Home / David W. Cooney / Practical Distributism: Subsidiarity and Social Security


Distributism includes the principal of subsidiarity, the idea that the family is the basic unit of society and higher levels of societal organization (city, county, state, federal) exist to support the lower levels without the authority to usurp their roles and rights. The higher the level of societal organization (government), the lower its scope of responsibility and authority. When seeking to address a need within society, distributists do not automatically run to the highest level of government as seems to be the prevalent view of much of today’s society. Instead, we look at the need, and try to determine the lowest level of society that can sufficiently address it.

In the current debates among Republicans seeking their party’s nomination to be its presidential candidate in 2012, the issue of the U.S. Social Security system has become a hot topic. One would expect that, in a Party constantly touting adherence to the original principles of the United States Constitution, the candidates would apply those principles to such a topic and come up with a method of conforming to them in a responsible manner. However, any candidate who makes the mistake of doing so will find himself under attack for political expediency by his opponents. Even the political pundits who proclaim their ‘conservative’ credentials join in the attack. Why? I believe it is because they lack a true philosophical foundation to give them the fortitude to stand for what they claim to believe. They perceive that advocating any real change to the Social Security system is a guarantee of losing the election – and, for them, winning is more important than being true to one’s core beliefs.

The issue of what to do about Social Security is one for which conservatives and libertarians could actually agree with distributists. Our reasons for agreement may not be exactly the same, but our adherence to the principle of subsidiarity is similar to their calls for “smaller government” and some of the original principles of the Constitution. However, I will not attempt to explain their motives for wanting smaller government. This site is dedicated to explaining Distributism and its motives for its positions.

When distributists examine any societal issue that needs to be addressed, the principle of subsidiarity should automatically kick in. There is a need. What is the lowest level of society that can sufficiently address that need and to what extent (and in what way) should higher levels of society assist? There are two societal issues that Social Security attempts to address. The first is how to prepare for that time when one has retired from working for a living. The second is how to provide for those whose preparations do not adequately meet their needs.

What level of society would logically have the responsibility of planning for retirement? At what level would we look for understanding the needs and wants of a particular family or individual in those later years of life? What level best understands and can plan around their current resources for meeting those long-term retirement goals? The answer to all of these questions is the family or individual. It is their proper role and their responsibility.

Life, however, does not always work out the way we plan, sometimes because of circumstances beyond our control, and sometimes because our plans are inadequate. On what level of society should we rely for assistance in such circumstances? This is where work retirement plans, assistance from extended family, and assistance from religious and other social organizations come in. These are much better situated to understand the different needs and considerations of those for whom they provide assistance. Therefore, it is more reasonable to rely primarily on these organizations for those who end up without adequate resources in their retirement than to rely on high levels of government.

The next question we must address is if there is a practical and responsible way to get from the system of Social Security currently in place to what should be the norm for our society. There are those who mistakenly refer to the U.S. Social Security system as an ‘entitlement’ program. The reality is that the current recipients have paid for the benefits they are now receiving. They paid for it through mandatory payroll deductions throughout their working lives. There is a moral obligation to deliver the promised benefit for which they have paid. That same obligation exists for those who are still working, but who are near enough to retirement that they no longer have adequate time to plan out an alternate retirement program. Therefore, any plan for eliminating the Social Security system currently in place which does not adequately fulfill those obligations would be unjust and must be rejected.

What about those who are in the early years of their working lives, those who still have adequate time to implement an alternate plan for retirement? Payments have already been made toward their Social Security. Therefore, a policy discussion should be had to choose between allowing them to continue in that system, and handing them all contributions made to their Social Security account so that they may utilize those funds for their own plans. Either of these options would be a practical and responsible way to handle those situations. The above actions would also allow adequate time for those alternate sources of assistance to get ready to provide that assistance to those in need.


About the author: David W. Cooney


David W. Cooney serves on the Editorial Board of The Distributist Review. His articles have appeared in Gilbert Magazine and he has also contributed to The Hound of Distributism, a book of various authors. Originally from Southern California, he now lives with his wife and two children in Western Washington state where he works as a network administrator.


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  2. You’d like to replace Social Security with “work retirement plans, assistance from extended family, and assistance from religious and other social organizations”. Well for the last couple of years my 401K has taken a helluva beating, and with an estimated 3/4’s of a million people homeless in the US I’d say the family/religious/social organization solution isn’t finding much success in keeping people out of poverty, much less off the streets. Social Security keeps 13 million elderly Americans and over a million kids out of poverty now, today. Until your solution can do better then your “practical” distributism isn’t practical and I’m not sure it’s even distributism as I understand it. You use subsidiarity as the sole arbiter of deciding whether or not Social Security is “distributist”, but you can’t have the yin of subsidiarity, abandon the yang of solidarity and still call yourself a distributist. Your solution smacks of the social privatism the Holy Father warned us about.

  3. I agree with Mihi. There is nothing wrong with SS, it just needs to be funded correctly. Staying in SS was one of the options, correct.

  4. Mihi and Steve,

    You seem to be confusing a particular need for the current economic situation with the general need for retirement planning mandated and enforced by the highest level of government in the land. My article does not, in any way, forbid other levels of society from coming to aid people in times of extrordinary need. Indeed, such a thing is certainly included in the notion of subdidiarity – and therefore Distributism. However, the lower levels of government would have the greater role in resolving these issues rather than a single one-size-supposedly-fits-all approach currently mandated by the federal government. Even this does not eliminate the possibility of federal assistance in times of dire nation-wide need. Therefore, what I am suggesting in regards to retirement and Social Security are certainly not the sort of social privatism about which the Holy Father warns, or are you suggesting that the Holy Father has abandoned the Church’s consistent teaching of subsidiarity and now advocates that the highest level of government actually usurps and assumes the functions that are naturally the function of lower levels of society?

    You also seem to be assuming that all work retirement plans under Distributism must follow the same follies as we are currently forced to endure under our current situation, namely the company investing your retirement in the market. That is not necessarily the case. Also consider that the nature of the “market” itself would be extremely different, and certainly less volatile under Distributism. As far as the family/religious/social organization solution not doing any good in the US at present, I think you must not be paying attention to what is in fact going on throughout society today. You seem to be suggesting that the fact that so many people remain jobless indicates that these levels of society are useless in assisting people in need. It is the policies of big government, supporting the failed policies of the big banks and businesses, that are keeping so many unemployed. The truth is that the jobless rate has the same effect on government as it does to other organizations that provide assistance to those in need. These other levels of societal organizations are precisely why the situation is not much much worse. The day-to-day assistance provided by family, friends, religious and other social organizations are precisely how a great many of the unemployed in this country are getting by in these hard times while the government has handed over $1 billion to big banks and big businesses.

    Keep in mind that Social Security was devised as a “security blanket” for a society whose economy is perpetually tied to a financial model of usurious investment speculation. Anything placed in the stock market is being gambled. Should we really be gambling with our retirement, or should gambling only be done with that which we can actually afford to lose? Exactly why should our retirement be entrusted to such a volatile institution? Why should it be entrusted to the care and keeping of corrupt politicians who raid the trust fund, requiring a troubled government to go further into debt to make the payments?

    Lastly, you are using the current economic crisis to attack my points about a retirement program being mandated by the highest level of government in the land even on those who do not invest in the market and who do not wish to have their retirement invested there. However, Social Security is not simply in effect during times of economic crisis. It is mandated all of the time. This attack is especially laughable since the government has spent the money from that so-called trust fund, leaving a bunch of IOUs for which it must now go into further debt to banks in order to cover the payments. Add to that the fact that the government continues to focus on big banks and big businesses rather than the plight of the common citizen. Even outside of these facts, we are talking about the highest level of government ordering you, and forcing you, to plan at least part of your retirement through it. So, without endorsing the idea, I have to ask why that is defensible against the notion that the state or even lower levels of government doing so, and why would we deride the real assistance provided by other levels of society in order to justify the actions of the highest level?

  5. You have brought up an important question.

    Steve and Mihi,
    “Social Security” was only necessary because of the destruction of an ownership society by industrialism in the 20th Century. That said, it was a reasonable response to a real problem at the time. It was perverted by the change from solely retirement benefits to “disability”. There is now an entire class in our nation that strives to become legally disabled in order to permanently receive benefits.

    From the vantage of subsidiarity, I have seen substantial evidence in rural Pennsylvania that 100 years ago, County Government was once the dispenser of charity. Many Counties built homes for the aged, and even gave cash subsidies to widows. Without Federal interference, they could make face to face determinations of whether the recipient of charity was in genuine need or a “sturdy beggar”. I am sure the system had flaws, but I think it warrants a revisit today.

    Second, an ownership society should provide for retirement by means of passing farms and small businesses to the next generation in a manner that is affordable for the young buyer while creating a nest egg for the aged seller. I have seen many family businesses close because a potential young buyer could not afford both the mortgage AND working capital to live. Inheritance taxes should differentiate between a farm or storefront and stocks and bonds by not overtaxing the former.

  6. Whenever the Holy Father discusses subsidiarity he is also careful to address solidarity as well. The two principles are “mutually supportive and interdependent.” So to my mind if you’re going to look at Social Security with distributist eyes then you can’t simply attack it using subsidiarity alone.

    What’s more I can’t decide whether you are proposing the elimination of Social Security in our current society (simply because it violates subsidiarity) or in some future society ordered strictly to distibutist principles. You seem to espouse the former in your article but in your reply you hint at the latter by talking about (currently unrealized) “work retirement plans under Distributism.” If you intend the latter then I agree that Social Security in its present form and scale would likely not exist. If however you do intend the former then I’ll stick with my argument.

    Social Security was created to address a particular problem, and if the program is large then it is indicative of the scale of the problem it was created to address. And since it is funded through taxation it must necessarily be a government program. So yeah, it’s “big government.” The biggest, in fact. But if you’re going to rail against big government in our society then you need to put forth viable alternatives, and the alternatives to Social Security you extend as viable are “work retirement plans, assistance from extended family, and assistance from religious and other social organizations”. These days a “work retirement plan” for most people means a 401K. And not to diminish the role of religious and other social organizations, but to propose that they can effectively fill the gap created by removing a social program that currently comprises about 20% of the federal budget is, I think, unrealistic and impractical. And while charitable organizations certainly play a critical, necessary role, it is Social Security that is by and large the reason why the situation is not much, much worse.

    Your problem with Social Security seems to stem from the “highest level of government ordering you, and forcing you, to plan at least part of your retirement through it.” Does this concern extend to the highest level of government ordering and forcing you to pay for, say, the common defense? Maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges here but keeping its citizens out of poverty is certainly a concern proper to the state (as well as other organizations including the Church), and if the chosen, public embodiment of that concern happens to be a social program imperfect but successful at keeping tens of millions of people out of poverty, then frankly I’m ok with it until either the problem is eliminated or a better solution is found.

    Finally, your statement that “the government has spent the money from the so-called trust fund, leaving a bunch of IOUs for which it must now go into further debt to banks in order to cover the payments” needs to be addressed. First off, any borrowing that has occurred of the trust funds is not a reflection of the Social Security program itself but of the craven politicians we elect to manage the program, and as with any other federal obligation the federal government’s ability to repay Social Security is based on the power to tax and the commitment of the Congress to meet its obligations. Blame Congress, not the piggy bank they broke into. Secondly this debt is in the form of special issue government bonds. This is not debt to banks. This is government debt owed to Social Security. Thirdly, the trust funds have $2.6 trillion of assets right now and are projected to show net growth until 2024, and are not forecast to be depleted until 2037. But in 2011 this is a front-burner election issue. In my opinion there are more pressing issues to debate.

  7. Mr. Cooney, I respectfully disagree with one of your fundamental premises. You state that it would be unjust to deny the services guaranteed to the current retirement generation because they have paid for such services throughout their life via income deductions, and state that therefore there is a moral obligation to pay out what has been promised. What you miss is the fact that the retirement generation had a moral obligation to hold their leaders accountable when Social Security was crafted and in the following years. They failed in their obligation to hold Congress accountable at the time when it mattered most, and now if/when their benefits are reduced they will receive little more than justly deserved recourse for failing to act as informed citizens should. Should benefits be reduced, social justice will indeed be alive and well; not dead or dying.

  8. Mihi, Your latest comment requires a bit more time for a response than I have at this moment. I will do my best to respond later today.
    Andromedus, According to your reasoning, those who never supported Social Security should be denied their full benefit because of those who did. You may be able to successfully make the argument if you could accurately identify those who actually failed and reduce only their benefits, but you cannot do so with those who desired to bring the system to a responsible end and were out-voted. The latter group was left with no choice in the matter; therefore, denying them the full benefit of the program can only be considered unjust. Additionally, by your reasoning you should also be denied the retrieval of the money that has been placed into the Social Security system “on your behalf.” For, by your reasoning, you (assuming that you are a tax-paying citizen of the U.S.) are part of that failure.

  9. 50% of retirees have social security as their only source of income. Your arguments come full circle to meet and hold hands with Ron & Rand Paul. If your version of distributism is aligned with the philosophy of Ayn Rand and her disciples, you have subordinated Catholicism to something totally alien to Catholic teaching.

  10. Mr. Blake, Whom are you addressing? If it is me, then please explain because I don’t understand how you reach your conclusion.

  11. David,

    In order to make your argument, you would have to show that the generations who did not vote on Social Security, but were simply born into it, ought to be held accountable to a social contract that they also never supported. Since many have been born into an impossible and destructive contract created by a previous generation, it is absurd on its face to suggest that anyone has given a backseat to justice by refusing to honor a contract they never “signed,” or voted for. If Social Security were an age-18 opt-in or opt-out contract, then you would have a leg to stand on, but as is your own argument defeats you.

  12. Mihi,
    Regarding attacking Social Security on the basis of subsidiarity alone and not taking solidarity into account: I can only state that my proposal does not remove any aspect of solidarity. It merely combines it with subsidiarity and seeks to address the problem at a level that is consistent with both. I’m sorry, but if you’re going to make a Catholic argument invoking the popes, you must take all of those teachings into consideration. I may be misinterpreting you, but you seem to be arguing that solidarity trumps subsidiarity, and I disagree with such an assertion.

    Just because programs like Social Security are funded by taxation, doesn’t mean that the level of government that does the taxing must be the highest in the land. All levels of government possess the power of taxation, so why could government assistance in this area not be spread out and handled at a more local level as subsidiarity requires? The fact that this is a nation-wide issue does not by itself justify the federal government taking on the role instead of each state, or each county, or each city, having their own.

    You make the typical attack that “suggests” that those who oppose the federal government overstepping its Constitutional authority and the principles of subsidiarity in programs like the Social Security must also advocate leaving the nation defenseless by opposing the common defense. I’m sorry, but this is nonsense and you deserve to be called on it. Subsidiarity holds that certain functions and responsibilities are natural to particular levels of society. National defense is naturally the function and responsibility of the highest level of government. Individual retirement plans are not. Additionally, the federal government of the U.S. is constitutionally authorized to provide for the common defense.

    Even if we admit that the scale of the need requires assistance at the national level, subsidiarity requires that the assistance of higher levels never result in usurping that role from the lower ones. Therefore, I would conceed that, when the need requires it, higher levels of government could provide assistance to programs implemented by lower levels of government, but not that it can take over and implement its own programs in their place.

    You expressed confusion about whether or not I’m advocating changes to be started currently, or only after a distributist society has been established. The answer is both. However, we fully understand that the ideal can only be reached through gradual change. You bring up several valid arguments which must be addressed, like the fact that nearly all work-retirement programs are tied up in 401K programs. Yes, as changes are gradually implemented to way programs like Social Security are dispersed and managed, other changes will also need to be gradually made to things like the retirement programs that have put the retirement funds of so many at risk.

    As far as the funds in the Social Security trust fund go, even the government disagrees with you. This is a financial trick that is only possible because IOUs issued by the federal government are considered to be effectively the same as currency – “backed by the full faith and credit” of the government. The $2.6 trillion includes those IOUs because an IOU from the government is considered an asset rather than a liability. However, these IOUs can only be paid to the recipients in the form of currency transactions. Therefore the only way the government can actually pay Social Security recipients is by inflating the currency to cover the IOUs, or to go into debt to do so.

    Lastly, I never blamed the Social Security system for the fact that Congress has raided the funds. My point about this is that we can much more easily hold local officials accountable for such actions than those in the federal government; therefore, we should not blithely entrust such things to them. In this I clearly did exactly what you said I should have done.

  13. To state it differently, there is no “Original Sin” known as Social Security for the American newborn.

  14. Andromedus,
    So, because I never voted for the program, I don’t have any claim on the funds which were taken from me against my will to pay for it? Those who paid into it for their entire working lives and are now dependent on it have no claim to the benefits of the program for which they have paid – EVEN if it was against their own political convictions? That would be a tremendous injustice. The money is rightfully theirs. They earned it – including their employer contributions which were part of their compensation for the work they did.

  15. Andromedus,
    Your “original sin” comment is particularly laughable since all newborns are now required by federal law to be issued a Social Security number.

  16. Mr. Cooney,

    You are correct in that you are not entitled to the money. A contract is entered into by two willing parties or it is an illegal contract. Social Security is unconstitutional and illegal. You may pay a band of criminals for protection form time to time, even against your will, but it doesn’t mean that when they fail to protect your family you have an expectation to sue them for your money back.

    The issuance of a Social Security Number is nothing more than an index key to reference one person so as to avoid confusing them with another. Its original intent was in the receipt and payout of Social Security monies, but what exactly you find laughable is perplexing. A newborn does not enter the world with a social contract thrust upon him by his dead ancestors, at least not in a world proposing freedom as its watchword.

  17. I really don’t get the criticism of Mr. Cooney for this thoughtful article.

    How is the suggestion that a more local level of government being better able to dispense charity with justice Randian?

    If as Mihi says, this was a “big” problem that required a “big” solution, it was because big business created the need in the first place. Why can’t distributed property in the form of land and small businesses become the normal basis for retirement, supplemented by state or local government charity that actually meets local needs?

  18. Subsidiarity is another nugget of scat foisted upon the common man by the jack boot of the socialist welfare queens aka the corporatist oligarchy. These parasites have plundered our common treasure and patrimony and are bonded by a common hatred. Their political musings are rooted in nihilism, racism, fake Christianity, hatred of humanity, insatiable avarice, depredation, and there is nothing Catholic about them.

  19. Mr. Carlon,
    Subsidiarity is not socialist in any way, shape, or form. For someone to claim that a principal consistently taught by the Church, explained and defended most clearly by St. Thomas Aquinas, and reiterated time and time again by the popes, is not Catholic and “fake Christianity” is absurd.

  20. I am rather befuddled by the comments made about this article. I thought it fairly well laid out the matter in accordance with what subsidiarity means. I am also frankly at a loss by what is meant by “solidarity”by some of the critics. The author here clearly admits the subsiduum aspect of subsidiarity, that namely larger entities, e.g. the Federal government, should protect and support these programs as necessary

    Frankly, solidarity seems more evidenced in local communities. I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding when the principle of solidarity is taken to mean “larger groups” when in fact it doesn’t exist except first in the family, local communities and through these larger society. That is how solidarity demands subsidiarity and vice versa

    What befuddle me the most though is this awkward talk about social security being illegal and something about the liberal-enlightenment notion of a social contract. The mere fact that I didn’t have a say does not make me not part of SS or make it illegal, any more than saying that I cannot smoke crack is an illegal law because it was passed before I was born. It would be somewhat a tangent to go into the very error of social-contract theory (which is alien to Catholic thought), but certainly in this form almost all laws and taxes would in fact be illegal. Society would be unworkable. Even Locke recognized that one needed to account for authority in law that extends to the individual regardless of what he thinks. Hence his “dual contract” Society as an entity contracts with the government, individuals with society implicitly by choosing to function in it. Still alien to Catholic though, but at least it has the benefit of being some recognizable to the founding fathers

  21. David Cooney, just a small point: you said that the government gave a billion dollars to big banks and other big businesses. Were you using a “billion” in the European sense of a million million, rather than the American use of that term as a thousand million, or was it just a misprint for “trillion”? A billion dollars is not that much for the Feds to spend on any important matter these days, at least not as we Americans use it.

  22. Andromedus – not all justice is reducible to contractual justice.

    “A newborn does not enter the world with a social contract thrust upon him by his dead ancestors, at least not in a world proposing freedom as its watchword.”

    I find this incompatible with pre-liberal political philosophy or CST.

  23. Viking,
    I mistakenly typed billion instead of trillion. Thanks for catching this as it no small difference.

  24. Andromedus,
    I find your claim that a newborn does not come into the world with a social contract thrust upon him by his ancestors an interesting point. You are presenting this idea as a universal principal, which means that it must apply to all such inherited social constructs. Your apparent position that Social Security is unconstitutional (a position with which I agree, by the way) is neutered by your claim that newborn U.S. citizens are not born with a social contract inherited from their dead ancestors. No U.S. citizen alive today signed the Constitution or voted for its ratification. Therefore, by your own reasoning, it is an invalid social contract. By your own argument, you cannot bind the current members of the U.S. Congress or the U.S. citizens to it. So, since your argument logically nullifies the Constitution, arguing that Social Security is unconstitutional becomes irrelevant. You have dismantled any argument against congressional acts – like Obama’s health care plan – on the grounds of being unconstitutional.

  25. Mr. Cooney et al.,

    My mistake was in my use of the word “social contract,” which is in fact a broader term than I intended. What I meant in reality was an unworkable contract with society – meant it in the specific sense of a literal “contract with society,” not in the vague sense of social contract theory. Social Security is a very specific contractual arrangement regarding the earned monies of citizens, and is really a contract in its literal, everyday form. In terms of social contract theory, however, I do believe that in a just society, those who were unwilling to follow the laws that they were born into ought to be deported and blocked from reentry, rather than having all of their freedoms stripped in prison. Just because a man is born in China does not mean that he deserves to live under social oppression.

  26. I would like to state that in terms of Social Contract Theory, there are actions that are inherently amoral and thus ethically enforceable from birth, as Catholic Teaching agrees with (although not under the same guise). Social Security is not one of them as it does not follow logically from any natural laws regarding ethics or order. I didn’t intend to muddy my point with Social Contract Theory, however, and I’m afraid this diversion derails the discussion unnecessarily.

    I am astounded that some replies indicate the belief that Social Security is a born-into obligation, and that a statement suggesting otherwise is somehow incomprehensible. I will reiterate that if you pay a band of thugs from time to time for protection from harm, and do so against your will, you have no expectation of recuperation for damages should the thugs fail in their protection. An contract entered into by two parties not of their consent is not a legal contract, and thus not enforceable or subject to the demands of justice the way a legal contract would be. It is reasonable to expect punishment for the perpetrators, but it is unreasonable to expect society to pick up the tab for their failed services.

  27. Andromedus; There is however a division between a just and legitimate society and government and an unjust and illegitimate one. An unjust government is in essence not a government at all, but a band of brigands. But whether one owe loyalty to a just, sacred government if one is born and resides there is a different question. I would say the answer is yes. In pre-Renaissance/17th century Christian political thought there were basically two schools of thought, which overlapped somewhat and mirror the decline from the more Intellectual, mystical and Platonic perspective to the more rationalist, discursive Aristotelian one. But in essence the former and the latter are in agreement, except for some heretics like William of Ockham and Marsilius of Padua which the limitations of the Aristotelian perspective allowed to develop, that government(in the Platonic perspective it is not even the state so much as Sacred Monarchy and Empire which is central.) does not in any sense arise or emanate from and get its legitimacy from people. Of course it, in a sense, for the benefit of the people that it exists, but its legitimacy comes from God and th divine order to which all parts of society should conform in their several, appointed roles. In that sense government and society is not a choice, it is not something one can opt out of, it is something we have a duty to obey and a duty to play our rightful part in. The only routes for ‘opting out’ are the legitimate, eremitic and peripatetic pursuits of the hermit, the monk and perhaps the beggar, which in essence carry their own responsibilities and role in society(I would even argue this for the traditional role of the beggar, but that is a different topic.).

    General; David’s solutions fits well within the traditional views of Christian society; it emphasises social responsibility, but while respecting the graded and subsidiarist of the good society.

  28. f it was not clear I meant to spell out that social contract theory , in its early modern and modern incarnations at least, is illegitimate from a traditional Christian viewpoint. Your social obligations are not a choice in any real sense, even in the attenuated sense that Locke et al would have made them

  29. Wessexman, see my posts in which I attempt to point out that Social Contract Theory threatens to derail the argument. I take the blame for this, since I used bad verbiage. In order to show that any discussion of Social Contract Theory applies, one would have to show that Social Security fits into what Social Contract Theory means. However, since many have stated that it has no place in Catholic thought, then there is certainly no reason to discuss it here.

    The important fact is that Social Security represents a contract that a newborn has with the government, and they may not “opt out.” African Americans held a similar contract in America, one that stated that because you are black, you will work as a slave. Such a contract, though real, is unjust, and the refusal to submit to it under nearly any means necessary is in fact justified. Simply because a society has formed a contract with no option to “opt-out,” does not mean that one is breaking a moral or ethical law in refusing to submit to it. This is not the same as saying that a NATURAL social law must be followed to be ethical, because such laws flow from right reason and the fundamental laws governing the interaction of man. But, not every contract imposed on a newborn flows from natural law, and thus not all are ethical (or legal). This does not stray from Catholic teaching.

  30. Why is social security unethical? I know it is a little different in details, but I’m an Englishman temporarily in Australia and both these countries have social welfare systems and few people here suggest that their very existence is unethical. I would say it was a social obligation to keep the poor from ruin.

  31. Charity ceases to become a moral endeavor when it becomes compulsory. It may be true that the poor ought to be kept from ruin, and it may be a noble and just cause, however ends do not justify means. Forcing men to give up their property, even for a noble endeavor, is theft. We believe that wealthy men ought to freely give property in support of the poor, but compulsory charity is not charity. We are taught to cloth the naked, feed the hungry, and teach the ignorant, not to “give money to the poor.” The two are in fact worlds apart in worldview and practical impact, the former being good for all parties, the latter being prone to compulsory giving, misuse of funds, and unintended social consequences. It is neither just nor noble for you to go to a rich man’s house and steal his money to give to your poor neighbor, and it becomes no more just or ethical merely because a government has deemed it legal. You are aware that moral laws and the laws of man don’t always overlap.

  32. It would have been more appropriate for me to have said: “We are taught to cloth the naked, feed the hungry, and teach the ignorant, not to ‘give money to the poor,’ much less to ‘force your neighbor to give money to the poor.'”

  33. We are not talking about charity necessarily. The obligation of society to make sure that some sort of, what is today called, ‘safety net’ exists, need not compete with the individual duty of charity at all, if done rightly. They may however go together well, such as in the Middle Ages when tithes went to religious institutions and much of these went to charitable purposes. Your objection based on property rights would rule out taxation of any kind and is simply based upon an absoluteness of property rights which was not the general view of Christendom and belongs to a later epoch. Rightful taxation is not theft, indeed it is theft to withhold rightful taxation.

    There is a careful balance that must be upheld at all times. No doubt the social democrat, the Fabian and left-liberal go too far, they endanger property rights, which are important and sacrosanct, and make our ethical and social duties far too intertwined with social welfare and the state. However the classical liberal influenced position that makes individual property rights absolute and social obligation only individual and voluntary is a contrary error.

  34. ‘however ends do not justify means. Forcing men to give up their property, even for a noble endeavor, is theft.’. This is incorrect on the face of it and it is ironic you should mention the division of man’s law and God’s law;

    ‘On the contrary, In cases of need all things are common property, so that there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common.

    I answer that, Things which are of human right cannot derogate from natural right or Divine right. Now according to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man’s needs by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man’s needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose [Loc. cit., 2, Objection 3] says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals (Dist. xlvii, can. Sicut ii): “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.”.’ – St.Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica.

  35. Your are confusing forcible charity with all taxation. There is taxation that is distinct from forcible charity, or what you would call a “safety net.” We could argue about its merits in society, but it should not be directly equated with Social Security, for example. Social Security is not a tax in the sense that we think of them in daily life, it is a deduction of pay. In other words, it assumes that the government has a right to its citizens property regardless of their actions and choices. This is much different from a “tax” in the classical sense, and that distinction is critical to understanding its immoral/unnatural character.

    I am not arguing against the virtues of wealthy men who give to poor men. You do well in arguing that rich men have a noble duty to aid the poor. Where you fail is in bridging the gap between virtuous action and a legislated requirement, the neglect of which is punishable by punitive action. With that said, you need to take a closer look at the differences between income taxes and traditional forms of taxation. A large portion of Americans believe income taxes to be unconstitutional (and unethical). In fact, using the Catholic Church’s own definition of Usury, one could probably quite easily argue that income taxation is clear form of Usury of the state.

  36. I believe that the dumb ox is being misrepresented in your application of his argument. In the context which you present it, “inferior things” become essentially utilitarian in nature, going to whomever they may provide the most succor and betterment. Since all goods are essentially transferable into such inferior things via market processes, the only moral pursuit (dictated by natural law) of any business would be to first produce things such as food and shelter (“inferior goods”) before ever pursuing other endeavors. This is because every poor man already has a natural right to any wealth the business creates for itself, and thus the business is bound by natural law to, at the very least, transfer its profited wealth into inferior goods for the purpose of succoring the poor. If such were truly natural law, there could be no market because society would consist only of charitable providers and non-charitable consumers. Capital can not be put towards entrepreneurial pursuits in such a world, and there is no reason to expect human nature to allow such a society of opposing classes (providers and consumers) to exist. And yet, that is exactly the result of Aquinas’ quotation if taken to its logical conclusion. Differences in wealth, so long as poor still existed, would be inherently amoral as per natural law (the wealth belongs to the poor in the form of inferior goods). However, glancing at the Catholic Church, with its large stores of capital that are not being transformed into food and shelter for the poor, it is impossible to argue that the Church’s dogma is in line with your representation of Aquinas’ argument. If it were, the Catholic Church would be morally obligated under natural law to liquidate all of its assets and transform them into inferior goods, which are the rightful property of the poor under natural law.

  37. Andromedus,
    You said, “I will reiterate that if you pay a band of thugs from time to time for protection from harm, and do so against your will, you have no expectation of recuperation for damages should the thugs fail in their protection.”

    Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that this is absolutely correct for the generation that passed Social Security. After all, the principle you are citing is in regards to people who willingly enter into unjust contracts – a contract that is unjust is not enforceable. This principle cannot be successfully applied to the future generations because it does not accurately portray the establishment of the relationship. Those who oppose Social Security today to not “agree” to pay thugs. The simile is more like this.

    If one is robbed by thugs at gun-point, one is entitled to full restitution of what was taken even if those thugs declared the best intentions and a promise of the future return of what was robbed. Social Security contributions are taken from my paycheck and from my employer against my will. Even though they are done for my benefit, I do not wish it. Therefore, justice requires that I am entitled to a full restitution of that which has been stolen. This was the point I made when I said I might be able to agree with your assertion, but only if you could accurately determine those whose contributions are made willingly from those whose are not.

  38. I would say that the problem is not specifically with the term “social contract,” but with the idea that this is a contract at all. The relationship between citizen and government is not a contractual one – at least not from the classical Christian perspective. Justice requires the restoration of that which was unjustly taken, especially if it was taken by force (including force of law – legitimate or not).

  39. Andromedus,
    You are also confusing the issue by equating Social Security with other government assistance programs. The entire charity argument doesn’t apply because the money given to Social Security recipients is not money taxed from other people, but from their own paychecks. The Social Security trust fund is more like a bank wherein we all have our own accounts. Those receiving Social Security checks are simply getting their own money back. This is different than, say, welfare recipients, whose benefits certainly fit your assertion that contributions forcibly made through taxation can not be considered charity.

  40. Your application of any form of contract theory to slavery makes absolutely no sense. I agree that the current generations who never endured slavery are not entitled to further restitution (mainly because those from whom restitution is being extracted are not guilty of the slavery of their ancestors), but to even suggest that this was some sort of contract, any sort of contract, is ludicrous.

  41. Andromedus,
    The “logical conclusion” you assert to the quote from St. Thomas doesn’t follow. As with all Catholic teaching, it must be taken in the context of all other teaching. The teaching itself must also be applied to what it actually says and intends, and what it says is that, when done in need, there is no sin when a poor person steals to fulfill a need. In other words, if a person is starving, there is no sin in stealing food. It does not follow to claim that this means there would never be a difference in wealth throughout society. In fact, such an interpretation is clearly in contradiction with other teachings of St. Thomas.

  42. I was addressing you yesterday (9/28 @ 9:30AM)Mr Cooney. Followers of Ayn Rand & “Rand” Paul could be expected to have difficulty understanding my conclusion. Where do you stand on Ayn Rand and her philosophy of ‘objectivism’? Thank you for your response.

  43. David, to muddy the waters a bit, the recipients of Social Security retirement benefits can be compared to those of AFDC more than you seem to think. Yes, they’re getting their own money back for the first few years, about four, I believe. But the average retire lives for more than a decade after her/his contributions are used up, and yet continues to receive monthly checks until death. This is what largely makes the current debate so lively as to the morality of SS, at least among those who aren’t politicians and so don’t have to regard it as the “third rail”.

  44. Andromedus; Your first post seems to miss the point. Originally you strongly implied that individual private property rights were absolute and taxation was illegitimate. This was clearly incorrect. There are differences between past taxation and modern taxation for social welfare, I agree. Although in essence tithes were not completely different as a large proportion was supposed to go to charity and indeed a lot did go to such purposes. However why that makes it automatically unethical I’m not sure. It might be unwise but I’m just not getting how it is necessarily unjust.

    Also I was only talking about a ‘safety net’, and by that I really do mean a strict ‘safety net’. I’m certainly not simply talking about the government taking over charity. Indeed it is not so much charity that I have in mind as maintaining a basic level of social order and cohesion.

    The quote from the Angelic Doctor, and even more importantly in my opinion – St.Ambrose of Milan, was simply to show that in traditional Christian thought private property, while essential, is not absolute. There are purposes, including clearly dire need, where it may legitimately be taken. As David points out your interpretation is dubious; St.Thomas simply does not suggest inferior things just should be arranged to give everyone equal income. He simply says the poor in dire need are not committing sin if they steal. It is obvious that the ‘inferior’ or lower things in life should serve the higher things; it part of the Christian view of the hierarchical, spiritual nature of the universe. St.Thomas has this spiritual hierarchy most in mind, he is not thinking primarily of worldly needs, of arranging society so to make all equal in a worldly sense. This is even true in our private lives; we should not engage in activities and hobbies which negatively impact on our spiritual life and indeed should try and generally engage in spiritually positive activities and pastimes. As a more Platonic, Eastern Christian I’d probably express such concepts more strongly than even St.Thomas.

  45. No matter what definitions are used, no retirement plan can return all of your contributions in 36 months & remain solvent. Couple this with the constant mismanagement of the “Party of Death” which put these SS funds into the general budget, passed laws to give them to illegal immigrants who paid nothing into them & then had the gaul to tax those same already once taxed funds when the workers started collecting them. The young people today should have the option to opt out of this PONZI scheme. The congressional fools who do not participate in it, are now going to change the rules to correct their decades of mismanagement. They should not be allowed enjoy their outrageous, self voted, pension plans & salaries. Make them pay SS like everyone else.

  46. Viking,
    You make a very good point about the difference between the amount taken into the system from the people versus the amount they end up getting, particularly in light of the longer life spans. One factor about this is also the inflation of currency. In terms of dollars, when he was my age, my father earned about 1/4 of what I do currently, but in terms of buying power, it was around the same and possibly more. Inflation is a form of robbery in which value is stolen rather than currency. Now, I’m not claiming that this factor alone balances everything out. It is just a factor that has to be considered when discussing the matter. It also becomes extremely complicated because, to arrive at a truly just calculation, you would have to calculate the inflation rate for each separate installment into an account because the later deposits would not have suffered as much inflation as the earlier ones.

  47. Mr. Blake,
    I must confess that I am not all that familiar with Rand and her objectivist views, but I have heard that there are significant departures from the philosophical heritage of Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. I am still very much a student of the science of philosophy, but it is this heritage to which I turn. Atlas Shrugged is on my list of things to read (sorry, Tim – I haven’t managed it yet), but I try to read a lot of things from a lot of different perspectives.

  48. Objectivism 101: ‘Self interest is the pre-eminent virtue’. This will hopefully get you started.

  49. A consideration of the Galveston Texas exemption from Social Security would be worthwhile.

  50. David, I haven’t read much of Ayn Rand either, just one work, called “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal”. In that book, she and fellow advocates for her philosophy/ideology of “Objectivism” give a good account of their beliefs. She also had the book “For the New Intellectual” which is most likely also useful in this regard, but I can’t say for sure, as it remains unread by me. These might be a more concise way of learning about her than her novels, tho I understand those are fairly riveting.
    I’ll respond to your post about Social Security later.

  51. Hugh, what is the Galveston exemption from Social Security?

  52. A lot of people say Ayn Rand’s novels are good, a lot, perhaps more, say they are awful. It would be (minorly) interesting to find out which side was correct, but her philosophy/ideology sounds terrible on multiple counts and there is just too much guaranteed good stuff to read.

  53. Mr. Blake,
    How exactly do you derive self-interest as a pre-eminent virtue from what I wrote? I clearly included concepts of assistance from social and community associations in my article as well as from government in the comments. My article clearly and explicitly addressed those who are already receiving retirement benefits as well as those who do not have sufficient time to plan an alternate retirement.

  54. You (Mr. Cooney)are steering away from the argument. I was giving a definition of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, not commenting on what you wrote. Had George W Bush’s privitization (of social security)plan gone into effect, prior to the 2008 financial meltdown, many senior cirizens would have faced financial ruin as the result of an “alternate retirement”. The Wall Street crowd would love to see their form of Distributism implemented, but for reasons far different, I assume, from yours. Enter Charles Dickens, stage right.

  55. Mr. Blake,
    On Sept. 28th (9:32 AM) you posted a comment about “your arguments.” I asked whom you were addressing and you answered (Sept. 29th at 9:16 AM) that you were addressing me. You further elaborated that followers of Ayn Rand and Rand Paul would have difficulty in following your conclusion. Maybe I misunderstood you at this point, but it seemed reasonable to me that, since your first comment was addressed to me, the comment itself as well as this follow-up comment was being applied to me. After getting clarification on exactly what was meant by “objectivism,” I was finally able to respond to what I thought was your original comment to my article.

    Wall Street has absolutely no form of “Distributism.” What I described is not the absolute privatization of Social Security since, as elaborated in the comments that followed, subsidiarity allows for assistance from different levels of government provided that such assistance does not take over. What was also elaborated in the comments (as well as in other articles on our site) is that such changes need to be made gradually and take other factors into account – such as having diverse forms of retirement programs in addition to those which sink the investments into the stock market.

    In conclusion, if I am steering away from your argument, it is because you had not actually stated what it was until this very last comment (Oct. 1st at 9:40 AM). However, by that time, the points you made in that comment had already been refuted (at least, in regard to the content of my article).

  56. Mr. Cooney…..When you come up with a program that “doesn’t sink money in the stock market” and is equal to or better than Social Security for our senior citizens, please let me know. You are not old enough to appreciate the dignity with which Social Security and Medicare have allowed seniors to live out their final years. As to what constitutes ‘refutation’, I will entrust that decision to the site’s visitors.

  57. Why don’t you just have old age pensions(at the local, state or national levels.) like other countries?

  58. The Galveston plan like the Chilean and now Swedish plans were thought of originally by Americans as alternatives to the current Social Security model. Galveston and 2 other TX counties opted out of Social Security through a now closed loophole. It has a problem or two but seems like a good local retirement plan. More for your consideration here http://www.moneyandmarkets.com/galveston-vs-social-security-39613.

  59. Hi all,
    Two brief remarks, followed by a longer one.
    Hugh, I looked up the Galveston County exemption (there are two other Texas counties with the same thing) and so now know a little about it. Thanks for bringing that to our (or at least my) attention. I’ll be darned, wouldn’t have guessed anyone could have done that since 1935, when SS was passed. But it turns out that it was possible for droppings-out to occur until 1983, when Congress passed a law prohibiting it. Seems to be a rather shaky system, tho, from what the sources say.
    Wessexman, Social Security IS an old age pension, isn’t it, at a national level? I’m not sure what point you’re making here.
    David, my second “I’ll be darned” in this post. Some years ago, I remember reading a magazine article in which a financial advisor stated that a good investment plan should be able to earn 3% above the rate of inflation per annum. Now, in “real” dollars (that is, inflation-adjusted ones), if one invests $1,000 every birthday from one’s 21st birthday, when SS begins accruing, to one’s 64th, and then retires at the 65th such anniversary, the amount will be a little over $89,000. The amount actually might be a bit less than that, since the money is paid throughout the year, but not that much less. Since we, employer and employee, now pay 12.4% for SS, plus 2.9% for Medicare, we can divide the 12.4 by 92.35 (employee’s after-FICA income per $100) to get 0.13427 and some change. So the SS contribution is some 13.43% of the employee’s after-FICA income. Multiply that by 89 and we get about 1195% of one’s annual income, or almost 12 years worth.
    OK, eye-glazing math done. Some qualifications are needed here. On the positive side, not all the money is given out in the first year, indeed only a minority of it, and the rest keeps accruing, so it should be a few years above 12 before the average retiree passes on. More negatively, SS never has been run as a financial advisor would suggest. For that, we would need it to go into various markets for such results, and there was considerable outrage when that was suggested. Also, not all investment plans are good ones. Finally, it was in the past significantly less than the 12.4% it is now.

  60. Vi King,

    I know enough about the Galveston Plan to believe it has imperfections but I very much doubt it’s on shaky ground. A better approach is the San Diego system. The local nature of these “opt out” plans should be very interesting to a distributist. Also, Sweden’s recent moves toward semi-“privatization” are also interesting because (1) well it’s Socialist Sweden and (2) shares much with the Chilean system that was designed by the Chicago economists.

  61. I believe social security doesn’t come from the general revenue? You could just have a pension that did come from the general revenue.

  62. And pay for it with what? Anyway, isn’t an individual’s retirement funded best by looking to individual revenue first?

  63. Mr. Blake,
    I find it amusing that you assume that, because I do not yet receive payments, I cannot possibly have any knowledge of what it’s like for those who are currently living on Social Security. I guess the members of my family and friends, as well as others with whom I have communicated, don’t count.
    You are apparently not aware of any form of investment that can yield a positive return other than stocks. I find that very interesting.

  64. Hugh; Of course it is best left to families(not individuals, but families.). Distributists is optimal for encouraging and supporting this. Pensions should be means tested and certainly not encouraged, but for those who are disabled or who just don’t have the means in old age they are necessary.

    You see the government collects taxes and then you pay pensions out of that revenue. It can be done at one of several levels of government. It can even be done instead of paying for certain pieces of corporate welfare or armaments(or in the US case Israel!). If you send George Osbourne a letter he will no doubt give you the same formula in even more depth. ;)

  65. I’m going to pine on one particular point of political discourse. The idea of less gov’t means less taxes. And, therefore, sacraficing social security would be the conservative principle of less gov’t. The error is a lack of distinction. Yes, in principle of size and money, less taxes means less size and expense of gov’t. However, actual power of gov’t is not necessarily limited by mere lack of wealth. If the treasury can simply print money for lack of control over debts, and gov’t can exercise services with using laws at a whim, then there is big gov’t. Social Security is being used as a hot-button conservative issue to garnish votes under the guise of less gov’t (in reality it’s not the same as subsidiarity.) The gov’t has an obligation to those who paid into their social security and must control its’ debts as well as other un-necessary expenditures. The lack of law and due process (and lack of oversight) shows when gov’t isn’t being responsible. Un-responsible gov’t is what leads to an ursurping gov’t denying justice to each person who has paid their social security and continues to find loopholes along with un-restricted advantages of power to fit its’ wants. The problem is quite illustrated in the marriage of Hudge and Gudge. Hudge and Gudge have un-limited, un-regulated, and un-moderated passions under the guise of marriage. They possess an anarchic form of liberty (license.) Marriage is license to do what they want (and that is the beastly relationship which Chesterton described in What’s Wrong with the World. And they’re agreement is what evils merely excusable – from another quote of Chesterton.) And such license is giving un-warranted powers to gov’t to do what it wants under the guise which it espouses as legitimate authority (as the appearance of the marriage of Hudge and Gudge goes.)

  66. Stephen Peterson

    In this discussion the role of family has been severely overlooked. Surely first responsibility for taking care of someone who is unable to support themselves belongs to their immediate family members, and following that to their extended family. If the family is unable to provide it probably means that the family needs support from the local community, and if the local community is unable to provide then it probably needs support from a regional government, with the state being turned to as a final resort. Isn’t that what subsidiarity is about? If individuals have immediate and direct recourse to the state, families and local communities are undermined. I think one of the leading causes of family breakdown in our society is the intervention of the state in what should be family matters.

  67. You are totally correct Stephen, though to be fair several others(including myself.) have at least implied what you are suggesting. The problem is that what you are describing is only generally workable in a more distributist society. This is one of the problems with the Fox News/National Review types(I don’t mean to include you Stephen.) who bang on about the self-made man and the work ethic. These things mean little in capitalism. The same is true for this topic. Many, if not most families, in the West cannot be expected to replace most of the functions of state welfare and it would be silly to simply try and make them take over from it right now. In the past for instance it was extended families which allowed them to fulfill these functions, but many families simply don’t have close links to any extended families. Only a more distributist society, which gave families the means and solidarity to provide these functions could really lower the need for state support.

  68. Stephen Peterson

    Wessexman, yes, I’m certainly not a “self-made man” advocate – I had too much of that crap when I was growing up.
    Yes, I get how difficult it would be for *most* families to replace state welfare, but surely this doesn’t apply to *all* families. Surely those families that have the means ought to take responsibility, even if they are a vast minority. Wasn’t this how the aristocratic economy of antiquity evolved into the more distributed economy of the late middle ages? A small number of families giving the lead based on Christian principles and, over time, more and more following?

    And again, when family lacks the means, surely the next step is to turn to local community rather than state. Why can’t the means of providing social security be allocated to local governments? And rather than providing hand outs directly to individuals, shouldn’t they be provided to families that are unable to adequately provide for all their members? And, perhaps, a local community might even decide that a financial handout isn’t the best form of support in an individual circumstance, perhaps some other form of support might be more appropriate and more appreciated? A local government would surely be more capable of assessing the needs of its constituent families than a federal bureaucracy is able to assess individuals. When financial handouts are provided directly to individuals they promote individualism and undermine the family and local community by reducing their relative importance.

    Furthermore, by placing such a responsibility on the local community, the community itself must have the means to fulfil it, so it makes more sense for the community to levy taxation for its constituent families rather than for individuals to contribute directly to the state. Federal income taxes, again, are a mechanism for undermining families and local communities. In a federated system, like in the US and also like we have here in Australia, the needs of the federation ought to be provided by its member states, and the needs of the states by their constituent communities. Having the needs of the federation provided for directly by individuals and the needs of individuals provided for directly by the federation is a recipe for an individualistic society.

  69. You are correct, and it has already been pointed that it is best to give a safety net in something like the way you suggest. But again, for many in the West, local community has to be rebuilt; it doesn’t exist beyond the most perfunctory relationships with close neighbours(if that.). So this cannot happen automatically, it requires a distributist rebirth.

  70. Testing. My attempts at a comment don’t appear to have been accepted, even for moderation. Is there perhaps a limit on the number of links allowed?

  71. I am attempting to get my comment through by breaking it up. This is part 2 of 2.

    Wessexman wrote (http://distributistreview.com/mag/2011/09/practical-distributism-subsidiarity-and-social-security/comment-page-1/#comment-3344):-

    Rightful taxation is not theft, indeed it is theft to withhold rightful taxation.

    That is begging the question of whether there is such a thing as rightful taxation, resting as it does on the tautology that nothing rightful can be wrongful, e.g. theft.

    If Catholic readers want a different perspective on the justice of compulsory support versus charity, they might be interested in the 38th of the Articles of Religion of the Church of England (http://mb-soft.com/believe/txc/thirtyni.htm):-

    Of Christian men’s good which are not common

    The riches and goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast; notwithstanding every man ought of such things as he possesseth liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.

  72. Stephen Peterson

    Wessexman, true, it cannot automatically happen, but at the same time state welfare inhibits a distributist rebirth. It establishes a culture of security that people are reluctant to step out of and makes reform of existing norms seem too risky. Why would you risk venturing into a new economic model where any number of things could go wrong when you have a known safety net. Things might not be comfortable for welfare recipients, but there is still that sense of security that makes such recipients reluctant to buck the system. It seems there is a bit of a Catch-22 scenario here.