Many people are aware that Social Security was instituted in the United States after the Great Depression, as part of the New Deal series of recovery programs. However, the idea of Social Security is much older, having first been proposed by Thomas Paine, one of the leaders of the American Revolution.
Paine is often called the Father of the American Revolution because his pamphlet Common Sense, published in 1776, inspired American Colonists fighting for independence from Great Britain. In 1797, Paine published Agrarian Justice, a pamphlet advocating a social insurance system that would provide for the elderly and disabled, as well as young people starting out in life, with the benefits to be paid from a national fund maintained by property and estate taxes.
In Agrarian Justice, Paine argued that the earth in its natural state was “the common property of the human race,” but that the rise of agrarian civilization and landed property had created both wealth and poverty. He said that property owners owed a “ground-rent” to the community, which funds should be used to provide a universal old-age and disability pension, as well as a fixed sum to be paid to each citizen upon reaching the age of maturity.
Although our modern Social Security system differs somewhat from Paine’s vision, and began more than a century after the publication of his ideas, it is instructive to reflect on the fact that the idea of Social Security was first proposed by one of the great thinkers of the American Revolution.
The full text of Agrarian Justice can be found here.