When Raymond Moley, a leading early Brain Truster, was asked to provide a philosophical justification for FDR's approach to government, he - along with nearly all of the New Dealers - cited Pragmatism. Moley even noted that FDR had studied under William James, the founder of Pragmatism, at Harvard. The historian Eric Goldman wrote of FDR, "he trusted no system except the system of endless experimentation." FDR himself made this point time and time again. "I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat," he explained in a fireside chat. At Oglethorpe University, FDR declared, "this country needs . bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something." And always and everywhere, FDR emphasized the important thing was to take action first, and fix the problems later.
Well, here's the problem. Social Security was launched when there were more than 40 workers carrying the costs of each retiree. Today there are three workers for each Social Security recipient, and we're heading to a 2-1 ratio soon. It sounds to me that, whatever its original merits, the experiment has run its course. FDR "batted" Social Security farther than most of his ideas. But it would be nice to believe that the man who derided "horse and buggy thinking" and who most famously said "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" would look at all of this fear-mongering about how Social Security is the "third rail" of American politics with disdain (though he might have liked it, given his penchant for demagoguery).
This is the striking irony of today's liberal opposition to reforming Social Security. Liberals are supposed to embrace change and deride the dogmatic adherence to the past. Pragmatism, in particular, was conceived to serve as an acid for such rigidity. Yet liberals, for the last decade or so, cannot let go of the past, cannot get beyond their talk of lockboxes and liberal legacies long lost. How strange it is that "conservatism" is now the party of "bold experimentation" and "liberals" are the horse-and-buggy crowd.