Public Comment

Thomas Paine On Social Security

Harry Brill, East Bay Tax the Rich Group
Saturday March 12, 2016 - 10:24:00 AM

In a preface to Thomas Paine's 1795-6 pamphlet, Agrarian Justice, the writer correctly notes that Social Security is currently the most effective antipoverty program in the nation. Indeed, as a result of Social Security, over 20 million Americans including more than 1 million children each year escape poverty.

Thomas Paine understood the immense importance of providing an adequate pension to the elderly. To the best of my knowledge, he was the first prominent intellectual after the birth of this nation who advocated social security for both older and disabled Americans. To sustain the program, he proposed a tax on inherited property.  

Property owners instead favored voluntary and charitable assistance. But Paine disagreed not only because their donations would be insufficient. In his own words, he claimed that poverty was due to "the effect of paying too little for the labor that produced it." So providing a decent pension was not a charitable act. It was a matter of justice. 

The late Robert M. Ball, who was the nation's longest serving Social Security Commissioner, agreed with Paine's estate tax proposal because it would supplement the Social Security fund. The Republicans disagreed. In fact, the Republican dominated Congress appreciably reduced the estate tax last year, a move which favored the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.  

A larger social security fund would make it possible to increase the pension. The average social security pension, which is about $16,100 annually, is much too little for many recipients. Currently, the social security tax applies to an income maximum of $118,500. Pensions and stipends to the disabled could be increased considerably if this modest tax, which is paid by both employees and employers, was raised to, say, a maximum of $250,000. So far, Congress has not been interested. 

Thomas Paine was absolutely right. To build a really civilized society, political decisions must be built on justice and humane principles.