In the current debate over Social Security reform, the name of Alf Landon, the 1936 Republican candidate for president, rarely comes up. But it should. Landon made what he called “the bungling and waste” of Social Security the key to his presidential campaign, and his opposition to Social Security, along with the arguments President Franklin Roosevelt voiced in defending Social Security against Landon, offers a history lesson that deserves our attention.
Landon’s attack on Social Security was stated most sharply in a September 26, 1936, speech, “I Will Not Promise the Moon,” that he gave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Based on a report done for the Twentieth Century Fund, Landon’s speech attacked Social Security, which was due to begin collecting contributions on January 1, 1937, as a philosophical and economic disaster. As Landon put it, “This law is unjust, unworkable, stupidly drafted, and wastefully financed.”
Landon argued that Social Security was “paternal government,” at its worst. “It assumes that Americans are irresponsible. It assumes that old-age pensions are necessary because Americans lack the foresight to provide for their old age.” The contribution Social Security required from the employer, Landon argued, was sure to be “imposed” on the consumer, while the contribution Social Security required from the worker was too much for him to bear.
As if that were not enough, the “vast army of clerks” required to administer Social Security, would, Landon insisted, create a bloated bureaucracy that would be a “cruel hoax” on American workers. There was, he predicted, “every probability that the cash they pay in will be used for current deficits and new extravagances,” and in the end impoverish the system. “If the present compulsory insurance plan remains in force, our old people are only too apt to find the cupboard bare,” Landon concluded.
Landon’s contention that the government was taking workers’ money and might never give it back received strong support in the business community. Two weeks before the election, workers in Detroit found placards in their plants telling them, “YOU’RE SENTENCED TO A WEEKLY PAY REDUCTION FOR ALL OF YOUR WORKING LIFE. YOU’LL HAVE TO SERVE THAT SENTENCE UNLESS YOU HELP REVERSE IT NOVEMBER 3.” When they opened their pay envelopes, the warning was even more dire. “Effective January 1937, we are compelled by a Roosevelt New Deal law to make a 1 percent deduction from your wages and turn it over to the government. You might get this money back . . . but only if Congress decides to make the appropriations for this purpose.”
Roosevelt’s counter to Landon’s attack and the pay-envelope scare came in an October 31, 1936, speech at Madison Square Garden. When he signed the Social Security Act into law in 1935, FDR had been very sober in his assessment of the impact of Social Security. “We can never insure 100 percent of the...
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