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Good-by To Gobbledygook

March 2023
1min read

Bureaucratic prose is rarely praised. It was thus a considerable tribute when The New Yorker magazine carried this comment on the introduction of the Social Security program in the fall of 1936:

We don’t know who wrote the folder that accompanied the application blanks for old-age benefits, but it seems to us a good job of writing. The first sentence, “There is now a law in this country which will give about 26 million working people something to live on when they are old and have stopped working,” is something of a government record for simple, good English. It’s the sort of thing Abe Lincoln might have penned, if he’d thought of it. It carries the faint, troubling vibrations of great prose. And when we walked through the corridors of this office and saw people gathered in what the papers call knots and queues, we suspected that something important had happened in America. There was a more deepseated excitement than the day the girl upstairs won the sweepstakes money.

For the government to manage a pool to help old people seems to us a practical and sound idea. Fear accumulates in a man’s life, like fluffballs in his pocket, and the security program will, for multitudes of people, wipe out the long, insistent dread of eventual poverty. This, not its monetary relief, is its most important benefit to the race. It also has the great advantage of rewarding people according to their own labor and diligence, and in this respect is the opposite of the emergency relief schemes which are now rewarding people according to their needs. To reward people according to their needs is Christian, but it isn’t awfully practical. Mistress Dorothy Thompson, the seeress, pointed out one day with great clarity that if you reward people according to their needs, their needs suddenly blossom like daisies. The new benefit plan is sounder, and should serve well until Dr. Townsend gets elected to Congress and starts fixing it.

The people that make us mad are the ones who oppose the whole idea of old-age security, and believe that everybody should be allowed to work out his own destitution.

It is thought, by the way, that the author of the well-written folder was Mary Ross, a Social Security employee.


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