In a letter written in September of 1789 Thomas Jefferson took up an interesting question with James Madison. "The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water." The purpose of Jefferson's letter was to explain his answer and then offer some thoughts on the implications.
I find Jefferson's answer to the question interesting with respect to the current debate surrounding social security reform. The Old Age Insurance part of Social Security looks very much to be a subject of Jefferson's question. Old Age Insurance is a government program by which money to pay for the monthly benefit checks paid to retired workers is taken from current workers via the FICA tax. Since some of the workers will be under 30 years of age, while some of the retired workers will be over 70 years of age the Old Age Insurance program certainly involves at least an older and a younger generation, and maybe three generations. It would also seem to be the case that this program was written into law well before the younger generation of workers was able to vote. With our Old Age Insurance program we do seem to have an older generation binding a younger generation.
So what did Jefferson say in answer to his question? He said that a generation did not have the right to bind another generation. He went further in his discussion by making some calculations, and concluded that a term of 19 years was the relevant time period. The really interesting aspect of his letter was the implications he saw for the constitution and for our laws:
". . . it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. . . . .Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19. years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right."
He thought it was not sufficient to give the younger generation the power to repeal. He argued for laws and a constitution that expired after a fixed duration. If he held to that view today it would seem he would have to see the Old Age Insurance program we are considering reforming to be "an act of force."
Perhaps times change, but it does seem to offer an interesting perspective for considering the politics of social security reform today. Is there a way to structure the Old Age Insurance part of Social Security so that it is less an "act of force" across generations? One thought might be to make a good, honest effort to let the younger generation decide for themselves whether to be bound by the statutes of the older generation. But, that thought simply gets no quarter in public discussion today. Government made promises to the retired workers of today, and everyone in politics seems to accept that government will pay off on those promises. At least the older generation of Americans could let the younger generation decide for themselves how their Old Age Insurance program should be structured. Today's political discussion has been clear that the older generation would be held harmless by any reform. The proposed private accounts are of course not relevant to the older generation. Private accounts should be considered a proposal for the structure of the Old Age Insurance program of the youngest generations. Perhaps the older generation could learn from Jefferson's question and answer and choose to step aside in this social security debate regarding private accounts and let the younger generation decide for themselves.