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Practical Distributism: Subsidiarity and Social Security

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© Heidi Bratton Photography

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.


Originally from Southern California, Mr. Cooney now lives with his wife and two children in Western Washington state where he works as a network administrator.

This article courtesy of The Distributist Review.


  • fishman

    You still have not addressed several questions.
    1) what of those who fail to adequately prepare?
    a) what if they have no family?

    Should people be allowed to spend significant amounts of thier life not ‘making a living?’. Certainly there are many good works that are not profitable in feeding oneself.

  • phaedruscj

    “The reality is that the current recipients have paid for the benefits they are now receiving.”

    This is not true. On average recipients recieve more than they contribute. Obviously a person that dies at age 67 after contributing to social securoity for 30 years won’t recieve back what they contributed. Just as a person that lives to age 90 will receive much more than they put in even accounting for inflation and interest. In fact the person that lives out their days according to current life expectency will also receive more than they paid in.

    This makes Social Security an entitlement. Your benefits do not terminate once you have drawn down your contributions plus interest. You are ENTITLED to social security payments even if the amount you contributed plus interest is exhausted.

    The Urban Institute (which is not a conservative think tank by any means) has done the analysis that you should have done before endorsing this myth. You can link to the Urban Institute dta through bankrate.com http://www.bankrate.com/financing/retirement/social-security-benefits-vs-taxes/

    This is also true of Medicare.

    What would be unjust would be to limnit social security benefits to the amount contributed by earners which is what you are sggesting is the underlying structure of social security. Stop perpetuating this myth that retirees are just getting back what they put in. They are entitlted to and recieving more than they put in even accounting for interest.

  • http://distributistreview.com/ DavidWCooney

    fishman,
    I addressed that in the paragraph that starts, “Life, however, does not always work out the way we plan…”

    phaedruscj,
    Your comments are the same as some who commented on the Distributist Review’s site. They are easily answered.

    I have reviewed the article to which you linked, and it makes the same two omission as do all other articles which make the same claim. The first omission is the employer contributions. That money is calculated by employers as part of the cost of having an employee. In other words, it is part of that employee’s compensation for his labor and rightfully belongs to him.

    The second omission is inflation. Therefore, making an argument based on “interest” is a deliberate red herring. Contributions are made throughout a person’s working life, but the value of money decreases over that same time. When my father started contributing to his Social Security account, he earned about 1/20 of what I do now in terms of dollars, but the value of that 1/20 was more than 20 times what the same number of dollars is today. In order for the restitution of what was taken to be just, a complete evaluation of each contribution in terms of relative value must be calculated.

    When these factors are included, the larger number of dollars returned to people in Social Security benefits has in fact typically been included in what was contributed over the years.