Friday, March 04, 2005

Privatizing v. Sharing Risk: What the Social Security Debate is REALLY about

Josh Marshall has done fantastic, impactful work on the Social Security debate over the last four months, acting as policy analyst, historian, and de facto whip for the Democratic Party on the issue. Today's pithy posting is especially close to the issues I have been blogging on myself for some time (for example, here and here). Josh makes two key points that reinforce what I have been trying to express myself.

First, Josh provides the historical precedents for what the Republicans are trying to accomplish, which is to roll back the social protections institutionalized during the twentieth century. In fact, as Josh notes, quoting Sid Blumenthal, the Republicans are merely trying to do what they have been trying to accomplish since the day Social Security was passed, which is to abolish the program:

The 1936 Republican platform: "Society has an obligation to promote the security of the people, by affording some measure of protection against involuntary unemployment and dependency in old age. The New Deal policies, while purporting to provide social security, have, in fact, endangered it ...the [trust] fund will contain nothing but the government's promise to pay ... [and is] unworkable."

Goldwater on Social Security from '64: "It promises more benefits to more people than the incomes collected will provide."

The second important point Josh makes is about how the fight over Social Security is really a fight over what kind of society we want to have. Money:

The terms of this debate are actually pretty straightforward. The president and his supporters want to get the government out of the Social Security business by ending guaranteed benefits. It's really as simple as that. Not complicated. They'll put in its place some system of private accounts where you can save money on your own. And if it works out, great. If it doesn't, it's your problem.

Social Security is about spreading out the risk and the security by having near-universal participation in one program. That's what it is. You pay in through the course of your working years and after you retire you receive your guaranteed benefit every month for the rest of your life. It is that issue of guarantee -- which, in its nature, only a program like Social Security can provide -- which the president and his supporters are trying to do away with, either all at once or in stages.

So take away all of your policy particulars and computations and flow-charts and analyses. And set them to one side. That is the issue at the core of all of this debate. It defines what kind of society we live in.

Or to put it another way, inasmuch as the term "society" implies a collective, universal sharing of risk and meaning, it's a fight about whether we want to have a society at all.

On one side we have the Reaganite-Thatcherite "society doesn't exist" position, which asserts (or assumes) that the only relevant, meaningful entities are utility-maximizing individuals and the associations they voluntarily enter (although, when pressed, the right usual coughs hard and adds, "and families"). When these guys hear the word "social" or "society," they feel like we're already at least three steps down the well-greased road to serfdom.

On the other side, we have those who believe that "society" is a meaningful concept that entails and describes the elemental bonds and commensurate obligations that exist between all members of a nation. These people believe that we all owe each other something (many things) by virtue of our collective sense of identity, and that these social obligations are, well, obligatory, that is, not voluntary. And since these obligations are not subject to choice, they must, like all other involuntary things, be enforced by the state.

In my own view, Americans who put themselves in the first group are, quite exactly, anti-American, in that they do not believe that there exists such a thing as an "American society" that entails obligations we all have to each other. They look at the country and they feel no obligation to their fellows--which is, to my mind, pretty much the same thing as saying that they hate our country.

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