This is the final part in a six-part series. You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, and part 5 here.
The Social Security Myth says that life before the creation of the entitlement state was intolerable, economically and morally. Social Security was merely a pragmatic response to a problem capitalism couldn’t solve: a response that involved, not overthrowing capitalism and the original American system of limited government, but improving them.
What we’ve seen so far is that conditions before the creation of the entitlement state were fundamentally good and getting better.
The conclusion is that Social Security was not a pragmatic response to capitalism’s inherent flaws—it was an ideologically inspired program fueled by an anti-capitalist philosophy. The price we paid was the American way of life.
The origins of Social Security go back further than FDR and the New Deal, but to a group of American intellectuals who called themselves “Progressives.” Although the roots of the entitlement state were socialist in orientation, the “Progressives” were not by and large socialists. They were, however, driven by the core of the socialist ideology—an ideology deeply hostile toward individualism and capitalism, and suspicious of America’s entire commercial society. “Many of the higher virtues . . . grow out of group life,” said Frances Perkins, the architect of Social Security. “Government is an instrument for transferring this group achievement into the general good.” The entitlement statists did not necessarily want to establish government ownership of the means of production, but they shared socialism’s desire to enlarge state power at the expense of the individual.
Unsurprisingly, the intellectuals who sought to transform the U.S. into an entitlement state were deeply sympathetic with socialist and communist movements, and many of them had direct ties to such groups. Economist John R. Commons, for instance, the “spiritual father” of Social Security, studied under socialist Richard T. Ely (who had studied in Germany), and had even voted for the Communist Party candidate for governor in New York. Along with Ely and another colleague, he went on to start the American Association for Labor Legislation, which would become a Who’s Who of entitlement statists including Louis Brandeis, Samuel Gompers, Woodrow Wilson, and Jane Addams.
Aside from this subculture of intellectuals, Americans were by and large not enamored with socialism, and so it took decades for this subculture to successfully establish an entitlement state in America.
How did they do it? How did the entitlement statists overcome Americans’ skepticism and transform the United States into an entitlement society? The answer has three parts.
First, although Americans resisted statism, statist ideas increasingly permeated the culture during that span. The schools became dominated by academics increasingly hostile to the American system and the Enlightenment principles on which it was based. By the 1930s, most Americans had been educated by professors who rejected reason, individualism, limited government, and capitalism.
Second, the Great Depression opened the door to radical change. Statists used it to further undermine Americans’ confidence in capitalism, falsely blaming it on “greedy” businessmen and a (non-existent) “laissez-faire” economy. At the same time, the Depression generated real suffering, fear, and anxiety. Just as the 2008 financial crisis led Americans to tolerate unprecedented government interference in the financial sector, so the Depression of the 1930s opened the door for unprecedented changes in the government’s role in the economy.
Third, the entitlement statists changed their rhetorical strategy. Instead of openly admitting that they wanted to transform the American system, as the early “Progressives” had, a new breed, led by Franklin D. Roosevelt, would claim that they did not want to fundamentally transform America’s commercial society—they wanted to make it more secure. As William Voegeli explains in his indispensable book Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State:
FDR, beginning in his campaign for the presidency in 1932, insistently framed the question of expanding government in terms of upholding and updating the founding . . . rather than repudiating it. According to Sidney Milkis, “FDR’s deft reinterpretation of the American constitutional tradition” gave “legitimacy to progressive principles by embedding them in the language of constitutionalism and interpreting them as an expansion rather than a subversion of the natural rights tradition.” Significantly, FDR conveyed this orientation by enthusiastically embracing “liberalism” as the designation for the New Deal’s philosophy, sending the term “progressivism,” with its clearly implied critique of the American founding, into long exile. To do so he wrested “liberalism” away from the defenders of limited government, who acceded unhappily to calling themselves “conservatives.”
FDR and the New Dealers weren’t against the Constitution—the Constitution was a “living document” that needed to change with changing circumstances. They weren’t against individual rights—they were expanding the existing set of rights: not just a right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness, but a right to a job, food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, and recreation, among others. They weren’t against freedom, which traditionally meant freedom from the coercive might of other human beings—they simply aimed to free us from want and fear as well.
FDR and the New Dealers may or may not have been sincere, but their claims were untenable. The Constitution was explicitly designed by the Founders as a limited grant of power to the federal government in order to achieve the ends laid out by the Declaration of Independence: securing the inalienable rights of the individual. Those rights protected the individual’s freedom and property from coercion by others. The new “rights” and “freedoms” necessitated coercing others, a point helpfully explained by philosopher Ayn Rand:
Jobs, food, clothing, recreation(!), homes, medical care, education, etc., do not grow in nature. These are man-made values—goods and services produced by men. Who is to provide them?
If some men are entitled by right to the products of the work of others, it means that those others are deprived of rights and condemned to slave labor.
Any alleged “right” of one man, which necessitates the violation of the rights of another, is not and cannot be a right.
But FDR’s framework, which positioned the New Dealers’ transformation of the American system as a mere “tweaking,” faulty though it may have been, nevertheless became the framework the New Dealers used to successfully sell Social Security. Nowhere is this clearer than in FDR’s June 8, 1934, message to Congress, with which he launched his push for Social Security, and which is worth quoting at length:
Our task of reconstruction does not require the creation of new and strange values. It is rather the finding of the way once more to known, but to some degree forgotten, ideas and values. If the means and details are in some instances new, the objectives are as permanent as human nature.
Among our objectives I place the security of the men, women and children of the Nation first.
This security for the individual and for the family concerns itself primarily with three factors. People want decent homes to live in; they want to locate them where they can engage in productive work; and they want some safeguard against misfortunes which cannot be wholly eliminated in this man-made world of ours. . . .
[S]ecurity was attained in the earlier days through the interdependence of members of families upon each other and of the families within a small community upon each other. The complexities of great communities and of organized industry make less real these simple means of security. Therefore, we are compelled to employ the active interest of the Nation as a whole through government in order to encourage a greater security for each individual who composes it. . . .
These three great objectives—the security of the home, the security of livelihood, and the security of social insurance—are, it seems to me, a minimum of the promise that we can offer to the American people. They constitute a right which belongs to every individual and every family willing to work. They are the essential fulfillment of measures already taken toward relief, recovery and reconstruction.
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. . . .
It is true that there are a few among us who would still go back [to the American system as it existed before the New Deal]. These few offer no substitute for the gains already made, nor any hope for making future gains for human happiness. They loudly assert that individual liberty is being restricted by Government, but when they are asked what individual liberties they have lost, they are put to it to answer.
We must dedicate ourselves anew to a recovery of the old and sacred possessive rights for which mankind has constantly struggled—homes, livelihood, and individual security. The road to these values is the way of progress. Neither you nor I will rest content until we have done our utmost to move further on that road.
That is why we got Social Security: a group of entitlement statists fought to overturn the American system, and put over their revolution by denying it was a revolution: it was merely tweaking the existing system. We bought it, and we continue to buy it.
 Frances Perkins, quoted in Clarence B. Carson, The Welfare State: 1929-1985 (Wadley, AL: American Textbook Committee, 1994), p. 31.
 Nancy J. Altman, The Battle for Social Security (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005), p. 15.
 See Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels (New York: Meridian, 1993), especially chapters 5 and 14.
 William Voegeli, Never Enough, 69-70.
 See Yaron Brook and Don Watkins, Free Market Revolution (New York: Palgrave, 2012), chapter 9.