could simply increase the income tax rates.  This will mean people paying higher taxes upon withdrawal, except for those in a ROTH IRA or ROTH 401k plan.

Another step the government could take would be to offer “government guaranteed investments”.  After a stock market crash, the politicians could announce a new government fund designed for a safe and secure retirement.  They would “invest” the money in U.S. treasury bonds.  This would allow them to kick the can further down the road in terms of running up spending and debt.  It would be a way to do this without relying on the Fed for massive monetary inflation.

Such a program of offering a government guaranteed investment would probably be voluntary at first.  Again, you don’t want to heat up the water too fast.  After the voluntary program, perhaps the government would start offering tax incentives for people to invest in the government funds.  Again, I have no idea how exactly things could play out, but I am just throwing out some possible ideas.  If you think some politician is going to steal an idea here, don’t worry, because I’m sure the politicians are already thinking about all of this.

The good news is that we have the internet.  When the government tries one of these preliminary steps, there will be people like me talking about them and warning others.  There are hundreds of thousands of libertarians now in existence in America.  Perhaps the number is in the millions.  Most of these people have friends, particularly on Facebook.  It will be hard for the government to get away with a retirement confiscation.

If for some reason the current libertarian swell and the internet are not enough to stop the government, you will at least get plenty of warning signs ahead of time.  The government will not throw the American people into a boiling pot.  It will start slowly.

2 thoughts on “Are 401ks and IRAs Safe?”

  1. I’m a radical libertarian and am always seeking ways to cut my taxes. I’m in my 50s and hope to work at least another seventeen years when I’m 70. I converted a good amount of my traditional IRAs to Roths in 2010. The conversion opportunity is extended to the end of 2012. I decided to convert the rest of my traditional IRAs to Roths. However I will keep my 401k. My rate of Roths to 401k will be 60/40. But eventually I will contribute more to my 401k and will also do post tax traditional IRAs so that the I will probably end up more in pre tax than in Roths.

    One thing you did not mention is the amount you converted to Roths can be pulled out after five years. If congress makes a radical move or even a small move that is very annoying, the Roth investor will quickly take out that principle.

    If we get a Ron Paul revolution then the Roth conversion would be a waste. I do hope my Roth conversion will be a wasted effort if it is the price to pay to overturn the 16th amendment!

  2. There is an advantage with a ROTH because it is easier to pull money out without penalty. However, you can pull money out of an IRA right away too. The downside is that you would owe a penalty (if not old enough).

    It is quite possible that the government could pass legislation that would increase the penalty for an early withdrawal, including starting a penalty for ROTHs.

    It is difficult to say what will happen. I hope there will be some major backlash if it is ever seriously tried because so many Americans today have IRAs and 401ks.

    While I’m optimistic for the long-term future, I am not counting on an overturn of the 16th amendment any time soon, so I wouldn’t let that affect your investment strategy.

    I would definitely recommend having some investments outside of retirement accounts.

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