People gather at a rally supporting Social Security.

Protesters gather with signs reading, “Hands off our Social Security.”

(Photo: Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for MoveOn)

Social Security Embodies the True Meaning of Liberty

The original vision behind the program, which turned 88 this week, is a vision of freedom, justice, and security for each, and for all.

The United States Declaration of Independence describes liberty as a fundamental and “self-evident” human right. Unfortunately, the word has been usurped by the political right, which frames it as the freedom of the powerful to exploit and abuse others without restraint. As someone once said (or as I’ve misremembered it), “The rich man is as free to cross a bridge in a carriage as the poor man is to sleep under it.”

That’s their definition of liberty. But Social Security, whose 88th “birthday” took place this week, offers some insight into a broader definition of liberty. The phrase itself–“Social Security”–contains the seeds of a broader and more profound liberty for both individuals and communities.

Each word in that name carries meaning. To call it “Social Security” is to emphasize what it does for individuals. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Congress in June of 1934, “Among our objectives I place the security of the men, women, and children of the nation first.” Financial insecurity makes it impossible to pursue “life, liberty, and happiness,” or the other rights promised in the Declaration of Independence.

Tragically, the broader vision of Social Security as a form of liberty has been lost. Instead, working people have once again been “gradually regimented into the service of the privileged few.”

The word “social” emphasizes the concept’s broader goals. As Roosevelt said in the same speech, “there can be no security for the individual in the midst of general insecurity.” There can be no security for the individual in an unjust and unstable economic system, and society’s stability and harmony are threatened when large numbers of people suffer financial hardship. Security for the one and security for the many form a seamless whole; one can’t exist without the other.

That’s why Roosevelt presented Social Security as a vision, not merely a set of policy prescriptions. Social Security was created as many nations were making the transition from agrarian to industrial economies, bringing profits for the few and challenges for the many. Shrewdly, Roosevelt framed his response to this transition in distinctly American terms, as an extension of longstanding values. Roosevelt said in 1938:

As the nation has developed, as invention, industry, and commerce have grown more complex, the hazards of life have become more complex. Among an increasing host of fellow citizens, among the often-intangible forces of giant industry, man has discovered that his individual strength and wits were no longer enough... Where heretofore men had turned to neighbors for help and advice, they now turned to Government.

Roosevelt framed his social programs, not as a challenge to American ideals of liberty, but as a refinement of them, saying in a 1934 “fireside chat”:

I am not for a return to that definition of Liberty under which for many years a free people were being gradually regimented into the service of the privileged few. I prefer and I am sure you prefer that broader definition of Liberty under which we are moving forward to greater freedom, to greater security for the average man than he has ever known before in the history of America.

This is liberty, not as billionaire-funded politicians or media define it, but as a fundamental right. It includes freedom from the corporate totalitarianism that increasingly grips working life—from the bosses who track and sometimes censor workers on social media, from timed work breaks, from shifts that are changed without notice, and from the hundreds of other insults to dignity and liberty that working people suffer every day. It’s the freedom to receive medical care when you and your doctor decide it’s needed, not when corporate bureaucrats give you permission. It’s freedom from the constant state of precarity that plagues most of working America.

That security was never meant to be limited to one or two programs, like retirement security and disability insurance, as important as they are. It was envisioned as a comprehensive program of financial security for all. Even in its original form, Social Security included unemployment compensation, aid to dependent children, and services for the protection and care of homeless, neglected, and disabled children.

The original Social Security bill also included federal aid to state and local public health agencies and an expansion of the Federal Public Health Service. While it did not include national health insurance—“at this time,” to use Roosevelt’s words—that was clearly part of the overall goal of achieving comprehensive individual security for all. Roosevelt convened a National Health Conference in 1938, and the Senate Subcommittee on Health and Labor conducted hearings on the topic, “To Establish a National Health Program,” in April and May of 1939.

Sen. Robert Wagner’s (D-N.Y.) 1939 National Health Act would have provided the states with federal funding for a variety of uses, including “prefunded health plans.” The bill faced heavy resistance from special interest groups, including the American Medical Association, and failed to pass. Still, FDR and his allies remained hopeful. I suspect they would be astonished, as well as disappointed, to discover that we still don’t have national health insurance 88 years later.

Tragically, the broader vision of Social Security as a form of liberty has been lost. Instead, working people have once again been “gradually regimented into the service of the privileged few.”

Roosevelt had been fine-tuning this vision since at least 1912, when as a state senator he spoke to a gathering called the People’s Forum in Troy, New York. As historian Harvey J. Kaye notes, it was there that the future president began to identify what he called a “new theory of the liberty of the community rather than liberty of the individual.” FDR used the exploitation of New York state’s forests as an example, saying, “it is necessary for our health and happiness (and) the rights of individuals that the lumber companies not do what they please with the wooded growths...”

And Roosevelt went further, calling for a planned economy as another form of liberty. “There is,” Roosevelt added, ”no valid reason why the food supply of the nation should not be put on the most economical and at the same time the most productive basis by carrying out co-operation.”

This is an important point. State and local communities, and the national community, should have the freedom to choose how their economies are managed. Instead, our political system has increasingly come under the sway of wealthy and powerful interests. States block the self-determination of progressive cities. Dark money buys congressional seats. The undemocratic Senate, a relic of slavery, thwarts the people’s will. Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies and other corporations destroy the air, water, and livelihoods that people depend on for their survival.

That’s an infringement, not just on democracy, but on liberty itself. A truly free society would have greater rights to unionize, to regulate, to break up big banks and mega-corporations, and determine the working lives of its members in a more democratic fashion.

“Precarity” is the opposite of “security.” But working life has become more precarious in recent decades, not less, as unions have grown weaker, voting rights have been undermined, and the gig economy swallows more of the country’s labor force. Precarity increases when social bonds are weakened and when the political system is unresponsive to the needs and wants of the many. That’s why those two words—“social security”—are inseparable.

When Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act of 1935, he said it was “a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.” He later articulated the Four Freedoms and his Economic Bill of Rights, both of which built on the idea that real liberty and economic justice are inseparable. These ideas are not un-American. Like Social Security, they are at the heart of this country’s self-professed ideals.

As Roosevelt said:

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... we must still look to the larger future. I have pointed out to the Congress that we are seeking to find the way once more to well-known, long-established but to some degree forgotten ideals and values. We seek the security of the men, women, and children of the Nation.

That’s the vision of Social Security: a vision of liberty, justice, and security for each, and for all. It’s a vision that calls us to exercise our imaginations and our will, now and in the future. It is a vision, not only of security, but of liberty.

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