Social Insecurity

Since the Great Depression, the American people-whether rich or poor-have had an ace in their back pocket. You might lose your shirt in the stock market, get frisked in an embezzlement scheme, suffer a medical catastrophe, or be pulled under by a periodic recession, but one thing was certain: the American people were pledged to stand by you in your old age.

That assurance provided the ultimate fallback, engendering personal confidence and even entrepreneurial ingenuity. And it enabled some to undertake professions of service that otherwise provided little economic surety.

Social Security ushered in not only a new, expanded sense of the American social compact that incorporated the biblical imperative to provide for the widow, the orphan, the disabled, and the elderly, it was also a significant economic achievement. It saved millions of people from poverty and enabled them to live productively. In sheer dollars and cents, it continues to stimulate wide segments of the economy each month-utilities, supermarkets, pharmacies-directly energized by the 47 million checks that arrive on time.

In his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush called for the end of Social Security as we know it. While he acknowledged that the program “was a great moral success” (note the past tense), “one of America’s most important institutions,” and “a symbol of trust between generations,” he wants a fundamentally different program, one that would subvert Social Security’s basic accomplishments.

As the president noted, Social Security is one of America’s “most important institutions,” but it is not merely a “symbol.” It is a leaven for the American character and a contractual obligation, one the American people have subscribed to and doggedly maintained. That is why it has been successfully revamped on several previous occasions.

In his speech, the president assured older Americans and graying workers (those roughly ten years short of retirement) that Social Security would be there for them. For those in their forties and early fifties, he was less assuring-and they, of all groups, should be on the barricades. For the youngest segment, he all but pronounced Social Security dead. According to Bush, the only salvation for younger workers is to invest their Social Security tax in personal accounts. Charles R. Morris has demonstrated in these pages (February 13) that Social Security is not in the precarious state the president alleges, and that the president’s proposed solution may not generate the same level of benefits Social Security provides. The driving force behind the president’s plan, then, seems to be political. Banishing the last vestige of the New Deal, as Ramesh Ponnuru puts it baldly in the National Review (January 31), “will not only be the signal domestic achievement of his presidency. It will be the biggest legislative victory in the modern history of conservatism.”

In his 1981 encyclical Laborem exercens, John Paul II writes that the basis of an ethical social order is “the principle of the common use of goods.” In Centesimus annus (1991), he underscores the pillars of Catholic social teaching: the complementary notions of solidarity and subsidiarity. Catholic social theory is committed to the common good (solidarity), but it is not strictly statist (thus its emphasis on subsidiarity). While there are inherent limits to the state’s involvement in people’s lives, government still has a duty to promote the common good. Among the requirements-which the pope calls matters of strict justice-are looking after the elderly and “social insurance for old age.” President Bush argues that he supports such aims and principles, but his solution for Social Security relies on a radical individualism that would undermine its very ethos.

The president’s proposal for private, voluntary accounts will neither save Social Security nor guarantee adequate benefits. In fact, the president has already begun to backtrack, clamping limits on how the accounts would be administered and allocated. And well he should. For in each of the countries where privatization has been tried, it has been a failure, including in Britain, Singapore, Chile, and Argentina (see the Wall Street Journal, February 3). More ominously, in Argentina the shift to private accounts in the 1990s played a critical role in the subsequent catastrophic decline of the overall economy.

Those wishing to save Social Security must look elsewhere, and the president’s opponents should raise counterproposals soon (see Morris’s article). The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was for private accounts, but as add-ons, not substitutes for Social Security. The president was disingenuous-as he has been in selling drug benefits, tax cuts, and war-when he implied that Moynihan would have supported his proposal.

In trumpeting his so-called ownership society, President Bush would have Americans exchange a guaranteed annuity for a potential stock dividend. But they already have something better. Why trade in their ace?

Published in the 2005-02-25 issue: 
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