Freedom and liberty are not merely themes sounded by politicians in political campaigns, or in rousing marches by military bands (though I am personally particularly fond of them!), nor are they ideas which you will typically see being discussed in a piece about retirement issues. But they are themes woven into the fabric of our our everyday life, without our often even even being aware of them. They form not only the basis of our own civil society, but (believe it or not) are deeply embedded in the holy texts of the major religions.
But there is a risk nowadays in even referencing these two grand ideas in today’s political environment: instead of being viewed as the firm basis of how the vast majority of us quietly operate, they seem to have been outrageously hijacked by political extremists (such as of the libertarian/Ron Paul/ Tea Party sort-of which I am not so inclined) for some specific end.
In spite of all that, there is something well worth mentioning along these lines about the striking impact of the work we do, something we are not prone to see while working the fine minutiae of our chosen profession.
If we step back for a minute, we can see the extraordinary policy underlying 408(b)(2), the prohibited transaction rules and the exclusive benefit rules (which apply even to non-ERISA plans). These rules seek to set aside and protect from others the individual wealth of those who accumulate benefits under these plans. It became pretty plain to me while reading Absolute Monarchs, by John Norwich (a history of the Catholic Popes, which really is a brief history of the absolute power of royalty as well as the church over individuals), where, historically, an individual’s financial well being was wholly dependent on the whims of powers that be.
We now have something very odd in man’s modern history. The value of the funds which are now protected for participants in retirement plans by the Code, ERISA or both approximates 85% of the value of publicly traded securities in the United States. Though this seemingly huge amount is not yet adequate to establish broad retirement security, it is material enough to take note: these pooled funds are outside of the legal reach of the unaccountable "whims" of those who have something other than the best interests of the participants at heart. Imagine that. A significant and growing portion of society’s wealth is institutionally dedicated in funded pools to the individual’s well being, which are difficult to access by an abusive use of power which has so often corrupted society-and jeopardized freedom and liberty-in the past.
The only way this really works, however, is by things like 408(b)(2); by enforcement of the prohibited transaction rules; and by giving serious attention to the exclusive benefit rules. And all of this is dependent on what appears to be non-sensical minutiae upon which we daily work.
There is a reason I like doing what I do……