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Social Security - March to Social Equality:
Political Science Analysis


Published Dec 17th, 2012    By Nikita Chirkov

When asked about the question of a regressive payroll tax, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously answered: “Those taxes were never a problem of economics. They are politics all the way through. We put those payroll taxes there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program” (Roosevelt 1934). Roosevelt was correct in this respect; not in the sense that “those taxes were never a problem of economics” but in the sense that “no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.” Many have tried, and many are trying – but no one has been able to achieve it yet. Today, social security is widely regarded as the most monumental step toward social equality. Many presidents after Roosevelt have used this program to further expand the arm of the federal government to new levels. When signing the Medicare Bill, Johnson said “In 1935, when…Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, he said it was, and I quote him, ‘a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but it is by no means complete.’ Well, perhaps no single act in the entire administration of the beloved Franklin D. Roosevelt really did the laying of that cornerstone…And those who share this day will also be remembered for making the most important addition to that structure, and you are making it in this bill, the most important addition that has been made in three decades” (Johnson 1965).

The analysis of the Social Security program will therefore become the primary focus of this work, and will be further divided into three specific areas: the first will concentrate on whether or not this legal justification of social equality has any legitimate constitutional roots; the second will answer as to how exactly the program was successfully passed and justified in court; and the third and final area will focus on the effects of the program and its mentality on some of the most fundamental principles of our government. In addition to these three areas of analysis, I also propose a critical thesis of the Social Security program, and contend that it is constitutionally unprecedented, politically deceiving and a structurally destructive law. The evidence to the latter will be largely revealed throughout the course of an essay, particularly upon conclusions of each analytical sector; for the goal of this work is to mainly conduct an analytical, not rhetorically persuasive inquiry.

What is Social Security? Or rather what was Social Security? After all, what the program was then and what the program is now are two drastically different things. The Social Security program was designed to be a federal pension fund and provide certain old age benefits to those who qualified. The Social Security legislation came as an advice to Roosevelt by the Committee on Economic Security designed to combat the “debilitating effects of the Depression” (Levin 2009, p.97). The justification for the program was simple. According to Roosevelt, “[Economic] security was attained in the earlier days through the interdependence of members of families upon each other and of the families within a small community upon each other. The complexities of great communities and of organized industry make less real these simple means of security. Therefore, we are compelled to employ the active interest of a Nation as a whole through government in order to encourage a greater security for each individual who composes it. …This seeking for a greater measure of welfare and happiness does not indicate a change in values. It is rather a return to values lost in the course of our economic development and expansion” (Roosevelt 1934). The strategy of Roosevelt to justify Social Security is rather interesting and clever, for it closely mirrors an observation which our Founders and Framers made while taking it out of context. When commenting the nature of man, government, and society, Thomas Paine wrote that when an individual leaves the state of nature “he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest” (Paine 1776, p.5). However, Paine was talking about leaving the natural state of perfect freedom and forming into a larger group of united citizens, not an unprecedented expansion of the federal power beyond its finite limitations.

There is, therefore, nothing but a simple verbal resemblance between Roosevelt’s message and that of our Founders, and it holds no further practical or institutional justification for the program. However, is there anything else in writings of the Framers which could provide a platform for this program and the mentality from which it originates? In order to answer this question, we must first understand the philosophic goal of Social Security which is equality of economic outcomes. In Roosevelt’s view, those who are elderly or unemployed had to have an equal economic standing to the rest of the society. He reasoned that it was in everyone’s interest to support this program in order to achieve the first step toward equality of economic outcomes. However, there is one small question which must be asked when reviewing this goal; that is – is this a constitutional exercise of government power?

The answer is found in Federalist 10. When discussing the nature of factions which originate from the diversity of opinions, James Madison explained that “There are two methods of curing the mischief’s of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects…There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests” (Madison 1787, p. 73). In other words, in order to deal with faction we can remove its causes through eliminating liberty, or through creating social equality by forcing same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests. Both of these expedients were rejected by the Framers: “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency. The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed” (Madison 1787, p. 73).

Therefore, it becomes very clear that the Constitution does not provide a legal base for a program which seeks to equalize economic outcomes in the name of social equality. Not only does this foundation not exist, but it is rejected and dismissed as “impracticable”. Moreover, this argument in Federalist 10 is not only philosophical, but also legal. The Federalist papers are, after all, a legitimate collection of documents which have, are, and will be used as bases of judicial argument and constitutional interpretation. They thus hold an extra power over a simple philosophical argument elsewhere, and must be viewed with extra attention and importance.

Now that we have fully examined the question of constitutional foundation in respect to social equality, it is time to move to the second area of analysis. A logical question, following the latter explanation of constitutional dismissal of social equality, may rightfully ask how exactly did this program get passed by the legislature, and later justified by the court who’s duty it is to uphold the constitutional principles? In respect to the passage in the legislature, the answer is simple. The social atmosphere during the great depression created a strong demand for some major reform which in turn allowed Roosevelt to push through major legislation despite some very critical arguments against it. The question of being justified as “constitutional” in court, however, is a subject which requires a little more attention.

The legal battles over Social Security and many other New Deal programs were actually much more political, than they were legal. In 1935, The Supreme Court decision Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States gave a massive blow to Roosevelt, declaring National Industrial Recovery Act and the Frazier-Lemke Farm Bankruptcy Act, some of the key components of the New Deal, unconstitutional. In 1936, United States v. Butler voided yet another vital law - Agricultural Adjustment Act. Later the same year, the court has also struck down the Guffey Coal Act, and the Municipal Bankruptcy Act. Angered by all this resistance in the courts, Roosevelt decided to fight back against the Constitution upholding branch. Right after his reelection in 1936, Roosevelt “abruptly asked Congress to enact a bill empowering him to appoint one additional Justice for every one who turned 70 and did not retire, for a maximum of six, thus enlarging the Supreme Court from nine Justices to up to fifteen” (Attarian 2003). This proved a massive threat to the judiciary and its independence from Roosevelt’s political positions, and court has slowly begun to reverse course. Then came Helvering v. Davis and the question of the constitutionality of Social Security. In this court case, the justices were faced with two options. They could either strike the law down while facing the wrath of the public and Congress who would provide a bigger support for Roosevelt’s court packing proposition; or they could uphold the law as constitutional. Needless to say, the courts went with the second option. In this sense, it could be concluded that the Court has lost its independency, and became influenced by the legislature and the executive.

However, it is the contradiction in presentation of Social Security which was the truly shocking element of the entire scenario. Mark Levin, a constitutional attorney and a talk show host, explains: “Therefore, while Roosevelt was insisting to the public that Social Security was an insurance program based on segregated funds and earned benefits, his lawyers were in Court insisting that it was no such thing – and the Supreme Court played along and betrayed the Constitution” (Levin 2009, p. 101). In other words, even in this respect Roosevelt was motivated by purely political means and decided not to anger the public by calling the program a tax, while doing everything possible to win in the lawsuit.

Lastly, it is time to move to the third and final area of analysis, that is, the effects of the program and its mentality on some of the most fundamental principles of our government. As has been previously mentioned, the independency of the judiciary has been brilliantly offset by Roosevelt’s political pressure to pack the courts. However, this was only a temporary effect of the Social Security program which primarily only secured its legality. Another effect, perhaps more influential and long lasting, lies in the fact that by legally forcing the people to contribute to the program, the federal government assumes upon itself the power which was previously reserved “exclusively” to the states. In simpler terms, the Social Security law made a massive blow to Federalism. Whether or not we believe that the states would be effective or ineffective at running the programs like Social Security is irrelevant – what is relevant is whether or not they were structurally designed to do so.

There are many sources which can be used to explain the above claim, one of which is letter written by George Washington titled “Circular to the States”. In this letter, Washington explains the importance of creating a stronger union and urges for a creation of arguably the first American social program under the Constitution: “…I cannot omit to mention the obligations this Country is under, to that meritorious Class of veteran Non-Commissioned Officers and Privates who have been discharged for inability…on an annual pension for life, their peculiar sufferings, their singular Merits and claims to that provision, need only be known, to interest all the feelings of humanity in their behalf; nothing but a punctual payment of their annual allowance, can rescue them from the most complicated misery…” (Sheehan, et al., 1998, p. 20).

The important detail, however, lies in the intended audience of Washington. He was not writing this letter of persuasion to the federal legislature, but was rather urging for its adoption on the state level: “…suffer me to recommend those of this discription, belonging to your State, to the warmest patronage of your Excellency and your Legislature” (Sheehan, et al., 1998, p. 20). What this letter does prove and demonstrate is the fact that the Framers clearly intended social experimentation to be done on a state, not federal level; Social Security, therefore, is no exception.

            This alone is perhaps the greatest institutional concern over the Social Security program which has expanded drastically since it was first adopted. For example, Social Security went from providing an estimate of 220,000 people in 1940, to about 47 million in 2004, and is expected to cover 84 million by 2030 (Social Security Administration 2000). Undoubtedly, most of the increase in Social Security users comes largely through its expansion and incorporation of other programs like Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare bill. A perfect start indeed - but where is the finish?

            In conclusion, this work has examined the three areas of analysis relating to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Social Security program and its philosophic foundation while further concluding that: first, the fact that the equality of economic interests and outcomes is not a constitutional concern of the federal government, and that it thus gives no constitutional support for the program and makes it unprecedented; second, the passage of the program in the legislature and its survival in court came largely through political pressure of the executive which deceived the public; and third, the program replaces some of the most vital components of Federalism while continuing to grow without feasible limit. Therefore, based on the latter conclusions, the thesis of this work which states that Social Security: “is constitutionally unprecedented, politically deceiving and a structurally destructive law” has been successfully evaluated and fully proven. However, it is now up to the reader to make good use of these conclusions and make their own decision to either recognize the negative aspects of the program and challenge its constitutionality, or continue the march in the same direction.






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