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...