The Social Security Fable
No, it was never intended to be an “insurance” program.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt


Andrew C. McCarthy

A final point. After a touching disquisition on the need for “serious and respectful” public discourse, Radosh dismisses my column as “a child’s temper tantrum.” He borrows this phrase from Steve Hayward’s very fine introduction to Voegeli’s Never Enough, thus demonstrating that Ron does not grasp Steve’s point any better than he grasped my column. Steve referred to some on the right — mostly “doctrinaire libertarians” — who’ve complained over the years about the “injustice” of the welfare state, as having the notion that

it is wrong in principle to take from one person to give to another. When private citizens do this, it is called “theft,” but when government does it, it’s called a “transfer payment,” “income security,” or some other euphemism. 

Whatever logical appeal this complaint may have, Americans, including the vast majority of conservatives, do not categorically oppose welfare programs. They subscribe to Samuel Johnson’s epigram: “A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.” It is, then, akin to a child’s temper tantrum to denounce the welfare state ever louder in the expectation that this will change the public’s mind about the propriety of welfare in principle — that was Steve’s contention.


He’s quite right, and a fair reading of my column would not suggest that I disagree. My argument is not materially different from Voegeli’s contention that conservatives’ only hope to limit the welfare state is (to quote Hayward) “to overcome their categorical opposition to it.” I argued that the Constitution frowns on a federal welfare state but allows the states to have welfare programs as robust as they are willing and able to pay for. As I said in the column, quite apart from the principle that the Constitution must guide us (that, after all, is what it is for), it also in this instance produces the best policy: welfare programs conceived and administered by the communities affected by them, under budgetary disciplines that do not exist at the federal level.

Still, I was not so daft as to make the perfect the enemy of the good. If we are going to have a federal welfare state, I contended, it ought to be in the form of straight, transparent welfare programs: i.e., we define those we are agreeing to help with exactitude, then — in the light of day, and without Ponzi-scheme “insurance” chicanery and the like — we raise the necessary taxes to pay for the program, within the budget and without saddling future generations with deficit-spending interest. This would force the afore-described confrontation Voegeli indicts liberals for evading: How much welfare state are we willing to pay for — with the understanding that we have to pay for it now?

Perhaps Ron Radosh thinks this is a fool’s errand, although given his professed admiration for Voegeli’s work, one would doubt that. Or maybe he just thinks it is a pipedream to envision (a) a dramatically overhauled, transparent, finite 21st-century federal welfare state that replaces today’s Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; or (b) a populace that comes to the realization that welfare is best left to the states — an arrangement under which welfare would work better and the federal government would better perform its proper responsibilities.

For myself, I look at the entitlement state’s suicidal debt spiral, realize that it will collapse of its own weight if not radically restructured, and conclude that it is Ron who is dreaming if he believes that what cannot continue will somehow continue.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy.