Thursday, February 03, 2005

The Queen's Speech

Like the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament, the President's State of the Union Address is usually little more than a laundry-list of legislative items -- or, more often, a wish list.

Now, since the President is a politician and the Queen is not, his delivery tends not to be quite so monotonous as hers. And he shies from phrases like "my government will seek to . . .," since he knows that the moment such words fell from his lips, his legislative agenda would be on its way to the trash bin.

Still, State of the Union speeches are remembered less for their golden oratory than ... strike that: State of the Union speeches are remembered less. Period.

The most surprising aspect of George W. Bush's 2005 State of the Union Address is that he used it for a sustained, concise but thorough, coherent presentation of his plans to reform and reinvigorate the Social Security system.

Troglodytes on the Democratic side of the aisle moaned audibly (Tim Russert of NBC News said they were yelling "No, no, no" in the manner of British backbenchers during the Prime Minister's question time) but the President was not moved by their heckling.

In 1,109 words, Bush set out an agenda to bring Social Security into the 20th century. He explained carefully and cogently how the system began, how it developed through to the present time, and how it will be bankrupt by the time today's 20-somethings are ready to retire.

It was quite masterful -- and totally unexpected.

In anticipation of the speech, Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post trotted out all the liberal bogeymen in an op-ed piece entitled "Assault on Social Security" -- as if anything designed to reconstruct the broken-down relic of the 1930s is meant to destroy it and all it stands for.

Meyerson's worst fear is that Bush may fulfill the decades-old work of conservatives and libertarians, who have been pushing for Social Security reform (let's call it by its true and honest name, privatization) since the 1970s:

And the plans to privatize Social Security, it's important to note, have been devised by people who are ideologically committed to its destruction. When Milton Friedman was calling for privatization a half-century ago, it wasn't because he feared the system would run out of money when the boomers retired. (The boomers were at that point just midway through being born.) It was because he was a committed advocate of laissez-faire capitalism.

Similarly, the advocates for privatizing Social Security have for the past quarter-century been housed at the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute -- the nation's leading institutions of economic libertarianism. But since 1983 -- when a commission appointed to augment Social Security's solvency declined to consider privatization, though it was appointed in part by Ronald Reagan and headed by Ayn Rand-acolyte Alan Greenspan -- they have understood that the only way to realize their libertarian hearts' desire was to convince the American people that the system was teetering on bankruptcy.

To Harold Meyerson, "ideology" is a dirty word. But why? Ideology is nothing more than the organizing principles that inform politics and policymaking. The "pragmatism" that Meyerson so admires in American voters is an ideology itself, the ideology of practicality and practicability. Was John Dewey's philosophical pragmatism any less ideological than Ayn Rand's philosophical Objectivism?

By identifying the roots of Social Security reform with the nonagenarian Milton Friedman -- why did he leave off the usual honorific, "Nobel laureate economist"? -- Meyerson tries to suggest that the idea is past its use-by date. That's just laughable.

If anything, Social Security reform is recognized as both necessary and inevitable -- as well as desirable -- by younger thinkers. Here's one example.

In an article dated January 24, Anthony Dick, a columnist for the Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia, wrote:

Our country's current Social Security policy has a place amongst the most mind-bogglingly, hair-pullingly, eye-gougingly insipid monstrosities ever to occupy a place in the pyrite pantheon of American legislative travesty.

Amid all of today's talk about the practical issues of Social Security reform, commentators rarely step back to appreciate the absurdity of Social Security as a matter of pure principle. Under the status quo, every time you get a paycheck, a percentage of it is forcibly taken from you and put into a collective Social Security fund. If you selfishly try to keep this money that your employer has voluntarily given to you, men with guns and badges will come to your house and drag you off to jail. After many years of this lovely process, once you've reached an age that the government deems to be sufficiently old and crusty, some money from this collective fund will be doled back out to you in a monthly allowance from your kind old Uncle Sam. You may be getting robbed today, proponents say, but you'll sure be secure tomorrow. It's for your own good.

The most obvious and ugly assumption at the heart of this system is the paternalistic idea that the government knows better than you do what's best for your life and your future.

Dick concludes:

Today's defenders of the Social Security status quo urge you to ignore the quaint old idea that you should be free to form and pursue your own conception of the good life by deciding how to spend or invest your own paychecks. Such pleas make them yet another sad contingent in history's parade of callow conspirators who have claimed to serve the people's interests while at the same time severely limiting the people's freedom to control their own lives. It's time we reject this model of condescending paternalism and reclaim our financial security from the claws of stilted bureaucrats.

I, for one (and I'm obviously not the only one), am grateful for the yeoman work performed in obscurity for so many years by policy analysts at the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, for the politicians in Chile and elsewhere who had the courage and good sense to ignore the U.S. example and modernize their social-security programs, and for the young voters who are willing to sneer at the reactionaries manning the liberal barricades against progress.

Let's just hope that George W. Bush has earned the political capital he needs to make Social Security modernization happen. Members of Congress may have erupted in applause 9 times during that section of his speech, but we know better than to trust them to do the right thing. As a group, they lack both principles and fortitude -- in a word, Mr. Meyerson, ideology.

1 comment:

Tim said...

What's fascinating is the way William James's concept of "pragmatism" -- a way of applying empirical observation to philosophical questions (cf. _Varieties of Religious Experience_) -- was coopted by progressives like Dewey and red-diaper babies like Dick Rorty as a principle of American leftism. Yet compared to James, the "pragmatism" of Dewey and Rorty seems anything but pragmatic.