Stewarding Social Security to a Secure Future

Is the current debate missing the point, and how does subsidiarity fit in?

(photo: SSA Facebook)

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio spoke this August at the Reagan Library on “the proper role of government,” emphasizing “prosperity and compassion” as priorities.

The freshman senator said those of us raised in “Ronald Reagan’s America” are now being called to leadership, to make tough decisions about America’s future. He was plenty hard on his own party. And he talked about entitlement reform.

As he has before, he offered that his mother benefits from the program. And he’s not about to do anything that is going to hurt her. She paid into the system, after all.

But that system cannot be sustained as things are going. The program operates on a loss, and increasingly so.

This was, in many ways, a far cry from the national debate. Is or isn’t Social Security a “Ponzi scheme”? Or is it “unconstitutional” and something that should be left up to the states? This is the spat former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have been having, going after each other on the campaign trail, especially on the debate stage.

So, is it a Ponzi scheme? Is it time to blow it up? Are these questions freaking people out — and missing the point?

Rubio, from Florida, known for its retiree population, was on the right track, and presidential candidates ought to follow his lead. It’s a program that needs to be reformed — can be and must be.

In May, Rubio said: “Yesterday, sitting across from the president, I told him that we have to act now to reform Medicare and Social Security if we are to save these vital programs for future generations, my generation and current retirees like my mother. Today’s Social Security and Medicare Trustees Report confirms the urgency required and the basic reality that doing nothing will lead to benefit cuts and the bankruptcy of these programs and our nation. In light of this report, Democrats should finally put forth their own ideas. At the same time, as I told the president yesterday, this crisis demands his leadership. Let’s do what each generation before us has done: Put aside the political demagoguery, and meet the challenge of our time by saving these programs for my mom, my generation and my children’s generation.”

In other words: Instead of scaring people and talking past one another, a debate about what’s a just and good stewardship of the program is likely the most prudent route.

And Congressman Bob Turner, a Republican who won a surprise victory in the congressional seat vacated by Anthony Weiner due to Weiner’s Twitter scandal, also spoke with some honesty about the issue. Anyone concerned with the future of the country and, yes, the common good, must.

National Review, the magazine I work for, recently editorialized, by way of advising Republican candidates: “Slow the growth of benefits sufficiently, for example, and the program’s fiscal gap will disappear. Its disincentive effect on saving, and on delaying retirement, would also diminish. But neither Gov. Perry nor his principal critic, former Gov. Mitt Romney, has offered any specific proposals on Social Security, and both of them run the risk of setting back the cause of reform.”

Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, says that “Catholic social teaching isn’t of course prescriptive about the precise policy details of Social Security. It’s much more focused on principles and ends.” But it surely provides guidance.

Gregg continues: “Integral human development requires us to make free choices and to be assisted in doing so to the extent that we are enabled to do so. That means, for instance, that a Social Security system that sought to provide everyone with everything is highly problematic because it destroys and undermines our ability to make free choices. It reduces us to a state of dependency. That is not integral human development.”

Therein enters subsidiarity, which has become an unnecessarily and unhelpfully loaded term in debates about Catholic social teaching and prudential political decisions.

“The way that CST reconciles everyone’s need to make free choices consistent with their vocation, ability and needs and everyone’s need for some form of assistance is through the principle of subsidiarity,” Gregg explains. “Subsidiarity comes from the Latin subsidium, which means to assist. … [It] thus combines axioms of noninterference and assistance. It follows that when a case of assistance and coordination through law or the government proves necessary, the assisting community should accord as much respect as possible to the rightful autonomy of the assisted person or community. The primary significance of this principle thus lies ... in the fact that this autonomy is essential if people are to flourish as persons.”

Social Security, Gregg points out, should step in “when it is clear that all other communities (families, churches, intermediate associations, etc.) have proved themselves manifestly incapable of meeting a legitimate need. ... Once such communities are able to resume their proper responsibilities, the state ought to back off.”

And contrary to frequent dismissals at Catholic-oriented policy gatherings, often from a different perspective than perhaps Acton is known for, subsidiarity isn’t a foul word. It was none other than the archbishop of New York, now president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who raised it in an exchange on budget reform initiated by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a Catholic. Archbishop Timothy Dolan also talked about solidarity.

He wrote:

The principles of subsidiarity and solidarity are interrelated to one another. The late Pope reminded us that “... the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good. (Centesimus Annus, 48).” Thus you rightly pointed out Pope John Paul’s comments on the limits of what he termed the “social-assistance state.”
Your letter is correct in observing that the Church makes an essential contribution to society when she raises up moral principles to help guide and inform decisions about public policy in a compelling way. We bishops are very conscious that we are pastors, never politicians. As the Second Vatican Council reminds us, it is the lay faithful who have the specific charism of political leadership and decision (Lumen Gentium, 31, Apostolicam Actuositatem 13).

It wasn’t an endorsement of the Ryan budget plan, but a guide, one as detached from the heat of politics as you’ll find.

John Mueller, author of Redeeming Economics, raises an additional issue: “The entire prospective deficit in the pay-as-you-go Social Security retirement system is due to legal abortion. The simple choice is that the United States can have either a balanced pay-as-you-go Social Security retirement system or legal abortion — but not both.”

It’s a provocative point. A big-picture one too. To borrow an overused and abused term: What is “social justice” here? It’s not bypassing a debate or scaring folks.

Social Security is a program millions of Americans currently rely on, a system people who are in or near retirement paid into and must not be suddenly asked not to rely on.

But a gradual adjustment of its benefits formula is another story. This is a necessary and responsible measure to make the program sustainable in the interest of the common good. But it won’t be sustainable for long unless we make necessary reforms.

Neither Perry nor Romney has offered that reform plan yet. The one who does — in a clear and honest way — may just be a winner. Certainly in the stewardship race.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist.