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"I'm Spartacus"

by Ronald Neff
Number 111 - 4th Quarter 2001

I keep hoping that some day I will receive a direct-mail piece from an organization I have dreamed up. Its pitch would go something like this:

Dear Friend —

Do you like the Social Security system? Would you like to get out of it? I can get you halfway out. No matter how much you make. And I'm going to tell you how in a minute.

First I want to review with you the nature of the Social Security system.

We all know what Social Security is — it's a program of transfer payments from the young, mostly to the old. The young work; some portion of their earnings is taken from them; it's sent to the retired or to other persons who are defined as eligible for benefits.

The Social Security system pitches itself as something else, and for the most part, it's successful in its pitch. It pitches itself as a reliable guardian of your future. Nearly every recipient of Social Security monies will tell you, "It's my money. I worked all my life and I paid into the system, and it's mine."

But it's not.

Not only has the Supreme Court ruled in Helvering v. Davis (1937) and Flemming v. Nestor (1960) that Congress can alter and reduce benefits without any obligation to honor previous promises or levels of benefits, but it just stands to reason that in a democratic government a new majority can make any change in the law that is consistent with the Constitution. There is no law to prohibit the Congress from repealing the Social Security tax tomorrow, nothing to prohibit it from returning every dime it now holds, nothing to prohibit it from spending every dime it now holds, and nothing to prevent it from declaring that it cannot or will not make good on any promise of future payments. Just as nothing prohibits it from doing the same with the National Endowment for the Arts or any of the welfare programs.

Nothing.

And that's just fine, because otherwise, it would mean that the dead would rule the living. The living could never undo the work of the dead and say, "That is not the kind of government we want." Future generations would not be free to pass the kinds of laws they want to live under.

So we know: even on its own terms it's not our money. Until the cheque arrives in the mail, no one can say it's his money. And even then, you might be a little uneasy about saying it.

After all, where did it really come from? You know it wasn't sitting in an account somewhere where you had deposited it, with your name on it, like a passbook savings account. No, the money you put in was spent long ago. The money you get now or will get (if there is any) will be money taken from working people. Your children, perhaps. Or your grandchildren. Maybe the neighbors' kids, who wave at you and say good morning and who have never done you any harm.

You will get their money. They will be working for you.

Or, to turn it around, someone else is getting your money today. You're working for someone else today.

Now let me talk for just a moment about a movie. Remember Spartacus? It's about a slave uprising in ancient Rome, about 50 years before the birth of Christ. It's not particularly accurate historically, but there's a scene which, if you saw it, you have probably never forgotten. And probably would want never to forget.

Spartacus's army of slaves has been defeated by the Roman consul Crassus. The penalty awaiting every one of the former slaves is death by crucifixion. Crassus puts out the offer that all of them will be spared and returned to their lives as slaves if just one of them will identify the living body or the corpse of their leader, Spartacus. As Spartacus is about to stand to identify himself, the man next to him quickly shouts, "I'm Spartacus." Another stands up and cries out, "No, I'm Spartacus." And in a few short seconds every man is on his feet calling out, "I'm Spartacus!"

It may well be the most heroic scene in all of motion pictures. Maybe the most heroic scene in all of fiction.

Anyone who sees it hopes in his heart of hearts that if he had been there he would have done the same. Some even wish they had been there to do it.

There is nothing for any one of the slaves to gain by his cry. There is no profit in it. There is only honor.

Each of them would rather die than inform on the man who had led them to the only freedom — however short-lived — they had known. Each of them is willing to die in his place.

There are no illusions here. No hopes that Crassus will think, "Well, isn't that nice. They are all such honorable and loyal chaps. Let's just let them all go if they'll promise to go back to work." No. They will all be crucified. And they are. Not one of them faced with a cross says, "No, wait."

That's just how honor works sometimes. Its only value is to the man who has it, and only he can tell us what its value is to him. Sometimes it wins him glory; sometimes it wins him nothing but a quiet satisfaction that lets him shave in the morning; sometimes it gets him hanged.

What does that have to do with getting out of the Social Security system?

There are two parts to the Social Security system: you pay in; you get the benefits. You stand with two feet in the circle.

I can't help you with the payments you make into the system. They are required by law, and I know of no legal way to avoid paying them. As far as I know, the state requires that you keep that foot in the circle.

But I can help you with the benefits. In fact, you don't even need my help. You can put your other foot out of the circle any time you want: You can get halfway out of the system by never cashing another Social Security cheque in your life, by never applying for benefits.

That's it. There's nothing in it for you except the knowledge that you are not taking money from your children that they don't want to give you or from your neighbors, that no one has to work for you who doesn't want to.

What's in it for you? I just told you. Honor. Holding on to it. Reclaiming it. Living with it.

You know the money isn't yours. Don't take it. Don't spend it. Don't ask for it.

In other words, if you want out of the Social Security system, the simple first step is to forswear your Social Security benefits.

That's what "I'm Spartacus" is: a league of people who have forsworn their benefits. Who have said, "I will not take anything from people who have not freely given it to me." It's a league of honor.

What do I want? Membership dues? No. Donations? Not yet. Am I selling a subscription? Nope.

I want your signature on the card enclosed with this mailing. It says, "I'm Spartacus. I forswear all my Social Security benefits. I will not apply for them, and if I am already receiving them, I will not cash another cheque from the Social Security system."

How will I know whether you keep your promise? How will anyone know? Am I asking you to sign an official document and send it to the Social Security office? No. Tear a cheque in half, if you're already receiving Social Security, and send me one half so that I know? No.

This is a league of honor. Your honor. What sense does it make for me to ask you to do anything but to keep your word? You'll know whether you do that.

The purpose of "I'm Spartacus": A League of Honor is not to get involved with politics, not to endorse candidates or to put out voter-information scorecards. It doesn't analyze the Social Security system and make policy recommendations.

It has one purpose and one purpose only: to get every working man and woman and every retired man and woman to say, "I'm Spartacus. I forswear all Social Security benefits."

"Everyone? That's a lot of people. You'll never get that," I hear you say. I probably won't. But that's the ultimate purpose. That's not the victory.

The victory is something else entirely: I define it very simply. It's not to bring down the Social Security system; it's not to instigate a tax rebellion. Victory is your name on a card with a pledge that only you know whether you'll keep.

That's the only victory I am looking for. If I get just one card back with just one signature on it — yours — I will have won the one thing I want.

Contact Ronald Neff via: The Last Ditch